By Maureen Pratt
Nations against nations. Rulers abusing their power. Fear, uncertainty, even despair taking hold in fragile hearts because of threats to safety abroad and at home.
The world into which Jesus was born was rife with many of the same problems our world faces today. Yet, the readings for the Epiphany of the Lord help us understand that because of Jesus’ birth, there is more light than darkness, more hope than despair.
The humble appearance of Jesus’ birth — in a manger, apart from any comfort except the love of his earthly parents — is not a reflection of weakness or hopelessness in a troubled time. Quite the contrary: Jesus’ birth reflects power and dominion that are no less potent today than they were in the stable in Bethlehem.
The shepherds knew of this power. Jesus’ birth was heralded by a “heavenly host” of angels (Lk 2:13), which they witnessed while in their fields. No minor event could possibly be worthy of such pronouncement.
They had to leave everything, go, see and worship. That they abandoned their livelihood, leaving their flocks “in haste” (Lk 2:16) so they could go to, see and worship Jesus was an act of complete recognition of Jesus’ dominion over their lives.
The Magi also knew, and they traveled a great distance at serious peril to do homage to the Christ Child. Looking up to follow the star, they did not spend much time looking down, giving in to King Herod’s pointed inquiries about the child they sought.
Even before the dream that instructed them to go home “by another way” (Mt 2:12), these Wise Men must have sensed Herod’s violence-prone jealousy when he dispatched them to Bethlehem. And they bowed to another, more powerful ruler — the babe in the manger — never betraying him, but defying Herod’s order to tell him where the child lay.
Close by, through all the visitors to the manger, Joseph stood watch and Mary “kept all these things” in her heart (Lk 2:19). Theirs were not passive but very active acknowledgements of the glory God was revealing to them and others, and to the power exercised through their lives.
First, Mary’s yes, and then Joseph’s obedience to heavenly instruction manifest how far God’s dominion extended beyond their understanding and own human will.
Beyond the stable in Bethlehem, others who did not yet know of Christ’s birth were living in the world, with worldly cares and worldly kings.
Other shepherds, not blessed with angels’ song, were lifetime social outcasts. Other wise men not attuned to God’s call either never set out on the road to Bethlehem or perhaps they gave in to manipulation by persons in power with their own agendas and went astray. Outside the stable, kings like Herod could rule with unfettered violence, and no one could stop them.
It was an utterly dark world, fraught with human injustices. But Jesus’ coming, full of love, light and the grace of salvation, changed their world.
And he continues to change ours, today. Then, as now, Jesus’ message of salvation rings true among all who will listen — the contemporary shepherds and merchants, servants and tax collectors.
His love lived out in ours overrides selfishness and greed in all ways and in all walks of life. His absolute dominion shines powerfully whenever we look above and beyond boundaries of human invention, to his power, his purpose and his truth.
The examples of the shepherds, the Wise Men, and even Mary and Joseph might seem extreme today. Listening to angels who speak in dreams or in the skies, abandoning ones’ work or home country to follow a starlit path, saying yes to something that contradicts all reason to do what God asks — these are not easily explained to those who have not yet received Jesus’ message of salvation (or, sometimes, even those who have).
But Jesus’ power and dominion are not of this world. They are of God. And so his reach extends to all, everywhere, in a direction that does not end with forever gold or eternal personal power, but to heaven — forever, eternal home.
Jesus did not come to rally others to a physical revolution, defying laws and toppling governments. The revolution he led and leads today is to change hearts for the better, to take people from sin to salvation. What comes of this is a constantly shining epiphany, the security and comfort to know who really is in charge and the ensuing deluge of light and wealth of grace that comes with belief in Christ.
King Herod could have shared in the blessings that flow from this realization; Jesus came for him, too. But Herod was too wrapped up in himself and his power to notice what was right in front of him.
In the faces of the Magi, the presence of the shepherds, in Joseph’s eyes, in Mary’s arms, “the glory of the Lord” had come to the world (Is 60:1). “Shining radiance” (Is 60:3) to dispel darkness.
Love for all come down from heaven and here to stay. Jesus’ dominion always and forever.
Pratt is a columnist for Catholic News Service. Her website is www.maureenpratt.com.