Today we celebrate The Epiphany of the Lord, traditionally celebrated on January 6th in the Eastern Catholic and Orthodox churches; but here in the West we celebrate it on a Sunday. So, welcome to our celebration of The Epiphany. It is a word taken from the Greek epiphaneia meaning “manifestation, striking appearance; from epiphanes meaning “manifest, conspicuous,” and from epiphainein “to manifest, display, show off; come suddenly into view.” Our liturgy marks the arrival of visitors, identified in Scripture as the magi, to the place where Jesus was born. Although we know virtually nothing about them, we do know they brought three gifts, each with traditional meanings.
- Gold — a symbol of wealth and power, identifying the recipient as a king;
- Frankincense — the crystalized resinous sap of a tree used as incense and as an offering, it is symbolic of prayer; and
- Myrrh — another resinous tree sap, was used in healing liniments and as an embalming ointment. Myrrh is an odd gift for a child—so, even at the beginning of Jesus’ life on earth, this gift foreshadows his death.
We remember this event from the life of the child Jesus with additions to our manger scenes. We send Christmas cards with this scene. In some cultures this day is the day when presents are exchanged. The celebration is also understood as the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy that the Lord will be revealed in manifest glory and all nations will walk in the light of that manifestation. The visit of the magi is seen as the first-fruits of the nations, who welcome the good news of salvation revealed for all nations and people.
But you knew all that, right? In the quiet of an early morning this week, while I mulled over the possibilities of a homily rooted in some or all the above, my mind kept wandering back to the mathematical field of dynamical systems. I know, I know… you’re thinking, “seriously? where is this going?” Well, hang on a bit and we’ll see.
In dynamical systems there are things called “attractors” – a set of states toward which a system tends to move and evolve. The Romans were offering pax romana – an attractive offer as long as you were willing to subjugate yourself to Roman rule. For a while the world of the west was stable under Roman rule. But it didn’t last. The Jews knew stability when under the reign of King David. But it didn’t last. The list goes on of all kinds of attractors that make attractive offers, but don’t last.
In dynamical systems, an attractor is called “strange” if it has a fractal structure – like a kaleidoscope. You look inside and always see a regular symmetrical pattern. You can turn the controls and the pattern shifts, but it is always symmetrical. Fractals are like that. A “strange attractor” works within the system to create a point when/where the system may seem locally unstable but is globally stable. That’s a key point: the system may be locally unstable but is globally stable – and it lasts.
In the course of the Old Testament, the “attractors” were always the Word of the Lord coming to a prophet calling people back to the fullness of the Covenant. Time and time again the Word came to the people. Eventually the Word came to Mary, Joseph, Elizabeth and Zachariah. The Word came to the shepherd and the magi. Look inside this Word and there is a regular symmetrical pattern. Time and ages change, the “controls turn” so to speak, but the pattern is still there. This coming of the Word to the prophets and people is a “strange attractor” that is ever present, especially when things seem unstable.
In the first reading, the prophet Isaiah is speaking to a people whose home Jerusalem has been destroyed and they have been forcibly moved into Exile. Such are the state of things when the prophets appear. In the Christmas readings, things seem unstable. People on the road because of the census. Magi show up in Herod’s court asking about a new king of Israel which ignites every fiber of paranoia in the man leading to the murder of the Innocents, and the Word will come to Joseph to take his family and flee to Egypt. Things seem unstable.
Into this time and place, the Word of God came, born in the flesh, attracting the shepherds and the magi. The child Jesus manifesting the kaleidoscope of the glory and promise of God to save. The promise made as Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden. The promise given to Abraham, Moses, David, and all the prophets; every age unstable. Yet in every age the people are reminded of the promise.
The Word of God, the divine strange attractor. The ever present promise of global stability in the midst of chaos and instability. The ever present promise now made flesh and living among us.. The Messiah whose life will continue to attract people in all times and places, in times unstable or in a peace that will not last. The Messiah who promises and reminds us, despite pandemic and pestilence; flood, fire and famine; and all other manner of problems local or global – there is universal stability if one will only hope in the Lord.
We live in a world with lots of attractive things. They don’t last. Here on The Epiphany of the Lord, we celebrate the strange attractor of life eternal in the person of Jesus. It is a promise that lasts, lasts forever.