Sunday, January 04, 2009

Homily Epiphany Year B

Below is my homily for today's readings ([text][audio][video]) of The Solemnity of the Epiphany of the Lord.
Today we celebrate the Epiphany of the Lord. But what does that mean? Well, the words itself means “manifestation” but this is one of those feasts of the Church whose meaning can be unclear by its name alone. It is like the feast of the Immaculate Conception which many think is about Jesus being conceived in the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary, but it is really about Mary being conceived without the stain of Original Sin. I admit I sometimes have to do an intellectual double-take when I think of the Immaculate Conception. And so with the Epiphany – for some reason I always think first of the Transfiguration, but that is when Jesus allowed his Divinity to shine forth to his closest apostles on the top of Mount Tabor. It’s also a manifestation, like his Baptism in the Jordan River when God announced his Beloved Son and the Wedding Feast at Cana when he performed his first public miracle. But, let us definitively say that the Epiphany concerns the Son of God’s manifestation to the magi, the wise men from the East. But, I’m afraid the confusion continues! Scripture doesn’t tell us that they were kings, only that they were wise men or “magi from the east” and it doesn’t say that there were three kings, only that three gifts were offered! Likewise we are unsure of how long after Christ’s birth that they arrived, exactly where they came from, and their arriving and departing flight! But, bear with me; I promise you, in the midst of all this seeming confusion there is a clear message to all of us today.
The teaching of the early Church Fathers has answered a lot of these questions for us. But first and foremost we should know that our Gospel reading today does not merely contain the things of pious legend, as some who try to rationalize the account would say. The story of the wise men from the east following a star to Bethlehem and to Jesus is a narrative of fact. And no, the star was not merely a comet, or the alignment of Jupiter and Saturn, or a cosmic starburst – it was a miracle and it was real![1] The reality of the account, though fixed at a certain time in history, provides a wealth of inspiration and meaning for all mankind of all times.
Actually it is these three kings – or scientists of the stars, as they came to be known – who themselves represent all mankind. It was too these three non-Jews that Jesus, born to a faithful Jewish family, made himself known. And their journey is typical to all of those throughout history who have searched for Jesus to adore him. This is a source of great hope for us. To those of us who may not feel particularly close to Jesus – today is a new day. We can find hope in the fact that these three kings also made the journey and they have shown us how to make it. Their journey was long, no doubt, and how do we suppose they explained it to their family and friends? I’m sure they were met with doubt and dismissal, maybe even ridicule. They had studied the stars; they knew how to follow this brightest star of them all. But it was by a special grace from God that they interpreted it as a sign of the presence of the long-awaited Messiah that they had heard about from their Hebrew neighbors. Inspired by this grace they sought him out in order to do him homage and adore him. It is just as the prophet Isaiah in our first reading foretold, “Raise your eyes and look about; they all gather and come to you: your sons come from afar.”[2]

Often we too, by a special grace from God, yearn to be close to Jesus Christ and to adore him but it can sometimes seem like we are only coming “from afar.” Let us learn from the magi and be brave. Let us put the same certainty in our knowledge of heavenly things and in our faith that they did. Let us make the long journey with confidence that we will indeed find Jesus, and let us cast aside our love for approval or for material things that get in the way. Upon finding Him, Isaiah said, “Then you shall be radiant at what you see, your heart shall throb and overflow.” Indeed, St. Matthew tells us, the magi “were overjoyed at seeing the star, and on entering the house [when] they saw the child with Mary his mother.” This joy is ours too. How about we make today the day in which we take another step, or invite those who aren’t on the journey to take the first one?
When the magi finally made it to Jerusalem it seems from the tone of our Gospel reading that they got lost.[3]

