NASA’s “New Horizons Mission” received a lot of attention this week. The mission sent a space craft to the outer reaches of the solar system. The goal was to find Ultima Thule, a small mass in orbit around the sun. The object is 4 billion miles from Earth. The scientists rejoiced when the first signals arrived, after a six-and-a-half hour transmission, that the craft was functioning and the mission was a go. Images of the snowman-like object arrived thereafter.
The images of space we see from telescopes and spacecraft are incredible and often beautiful. Even when we look up at the dark night sky and see all those specks of light coming from distant worlds, we cannot fail to be amazed. Even more striking than this is the thought of God looking over all his creation, and seeing it all both at once and always — and knowing every aspect of it, including ourselves.
Today we celebrate the Epiphany. The star plays an important role in the story of the Magi who come to do homage to the newborn Messiah. They are guided by its light. You may remember that when they arrived in Judah, they went to its capital, Jerusalem, and sought an audience with King Herod. When they ask him where the Messiah was to be born, he tells them that Bethlehem is the place. When they arrive at Bethlehem, the star reappears over the place where Jesus was staying. The Magi are then “overjoyed” at seeing the star and finding the child.
We are invited today to share that same joy. We do not follow the light from a distant star, however, for the light we encounter is much greater and stronger: it is Christ himself. The Magi represent the Gentiles, all the non-Jewish peoples. The shepherds of Judah represent the Jewish people, and the presence of both shepherds and Magi remind us that Jesus has come for all peoples, of all nations and races, so that all might know the Father and his love. This is the basis of our joy.
Another image that figures in the story of the Magi are the gifts. The Magi come before the Messiah, prostrate themselves in homage and present the gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. For this reason, the exchange of gifts among families and friends has become a large part of the celebration of Christmas. Perhaps today we might think of another aspect of the gift giving. The greatest and first gift giver of this story and this season is God the Father. He gives us the gift of his Son.
When the Magi find the Holy Family, the star disappears from the story, for a far greater light has appeared — Jesus the Christ. Jesus is the light that shatters the darkness. We are reminded of that image from the prophet Isaiah in the first reading. He speaks to a people longing and hoping for deliverance — deliverance from oppression and fear, from shadow and darkness. He proclaims a time of rejoicing, for “your light has come, the glory of the Lord shines upon you. See, darkness covers the earth, and thick clouds cover the peoples; but upon you the Lord shines and over you appears his glory.” The prophecy is renewed today as we celebrate the Epiphany. The Lord comes to lift us up in joy from all our fears and sorrows, our doubts and anxieties. He leads us and guides us on the path of life.
News and images of Ultima Thule have filled many people with wonder and amazement these past few days. We are reminded of the vastness of our solar system and universe. We might rightly think of ourselves and our world as small in this context. Today we are reminded that we are not small in God’s eyes. It is into our world and among the peoples of this planet that he sent his Son. While the lights of the sun, moon, stars and planets are beautiful to behold, the greater light is right here among us — and that is a great reason to rejoice.
Msgr. Joseph Prior is pastor of Our Lady of Grace Parish, Penndel, and a former professor of Sacred Scripture and rector of St. Charles Borromeo Seminary.
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