A meditation for the Epiphany: The Adoration of the Magi by Diego Velázquez

Written by Tom Shufflebotham SJ

Over the years I've received hundreds of Christmas cards that show either the journey of the Wise Men (the Magi) or their arrival and adoration of Jesus - the Epiphany.  And all those cards have looked very attractive: even the camels (whose face in reality only a mother camel could love) have seemed as romantic as their exotic royal riders clutching their gleaming gifts.  Quite right. The Epiphany is meant to attract, thrill and inspire us, to encourage our reflection on the revelation of Christ.

Good for the artists! But the writers tell a two-edged tale. “A cold coming we had of it”, imagines TS Eliot.  “Just the worst time of the year for a long journey”. And the journey, though lit by a Star, seeming endless: in the carol “field and fountain, moor and mountain...”, the star ever “yonder”. And among the gifts, myrrh: “its bitter perfume breathes a life of gathering gloom; sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying, sealèd in the stone-cold tomb”.

The Star amid a sky-full of darkness, the travellers having to draw deep on hope and charity, with faith somewhere beyond the horizon. The journey of the Magi may serve as a parable for now and the pandemic. They have not come seeking bulging presents for themselves; their gifts tell of generosity and service; happy to come away empty-handed. One could well imagine peering over their shoulders at the hovel a crowd of medics and paramedics, scurrying nurses, overstretched police, friendly neighbours, food-parcelling innkeepers, harassed parents, isolated grandparents...

Imprisoned before a Nazi execution Dietrich Bonhoeffer, recognising both light and shade in the Christmas story, reflected:  “ That misery, sorrow, poverty, loneliness, helplessness, and guilt mean something quite different in the eyes of God than according to human judgment; that God turns toward the very places from which humans turn away; that Christ was born in a stable because there was no room for him in the inn — a prisoner grasps this better than others, and for him this is truly good news.....Most likely many of those here in this building will celebrate a more meaningful and authentic Christmas than in places where it is celebrated in name only.”

Meditating on the terrible events of last year we can salvage a glimpse of God in “a more meaningful and authentic Christmas” along with the Flight into Egypt, the massacre of the Innocents and the Epiphany. The moment of New Year 2021 is focussing attention on a world hungry for the new vaccines.

The Magi of Velázquez, ethnically diverse but coming together in the sharing of gifts, can represent for us the whole range of humanity (such as contemplated by Ignatius' Trinity), searching in the darkness for the Light of Christ and then  generously responding to his call for human solidarity and compassion. As his Mother holds him forward the Child does not grasp but his eyes are on his generous visitors – on us. In the name of the world's poor he is ready to receive riches from the rich. It would give added meaning to the phrase, “from his fullness we have, all of us, received” if at this time of all times faith in Christ inspired massive sharing in a world crying out for healing. “Take care of brothers and sisters who are weaker ... the elderly, the sick, the hungry, the homeless and strangers, because we will be judged on this.” (Pope Francis)