Sunday, January 08, 2012

Solemnity of the Epiphany
Transforming Knowledge

Readings: Isaiah 60:1-6; Psalm 71:1-2,7-8,10-13; Ephesians 3:2-3,5-6; Matthew 2:1-12
Picture: cc webzer

Sisters and brothers, today I’m again reminded of an old story told by the late Fr. Anthony de Mello. Many of us have probably heard it before. But perhaps it is good for us to hear it again.

A recently baptised Christian meets an unbelieving friend. And their conversation goes something like this:
So you have been converted to Christ?
Then you must know a great deal about him. Tell me: what country was he born in?
I don’t know.
What was his age when he died?
I don’t know.
How many sermons did he preach?
I don’t know.
You certainly know very little for someone who claims to be converted to Christ!
You are right. I am ashamed at how little I know about him. But this much I do know: Three years ago I was a drunkard. I was in debt. My family was falling to pieces. My wife and children would dread my return home each evening. But now I have given up drink; we are out of debt; ours is a happy home; my children eagerly wait for my return every evening. All this Christ has done for me. This much I know of Christ!

What do you think, sisters and brothers? Did the recent convert in the story really know Christ? In a sense he didn’t. But, in another sense, he did. He certainly didn’t know many details about Christ’s life. And yet, it would be inaccurate to say that he didn’t know Christ at all. For he credits Christ with helping him to turn his life around. What this story shows us is the fact that there are different kinds of knowledge. There is the kind that is capable of filling our minds, but then remains only there. And then there is the knowledge that also moves our hearts, and changes our lives. We see something similar in our Mass readings today.

Consider the chief priests and scribes who advised King Herod in the gospel. They certainly knew things that not even the wise men could figure out. By searching the ancient scriptures, they were able to pinpoint the exact location where the Christ was to be born. And, in doing this, they were actually confirming that this baby was truly the One sent by God to save God’s people. And yet, when they heard the wise men say that this long-awaited saviour had finally been born, these scholars showed no sign of excitement or enthusiasm. On the contrary, we’re told that Herod and the whole of Jerusalem reacted by being perturbed. The news upset them. Not only did they feel no desire to pay their respects to the newborn king, but Herod even started scheming to have him killed.

In contrast, although the wise men didn’t know exactly where the Christ was to be born, the knowledge that they did have prompted them to search the skies for a sign. And to follow the star when it rose. This same knowledge propelled them to travel a great distance to Jerusalem from the east. It also motivated them to bring along their treasures: precious gifts of gold and frankincense and myrrh. And, when the wise men finally reached the helpless little baby, whom they had been seeking so desperately, we’re told that they did him homage by falling to their knees. We may also imagine that, once they had returned to their own lands, they eagerly spread the news about this glorious child, to their own people. Quite clearly, theirs was a different kind of knowledge from that of Herod and his advisors. Like the new convert in our story, the wise men had the kind of knowledge that gave them power. The power to transform their lives, and the lives of others, for the better. The power to grow closer to God.

We see the effects of this kind of knowledge also in the other two readings as well. In the second reading, Paul claims that he has been entrusted with what he calls the knowledge of the mystery. And it is this same knowledge that has transformed him. Where once he was a persecutor of Christians, now, elsewhere in the letter to the Ephesians, he calls himself a servant of the gospel, and even a prisoner of Christ Jesus.

What we see in the life of Paul is a positive response to the prophet’s call in the first reading. Here, Isaiah proclaims a wonderful piece of news. He shares with the city of Jerusalem the knowledge that her light has come. That the glory of the Lord is now shining upon her. And he expects that once she receives this news, Jerusalem will not just sit back and do nothing. Instead, in the midst of the darkness that still covers the rest of the world, this holy city will arise and shine out. In other words, she will do what Paul had been doing ever since his conversion on the road to Damascus. And what we imagine the wise men must have done, once they had returned home. She will share the light of Christ with everyone she meets.

There is, then, at least two different kinds of knowledge. There is the knowledge that leaves you the same. And there is the knowledge that has the power to change you. This is the important reminder that our readings are offering to us on this solemn feast of the Epiphany. And one of the reasons why I think this reminder is important is because, in our local church today, there are those of us who are perturbed. We are upset by what we see as a growing lack of reverence among some others in our community. People are showing up to Mass in bermudas and tank tops and flip flops. They are talking and texting and tweeting, when they should really be praying and paying attention to the deep Mystery that we gather every Sunday to celebrate.

There is probably good reason for us to be concerned. But perhaps we may also wonder how effective are the measures being taken in response to this apparent problem. So there is a perceived lack of reverence at Mass. What do we do? Well, some of us respond by putting up bigger posters and publishing bolder bulletin announcements. Others station stricter and sterner-looking wardens at the doors. And, if a recent letter to the Catholic News is to be believed, there are even those who have resorted to refusing communion to Catholics deemed to be improperly dressed. (The canon lawyers should tell us whether such a move is even licit.)

In the midst of this darkness of upset feelings and great perturbation, our readings pose to us this question: What kind of knowledge are we offering when we adopt all these measures? Is it the knowledge of the wise men? Or is it rather that of the chief priests and scribes? Is it the knowledge that actually brings a person closer to the Lord? Or is it the kind that only serves to continue keeping us at a distance? Is it the knowledge that is capable of truly transforming lives? Or is it the kind that merely leaves us pretty much the same? If it merely leaves us the same, then why are we resorting to such tactics? Why are we so focused only on reminding people of their obligations? What can we do to usher people into the Mystery, instead of merely enforcing the law?

Sisters and brothers, as we bring this beautiful season of Christmas to a close, what knowledge do we truly have of Christ today?


  1. A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. God is unknowable, but for the Incarnation. We have the personhood of Christ described in the Bible to be our beacon for life, a moral compass to live out our values.
    The feast of the Epiphany is a celebration of the manifestation/revelation of the divine bursting into our mundane existence. The story of the three wise men with their gifts underscores the universality of the salvation for mankind as a whole.
    Coming from a pagan background, the hope of redemption is clearly available to all who follow Him. Jesus’ mission in His existence is to point us to the Way, the Truth and the Life. Nothing brings this home to me more starkly than the baby in the manger. To whom do I turn to, then?

  2. Based on a personal experience, I do not know Christ that well. And one day while having a musical show at non-catholic church, which my friend had invited me, she asked me nearly the same questions which I was not able to give her an answer. I was very guilty.

    But, upon second thought, I didn't feel any perturbed as I know that eversince I turned my heart towards Christ, I was able to see things more clearly. The self-centredness of even those people who are closed to me, their lack of humility, self-ego. All these just got lighted up all of a sudden.

    If not for Christ's light that shone on me (as described in Matthew 2:10 - When they saw the star, they rejoiced...), I would still be blinded by all these. Thus, I am very happy that I found the way. This light from the Star has given hope and a new lease of life to those who desire to transform, and acts as a path to lead us closer to God. Which is why each time when we enter the Church, we do the sign of cross together with the Holy Water. This is to remind us of our baptism prayers. During Baptism, our past sins are washed away, and we stand up as a new person again.

    Christ do not appear to us in human form. But, with the help of the Holy Spirit, who moves the heart and opens the eyes of the mind, we are able to understand, accept, and believe the truth which God reveals to us.

  3. At least, I knew where Jesus was born and his race. But I also know how He has protected me and kept me safe, and my faith is precious to me. Yes, it is true that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. Hence, many Catholics (including myself) feel inadequate to share our faith. We're afraid that we won't be able to answer the doubts and queries people would pose to us, and we end up feeling guilty about our lack of knowledge.


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