The work of Christmas

Tomorrow, Sunday, January 6, is the Feast of the Epiphany which means “manifestation” or “showing forth”. For many, it marks the end of the Christmas Season although some would wait until next Sunday, the feast of the Baptism of the Lord, to take down their Christmas decorations. A few traditionalists would actually wait for February 2, 40 days after Christmas, which is the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord or Purification of Mary (commonly called Candlemas). In the end though, it does not matter when the official end of the Christmas season is. After all, as most popular Filipino Christmas carol exclaims: “May the spirit of Christmas be always in our hearts.”

The Feast of the Epiphany commemorates the visit by the Three Wise Men also called the Three Kings or the Magi from the East, traditionally named Melchior, Gaspar and Balthazar, to the Infant Jesus in Bethlehem. The gospel of Matthew never actually mentions the number of Magi, but most Western Churches traditionally assumed them to have been three in number, (in Eastern Christian Churches the number is usually twelve) which is implicit in the statement that they brought three gifts namely, gold which represents kingship, frankincense which symbolizes divinity, and myrrh for death.

In one of his homilies to mark the feast of the Epiphany, Pope Francis said that the journey of the Magi from the East and their discovery of the babe is a sign that Jesus came to save all peoples, not just his fellow Jews. “According to tradition, the wise men were sages, watchers of the constellations, observers of the heavens in a cultural and religious context which saw the stars as having significance and power over human affairs,” the Pope told the congregation. “The wise men represent men and woman who seek God in the world’s religions and philosophies: an unending quest,” he adds.

For all of a human’s complex nature, she innately seeks the divine. It is in our nature to look for answers to fundamental questions, of our being, of our very existence. It is a metaphysical quest to look for these answers. Just like the Magi, the human being’s natural proclivity is to constantly undertake a spiritual quest.

For all we know, the Three Kings, being eastern sages, were polytheists or believers in many gods, who decided to undertake a difficult journey in search of the truth. The Gospel says that it is the Spirit of the Lord who revealed to them the truth. In the words of the Holy Father, “The Holy Spirit prompted them to follow the star, kept them strong when their quest proved difficult and filled them with the grace they needed “to have a personal encounter with the true God.” They may not have believed that the baby Jesus was the messiah, but the Holy Spirit helped them “enter into the mystery,” the Pope said. As such, they are models of conversion to the true faith. They were searching for the true king and, inspired by the Holy Spirit, they found Jesus, not clothe in the splendour of a worldly king but in glory concealed in the manger of Bethlehem, on the cross upon Calvary.

The story of the Magi reminds me of Bituin (Star), composed by Fr. Arnel Aquino SJ and popularized by Bukas Palad, the most beautiful Christmas song I know. It’s a song I sing all year long; its refrain resonates very much with me: “Hesus, bugtong na anak ng ama Tala ng aming buhay, liwanag / Liwanag, kapayapaan, kahinahunan, kapanatagan ng puso/Giliw ng Diyos at pag-asa ng maralita/Biyayaan Mo kami ng pagtulad sa Iyo/Nang magningning bilang ‘Yong mga bituin.” (Jesus, only son of the Father)/Guiding star of our life/Light, Peace, Quiet, Contentment in the heart/Loved by God and hope of the poor/You blessed us by becoming human/That all the stars may shine.)

In the Pope’s Christmas homily, Francis invited us to contemplate the Nativity: “In front of the crib, we rediscover ourselves as loved, we taste the real sense of life.” The Vicar of Christ called on us “to begin anew from the crib, from the Mother who holds God in her arms”;  “Looking in silence, we allow Jesus to speak to our heart: his smallness tears down our pride, his poverty disturbs our pomp, and his tenderness moves our hard hearts.”

The Feast of the Epiphany teaches us two things. One. The Magi’s visit in the manger demonstrates that Jesus was the king of all kings; that God came into this world not only for the Jews or a select few but for all of humanity. Two, that it is of fundamental necessity that we look for God, the truth, and not to idolize empty temporal trappings of the world presenting themselves as gods, allowing these false gods to take control of our lives. God reveals himself to those with clean and sincere hearts, and those who earnestly and humbly search for him. Oftentimes, we find him in the most unlikely places, amid poverty, pain, solitude and suffering. He reveals himself not to the mighty, but to the lowly and humble ones. For God disdains pride.  

With the end of the Christmas season let us always remember that, like the Three Kings, God is always willing to manifest himself to all, especially to those with contrite and humble hearts. Yet despite his omnipotence, he shows himself in situations that do not often conform to the standards and expectations of the world, for God thinking is not of human beings.

A poem by Howard Thurman, an African-American theologian, educator, and civil rights leader, the song version of which has also been popularized by Bukas Palad in the Philippines, offers the right attitude for all of us as the Christmas season ends: “When the song of the angels is stilled, when the star in the sky is gone, when the kings and princes are home, when the shepherds are back with their flocks, the work of Christmas begins: to find the lost, to heal the broken, to feed the hungry, to release the prisoner, to rebuild the nations, to bring peace among the people, to make music in the heart.”

Let’s all do the work of Christmas now.

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