The pillar of light preceding them in the desert. The star over Bethlehem. The crossing of the Jordan escaping Egypt. The dromedaries coming from Midian and Ephah. The deliverance of Israel. The travel of the Magi.
If the parallels are similar it is because the events are connected. One long history reached its fulfillment in the birth at Bethlehem, and still now we are traveling the same roads our forefathers did. The same exiles and the same epiphanies are recurrent now. The same risk in leaving Egypt for an unknown promised land, is the risk of the magi who leave the comforts of their country to find a promised king. There is risk in the search for freedom. And Freedom is a Person: Jesus Christ.
Born into a particular race at a particular time in history, the Christ child came as God to effect the renewal of the human race, and to shepherd his people. No detail of the nativity narratives is extraneous to this. He was born in a stable. The manger wood, a prescient reminder of the wood of the cross; the field hay on his infant flesh, as piercing as the crown of thorns. The gifts of the magi foretell the passion: myrrh being the ointment for burial. As the birth of Christ is connected to His death, so is His death is also the rebirth of man into the likeness of God — the end of his slavery. In such a way, the exile of a people, and the ransoming of Israel from the clutches of Pharaoh, long precedes the arrival of wise men who leaving their country, come to adore at the font of grace. What Moses did for Israel, and Joshua saw fulfilled, takes place again at the manger
‘Do not suppose, therefore, that Moses led the people out of Egypt only at that time. Even now, Moses, whom we have with us –‘for we have Moses and the prophets”(Cf. Lk 16:29) — that is, the Law of God, wishes to lead you out of Egypt. If you would hear it, it wishes to make you far from Pharaoh. If only you would hear the Law of God and understand it spiritually, it desires to deliver you from the work of mud and chaff. It does not wish you to remain in the activities of the flesh and darkness, but to go out to the wilderness, to come to the place free from confusions and disturbances of the world, to come to the rest of silence…For that reason, therefore, Moses desires to bring you from out of the midst of vacillating daily business and from the midst of noisy people. For that reason he desires you to depart from Egypt…’
–Origen | Homilies, Exodus 3.3
If the magi left their countries in search of the king of kings, they did not do so simply because they were learned men seeking the object of their learnedness, but because all the learning they had was incomplete. Departing from Egypt was their dream also, because they sought more than the misery they knew. The treasures they brought, adequate and prophetic as they were, were themselves lacking. Their hearts, noble and generous, remained in exile. They were foreigners, seeking deliverance, in pilgrimage to their true homeland.
As such, these three kings are emblematic not simply of the ‘manifestation’ that we call the Epiphany: that active first revelation of God to non-Israelites, to Gentile outsiders, but of the deeper individual desire to seek, to go in search of truth. The Epiphany is not simply the extension of the good news of Christ’s birth beyond the confines of the Chosen People. It is the end of the longer exile of desire for a Savior. And the end of this exile merits joy. The ones who laden with gifts become as supplicants before the Wisdom of the ages, have also crossed the Jordan of slavery to unbelief. For them, the darkness of slavery, the finitude of human capacity, is illuminated. This time, by a new Light
Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.
For behold, darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples;
but the Lord will arise upon you, and his glory will be seen upon you.
And nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising.
Lift up your eyes round about, and see; they all gather together, they come to you;
your sons shall come from far, and your daughters shall be carried in the arms.
Then you shall see and be radiant,
your heart shall thrill and rejoice;
because the abundance of the sea shall be turned to you,
the wealth of the nations shall come to you.
A multitude of camels shall cover you, the young camels of Midian and Ephah;
all those from Sheba shall come.
They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord.
– Isaiah | 60:1-6
They all gather together. The blind and the lame. The rich and poor. The wise and the powerful. The sinner and saint. They all gather because the light draws them out. There is movement that precedes their own; the call of grace, a ray of light from on high, leads the way. The star shines for wise men and not so wise men. Magi adore. Herod schemes. If the Epiphany tells us anything, it tells us that grace acts before we do. Before we would know to. Before the confession of faith that mobilizes us to present and offer the treasure of our lives. Pillars of fire burn in human deserts, stars shine over modern cities. Gifts are received and exchanged first in the stables of our souls. ‘Nations come to Your light.’
But if grace calls them, then whom do they depart to see? A Child God. A baby in a manger — the simplicity of an infant who is the fullness of truth. The first manifestation of that visit is precisely the simplicity of God, who needing nothing, yet remains there waiting to receive our human nature — a God who takes on our flesh to show us Himself in mercy, and to save us. For He is the long-awaited Savior. And meeting Him, they, in their flesh and in their spirit, are forever changed.
Let us proclaim Him on this earth, in this abode of our human nature, so that we may neither return to the place whence we came nor seek again the the haunts of our former associations. For that is why the Magi did not return as they had come. The way was changed; their way of life was changed. To us, also, the heavens have announced the glory of God, (Cf. Ps. 18) and truth, blazing forth from the Gospel like a star from heaven, has led us to adore Christ. …
[A]cknowledging and praising Christ as the King and Priest who died for us, we have honored Him, as it were, with gold, frankincense, and myrrh. The only thing left now is that, making known His Gospel, we follow a new course so that we may not return to the place whence we came.’
– Augustine | Sermon 202 Epiphany
They all gather together, to proclaim the glory they have met in the flesh. For the Magi, there is no evasion of truth in the name of human presumption. There is no evasion of Truth in the attempt to preserve of power or salvage pride. There is, indeed, the great humility of knowing that seeking the face of God requires everything. There is the known risk that the discovery may dash every perception of power, and radically destabilize one’s life so as to order it aright. The is the hidden assent that God is the Lord of history, and that history itself is a manifestation of the power of God.
However long the exile, the guiding light remains the same. So striking is the star, and so powerful the encounter, that they reorient their lives. And so the bondage is overcome. Herod has no power over them. His schemes fail. Pharaoh cannot reclaim them slaves. His armies, his chariots and charioteers, are submerged into the sea. And the Jordan parts for them to pass onto dry land.
The Law of God, wishes to lead you out of Egypt. If you would hear it, it wishes to make you far from Pharaoh. If only you would hear the Law of God and understand it spiritually, it desires to deliver you from the work of mud and chaff. It does not wish you to remain in the activities of the flesh and darkness, but to go out to the wilderness, to come to the place free from confusions and disturbances of the world, to come to the rest of silence…
We kneel there on the manger hay in silent wonder. In adoration. In that wondrous wilderness of peace.
Rejoice, Jerusalem! Your Light has come…
A modern epiphany unfolds. A metanioa. At the present time.
For exiles, we are no more. We shall not return whence we came.
Treasuries of grace spill forth like gold and fragrant incense, and the decadent anointing of myrrh.
He shall sanctify the waters of the Jordan in a theophany to change the history of the world, and open the portals of paradise.
And Pilate will say ‘Behold your King’.
And his Mother shall stand afar, and thinking back to these princes who did Him homage, will now understand the gifts they offered Him.
And beholding Him now, we shall see what love would compel so total a ransom. And why He came as a child in a stable.
And He shall reign until the end of the age.
You may reach Maria Grizzetti at IncarnationandModernity@gmail.com