On the feast of the Epiphany in the year 1929, an 18-year-old girl arrived by train at the capital of the Bengal state in the country of India. Raised in comfort in Eastern Europe, this bright young woman would spend the next 20 years of her life as a Sister of Loretto, teaching geography to high-school girls from wealthy families in the suburbs of that capital.
In 1949, at the age of 38, that same woman felt a powerful call from God to serve the poorest of the poor, especially those who were dying. So she asked the local bishop for permission to establish a new congregation whose only ministry would be with those whom the rest of the world had abandoned. When the bishop was made aware of the request, he scoffed at it and said, ‘I knew her as a novice, and she couldn’t even light the candles on the altar properly— now she wants to start a new religious order?” But because of her sincerity— and her persistence— the bishop eventually relented. From that day until she died in the year 1997, Mother Teresa of Calcutta ministered to more than 50,000 people who were destitute and dying. Her order, the Missionaries of Charity, today numbers more than 4500 sisters and is active in 133 countries.
During her lifetime, Mother Teresa was honored by universities, praised by popes, applauded by prime ministers—and fifty years after she first set foot in India, she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Mother Teresa’s view of the mission of Jesus—and of our own role in that mission– -was simple but challenging. She once described it this way: “Everyone is created by God,” she said, “and so is deserving of love. It doesn’t matter if the person is male or female, Moslem or Christian or Jew—and the person’s race or nationality makes no difference either. All that matters is that the person is created by God and deserves to be loved. My sisters are there simply to give love.”
It seems fitting that Mother Teresa began her work in India on the feast of the Epiphany. The vision she developed is exactly the vision of this feast, as described in the Scriptural readings for today. Look at the story from this morning’s Gospel. The Magi represent the Gentiles, non-Jews, and the point of the Gospel—and of the other two readings also—is that Christ’s mission is universal: He came to save everyone.
They came from the East, these Wise Men, and there is a growing body of scholarship which believes they were from Babylon, which was directly East of Jerusalem. The Babylonians were astute astronomers, with records dating back to 2000 B.C.—and since the Jews had once been held captive in Babylon, it also makes sense that the Wise Men would have known about the expected Jewish Messiah.
These travelers came seeking the child, but they were late—the shepherds had already arrived. And so they knelt together at the manger—the poor and the rich, the simple and the learned, givers of wool to keep the family warm and givers of rare and exotic gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Every time we group all of these figures around the infant Jesus—as we do in many versions of the Christmas creche—we remind ourselves of the all-embracing love of God. I know of one church in New York that does this on the feast of the Epiphany: their congregation is made up of various nationalities, and so they begin their service of Holy Eucharist today with a procession. In that procession are about a dozen members of the parish dressed in their native garb—and it serves as a reminder to the worshippers in attendance of the wideness of God’s love.
Some years ago—probably 35 or more now—Coca Cola developed one of its most memorable advertisements ever produced. Melodious voices sang: “I’d like to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony”. (For those of us old enough to remember that ad, it’s hard even to say those words without singing them.) And as that song played in the background, a series of smiling faces appeared on the screen—faces representing a broad array of races, ages, and walks of life. No one who thought about it really believed that a soft drink could forge harmony among those people—but the ad did serve, I thought, as a poignant reminder that the ideal is worthy of achievement. And it’s up to us, in our own modest ways, to build that unity by the wideness of our love.
T.S. Eliot has a poem about the Epiphany and he notes that, after the Wise Men saw Jesus, “they went back to their own country by another route.” Eliot makes the point that, once we have encountered Jesus, we begin to travel by a different way. That different way is the way of love— offered without hesitation, without distinction, without limit.
Traditionally within the life of the church, Epiphany is a season of mission and outreach and evangelism. It’s the season when we reach out, when we give and when we, in the words of the scriptures, seek to take the light of Christ to the world. Let us begin this new year reflecting during this season of Epiphany on how we want to offer the love of Christ to those in our lives and in our community – without hesitation, without distinction, without limit.