The feast of the Epiphany is an interesting one. In the Eastern Catholic Church, it is the main feast of Christmas. Here we celebrate it as the feast of Christ being recognised by the world. The three wise men, or astrologers, were led to this place where Christ was. They are supposed to have come from different countries. They represent all the peoples of the world since they were not Jewish. It is a way of saying that Jesus’ coming is for all peoples of all religions and race. All people will recognise that Jesus is the Son of God.
The three gifts they bring are symbolic. Gold is the symbol of a king. Jesus is a king, the King of the whole universe. The use of frankincense is a sign of recognising a God. Jesus is Son of God, the second person of the God-head. And myrrh is a perfume that represents the suffering he will go through to win eternal life for the human race. The point is that all peoples of all religions will recognise that Jesus is God and that we only have eternal life through him.
It might seem a bit arrogant of us Christians to say that all people will recognise that Jesus is the Son of God. That seems to imply that we are right and that everyone else is wrong. But that is not the case. People of different religions have very different understandings of God and God speaks to all people through the different religions. Even for those who never come to know Jesus in this lifetime, they still have eternal life won for them by the death and resurrection of Christ. And eternal life is still offered to them, just as it is to us. When they die they will see this at once. There can only be one God and this God has created us for happiness.
Although we lost the possibility of eternal life with God through what we call Original Sin (and interestingly most religions have a similar understanding of Original Sin although it is called by different names) God regained the possibility of eternal life for us through the death and resurrection of Jesus. But because God totally respects the freedom He has given us He does not force this on us but simply offers it to us. We must accept this gift individually, and we do this through our faith. All people are offered this possibility regardless of whether they come to know of God in this life or not. But it is not as if there is a kind of neutral ground for those who do not believe. We accept life with God when we die, which will be our total fulfilment, or we lose it forever, and that is the choice we must make.
We may have the impression that Jesus died for Christians only and that you have to be a Christian to go to heaven. This would be to see it backwards. Depending on how we live our life and the choices we make, we accept or reject God. That is where our conscience is so important, because even if we never hear of God during our life, God speaks to us through our conscience, giving us a basic understanding of what is right and wrong. Our faith and the teachings of Jesus through the Church give us a better understanding of what is right or wrong. All of the decisions that we make throughout our life are bringing us closer to, or driving us farther away from God.
Christians are the people who recognise that Jesus is the Son of God and has done all these things for us. We consider ourselves blessed that God has made himself known to us in this way. But it doesn’t mean that we have a better chance of going to heaven than anyone else. That depends completely on how we live our life. When we die we will realise that all this is really true. And when other people of different religions die, they will also recognise that Jesus Christ is Lord. That doesn’t mean that they are all wrong now; rather that they have a different understanding of God. What is important for them is to live their faith as well as they can, just as it is for us. If they do this, God will also draw them closer and closer to himself and bring them to holiness, just as He will with us if we remain open.
Meanwhile we pray that all peoples will begin to recognise that Jesus Christ is Lord even in this life, because this is the truth which God has revealed to us. But either way we try to respect people who believe differently to us, and remember that they are also children of God.
Every knee shall bow
in heaven, on earth and under the earth
and every tongue confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2:10-11)