Weekly Reflection (2 Jan 2022)

Epiphany Of The Lord

Isaiah 60:1-6
Ephesians 3:2-3,5-6
Matthew 2:1-12

God reveals himself to believers and non-believers alike. He calls us to be true believers, to have a personal encounter with Jesus.

This week, we celebrate the Epiphany of our Lord Jesus. The Solemnity of Epiphany celebrates the revelation of God to gentiles or non-believers, symbolised by the visit of the wise men to baby Jesus. These “wise men from the East” (verse 1) were not Jews or believers, yet as we read in the Gospel this week, “going into the house they saw the child with his mother Mary, and falling to their knees they did him homage.” (verse 11) It is significant that the Gospel of Matthew is only Gospel giving an account of the visit of these gentile wise men. The target audience of Gospel of Matthew were not gentiles or non-believers but were in fact the Jews. Yet in St Matthew’s account, one of the first people to accept Jesus as the Lord were these gentile wise men from the east! What was St Matthew telling us?

To reflect more deeply on the story of the wise men, we first need an appreciation of the Jewish belief at the time of Jesus. The term “gentile” literally refers to someone who is not of the Jewish race. The significance is that the Jews believe that only those who were members of the Jewish religion may be saved. Gentiles therefore cannot be saved. Some Jews took it one step further by looking down on those they deem were unworthy of redemption. Take for example how the Jews treated the Samaritans. The Samaritans were half-breed Jews, brought on by the conquest of Samaria by foreigners many generations ago in 722BC. A Jew would not mix with a Samaritan (Jn 4:9); and the Jews barred the Samaritans from coming to Jerusalem to pray (Jn 4:20). On the other hand, by virtues of the Jews’ observation of the 613 strict Mosaic laws, the Pharisees taught that these scrupulous religious practices would earn them a place in heaven, even if the person leads an immoral life. In a situation not unlike today, hypocrisy was rife among some who are religious. Take for example the abuse of the Corban law. Some Jews would avoid supporting their aging parents by siphoning their money to a temple fund called the Corban (Mk 7:11). In this way, the money was kept out of reach of the parents but still remained accessible to the one who contributed it. Not only were the practice immoral, it was undertaken with the knowledge of the religious authorities.

In truth, the situation then is no unlike the situation today. Today, some Christians believes by proclaiming Jesus as our Lord; by coming to church every week; by giving some loose change to charity from time to time; our salvation is assured. But in truth, many Christians while professing the religion, do not believe in God or have a personal encounter with Jesus. So, what is the difference between practicing a religion and actually believing in God? The truth is, having a religion and having knowledge of God does not equate to believing in God. In fact, even for a person who possesses in-depth theological understanding of God, the best that can be said is that the person knows a lot about God. The prophet Isaiah wrote, “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” (Isa 55:9) Human understanding of God, no matter how profound, can only scratch the surface of who God really is. Thankfully, we need not know everything about God in order to believe in Him, to personally encounter Him. To illustrate this point, let us consider this. For those of us who are interested in doing so, we can find out a lot about a certain celebrity – a sports personality, a movie star or a politician. But does that mean we know that celebrity personally? Of course not. It is the same with God. The fact that I have an in-depth knowledge about God does not mean I have a personal encounter with Him. Hence my brothers and sisters, we ask ourselves: Have I encountered Jesus personally; or do I just know about Him? I may attend church regularly, know all the prayers and liturgies or perhaps even serve in church ministries. But, who is Jesus to me really? The truth is, many of us have not truly encountered Jesus and do not know Jesus personally.

In fact, let us go a step further and be truly honest. For many of us, our life is a dichotomy. My life in church and outside the church are very distinct and different. In church, I put up a facade of being pious and holy. Outside the church, in my business and social life, I am unscrupulous, self-serving and vengeful. So we ask ourselves: Do I live a double life, appearing pious and holy in church but lead a sinful life outside the church? Do I look down on the non-believers? Do I gossip? Do I lie? Am I lustful? Am I unforgiving to those who wrong me; and yet do not seek forgiveness from those whom I wrong? And above all, am I so desensitised by these sins that I find excuse to justify them and are no longer ashamed of them? St John said, “God is light and in him there is no darkness at all. If we say that we have fellowship with him while we are walking in darkness, we lie and do not do what is true” (1 Jn 1:5-6). In other words, I cannot truthfully say I have encountered Jesus personally and yet live a life contrary to His teachings. For to know Jesus personally is to live like Him, love like Him, forgive like Him and sacrifice like Him.

Salvation is not something we can earn for ourselves. Contrary to what the Jews believed, salvation is not an exclusive privilege given to a particular race or religion. Salvation is a free gift from God to all of humanity. As St Paul said in this week’s Second Reading, “In former generations this mystery was not made known to humankind, as it has now revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit: that is, the Gentiles have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.” (verse 5-6) It is in this context that all of us believers should take heed of St Matthew’s story of the wise men. St Matthew, writing to the Jews of his time, lauded these foreigners who worshipped Jesus truly with their hearts. It is a warning to those of us who are self-righteous and presumption in our faith, but are yet blind to our own sins. Later in the Gospel, recalling the teaching of Jesus at the Mount, St Matthew wrote, “Or how can you say to your neighbour, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye’, while the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbour’s eye.” (Mt 7:4-5) And perhaps the most dire of his warning, “the tax-collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you.” (Mt 21:31)

So then, how do we personally encounter Jesus? In the Gospel, on encountering baby Jesus, the wise men presented Him with the gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. As the king of metal, gold symbolises Jesus’ kingship. Frankincense is used in religious worship and hence symbolises Jesus’ divinity. Finally, myrrh, a spice used for preparing the body for burial, symbolises Jesus’ Passion and sacrifice. Like the wise men in the Gospel, let us seek out Jesus, and encounter Him by presenting to Him our gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. In presenting Jesus with our gold, we present to Him our victories and accomplishments in thanksgiving. In presenting Jesus with our frankincense, we present to Him our worship and praise him in adoration. Most importantly, we present to Him our myrrh. As we come to Jesus, let us die to our old unscrupulous, self-serving and vengeful self, as we present to Him our failures, our sins, our insecurity, our hurt and our pains – in repentance.

The First Reading this week describes a similar scene to the wise men paying homage to Jesus. It recalls how multitude of gentile nations coming to worship God (verse 3). “A multitude of camels shall cover you, the young camels of Midian and Ephah; all those from Sheba shall come.” (verse 6). The Feast of Epiphany celebrates the evangelisation of the unbelievers. But today as in the olden days, unbelievers are not just those outside the religion. There are many Christians who are also unbelievers in essence. As St Paul said to the Galatians, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal 3:28) Regardless of the state of our faith life, we are all sons and daughters of God. Epiphany is a call to conversion, those outside the faith and those inside the faith. Amen.

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