A common thread ties together the readings from Christmas till the end of January.
On Christmas, of course, we have Jesus’ debut to the world at Bethlehem.
On January 1, we hear about Jesus being seen by the shepherds.
On the following Sunday, we see him being revealed to the Magi.
After that, we see him being revealed to John the Baptist and, the following Sunday he is revealed through John to us as the Beloved Son of God.
The Sunday after that, Jesus begins his mission and the people who were in darkness see a great light.
See the connection? It’s all about Jesus manifesting himself to the world.
At his birth, he shows us himself in the paradox of complete vulnerability: Almighty God in the form of a baby who cannot defend himself and who is completely dependent on the help of his father and mother to care for his most basic needs in a world where the powerful and paranoid want to kill him.
Next, we see him manifesting himself, not to the rich, mighty or wise, but to the first century equivalent of parking lot attendants. The shepherds who come to adore him were regarded as the trailer trash of their world—and they are the ones to whom God, in his wisdom, reveals himself first. As Paul says,
For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men. For consider your call, brethren; not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth; but God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise, God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong, God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. (1 Cor 1:25-29)
Next, we come to Epiphany, when the Magi who represent all the Gentiles see him manifested to the world. It is significant that the story of the Magi comes to us from Matthew, who is the apostle to the Jews. In telling that story, he is spurring his countrymen on to a sort of holy envy by pointing to the fact that the words of the prophets are being fulfilled as the pagans come to honor the God of Israel in Christ.
In the manifestation to John the Baptist, we see Jesus being revealed to somebody who knew him, yet did not know him. John is Jesus’ cousin, yet by his own testimony, John tells us, “I did not know him”. His point is not that he’d never heard of Jesus, but that (until the gift of the Holy Spirit made it possible) he didn’t grasp the full truth about Jesus as the Beloved Son of God. John is the recipient of revelation—the truth about Jesus is made manifest to him. When that happens, he does what all who have truly received revelation do: he testifies that Jesus is the Son of God.
Finally, Jesus begins his mission and is revealed to the world. It is significant that we are reminded of the prophecy about the “land of Zebulon and the land of Naphtali”. The language is deliberately archaic (just as if a modern writer were to speak of France as “land of the Franks”). The evangelist is reminding us that this was “ground zero” for the judgment that fell on Israel seven centuries before Christ when the Assyrians conquered the northern kingdom and deported its citizen to oblivion starting with Zebulon and Naphtali. It is right there that Jesus begins his mission of redemption—a mission that will ultimately encompass the whole world.
Jesus continues to manifest himself today. How does he show himself to you?