They “arrived in Jerusalem, saying, ‘Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We saw his star at its rising and have come to do him homage.’… Assembling all the chief priests and the scribes of the people, [King Herod] inquired of them where the Christ was to be born. They said to him, ‘In Bethlehem of Judea.’” (Mt 2:1-5)
Along our way to Christ we too should be docile and willing to ask others for help. But, St. Josemaria Escriva teaches us that

we Christians have no need to go to Herod or to the wise men of this world. Christ has given His Church sureness in doctrine and a flow of grace in the Sacraments. He has arranged things so that there will always be people [like our priests and bishops] to guide and lead us, to remind us constantly of our way… Allow me to give you a piece of advice [he says]… If ever you lose the way… Go to the priest who looks after you – [if not me than your own pastor] – who knows how to demand of you a strong faith, refinement of soul and true Christian fortitude… A conscientious Christian will go – with complete freedom – to the priest he knows to be a good shepherd, who can help him to look up again and see once more on high the Lord’s star.[4]
In seeking Jesus myself and in trying to be a good shepherd, I have found it helpful to seek the guidance of my priest-spiritual-director at least once a month and to receive his forgiveness and council in the Sacrament of Confession. I also find much guidance in the advice of priest-friends, in the example of our good and holy Archbishop, and in the writings and speeches of our Holy Father.
With bravery and guidance we make our way to Jesus and when we find him we discover that all of the confusion we started with is replaced with simplicity and clarity. St. Matthew tells us that when the magi “saw the child with Mary his mother [t]hey prostrated themselves and did him homage.” They simply adored him. All of the confusion of their long journey, following the star despite difficulties, seeking and following advice, and enduring Herod’s conniving demands gave way to simple adoration of our God Made Man. This adoration is so clear that the Council of Trent expressly quotes our Gospel reading today to teach us the devotion which is due to Christ in the Blessed Sacrament.
Jesus present in the tabernacle is the same Jesus the wise men found in Mary’s arms. Perhaps we should examine ourselves to see how we adore him when he is exposed in the monstrance or hidden in the tabernacle. [Do we even realize he is there, like the magi did?] With what devotion and reverence do we kneel in the moments indicated in Holy Mass, or each time we pass by those places where the Blessed Sacrament is reserved?[5]

For example, perhaps we could renew that pious tradition of making the Sign of the Cross whenever we drive by a Catholic Church or chapel. Actions such as these can place us prostrate before the Lord right beside the magi rather than unaware or “from afar.” Finally, let us not forget Mary. “The three Kings had their star. We have Mary, Stella Maris, Stella Orientis, Star of the Sea, Star of the East.”(St. Josemaria Escriva, Christ is Passing By, 38)[6]

[1] Drum, Walter. "Magi." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 9. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1910. 4 Jan. 2009 .
[2] Fr. Francis Fernandez, In Conversation with God, Vol. 1, 320.
[3] Ibid., 322.
[4] Ibid., 323.
[5] Ibid., 329.
[6] Ibid., 333.

1 comment:

Sarsfield said...

Matt:
Great homily. While I appreciate your wish to distance yourself from rationalist "demythologizing" of the Gospels, I would draw your attention to a book called "The Star of Bethlehem, The Legacy of the Magi" by Michael Molnar. The author,an astronomer at Rutgers University with an encyclopedic grasp of ancient astrology, makes a strong case for the Magi's star being an incredibly unique alignment of Jupiter, Saturn and the Sun which occurred on April 17, 6 B.C. The alignment appeared in the constellation of Aries (thought in ancient times to "govern" the land of Judea) and would have signaled to astrologers the birth of a royal person of "divine and immortal nature." Molnar further argues that the terms "at its rising," "went before" and stood over" used by Matthew in reference to the star are actually technical terms describing the actual movement of the planets through the zodiac. Thus, the magi would have seen this unique, regal portent "at its rising" from their vantage point in Chaldea; would have recognized that it meant a royal birth of unprecedented significance occurring in Judea; would have journeyed there and inquired further; and having been directed to Bethlehem would have gone there. The star would have "gone before" them and then "stood over" Bethlehem, both terms describing the actual movement of the planets through the zodiac.

I think Molnar's "solution" of this mystery adds immensely to, and in no way detracts from, the wonder of the Nativity. That God revealed himself in a limited fashion even to the Gentiles seems perfectly consistent with Scripture: Romans 1:20. It explains why it is perfectly reasonable to believe that ancient astrologers (whatever their number)would have gone to Jerusalem and why they would have brought with them gifts for a king.