5 January 2020Epiphany

Homily from Father James Gilhooley
Epiphany - A Cycle - Matthew 2:1-12

A mosaic of the Three Kings on the facade of the Church of the Nativity saved the site of Christ's birth from destruction.

In 664, Persian invaders were amazed to see the Three Kings dressed as they themselves were. They decided not to burn the Church.

When the song of the angels is stilled, when the star in the sky is gone, when the kings and princes are home, the work of Christmas begins: to find the lost, heal the broken, feed the hungry, rebuild the nations, bring peace among people, make music in the heart. (Howard Thurman)

Jesus was getting painful splinters from His tight cradle. The people had been counted by the census takers like cattle. The crowds had withdrawn. Bethlehem became a sleepy town again. Joseph took his wife and Child out of the damp hillside cave above Bethlehem. He rented a one bedroom house at off season rates on Main Street. Given his credit ratings, not even a loanshark would give him the dollars to buy a house.

In Bethlehem. the Holy Family remained about two years. Life settled into routine. They didn't have to celebrate Christmas the way we do. They were free of our physical and emotional exhaustion. Joseph freelanced as a carpenter.

But the comfortable living was ending. Soon they would have to throw a few things into cardboard boxes. They would flee as displaced persons into Africa to save the Child's life.

Their anonymity was blown by the gentlemen we salute today as wise. Inadvertently the magi had set Jesus up. The wise men were not wise. Matthew, who owns the copyright on this tale, knew that.

There was a two year interval between the Boy's birth and the unannounced arrival in Bethlehem of the magi. We conclude this by wrestling with Gospel clues. The travelers came breathlessly not to that famous cave now empty but to the rented ranch house. The greeting card people notwithstanding, Jesus was already walking and saying excitedly "Mama" and "Papa." He was in the terrible twos.

We do not know that the men were kings. All Matthew tells us is "magi from the east arrived one day in Jerusalem."

If they had been of the blood royal, Matthew would have so written. After all, his former profession as tax collector had trained him to be precise. Had they been his peers, King Herod because of noblesse oblige would have fussed about them more than he did. Their kingship and blue blood began only in the sixth century. Their names as Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar originated in the ninth.

Tradition has us speak of the magi as three. Yet Matthew does not use a number. We say three since he speaks of three gifts. Happily Matthew specifies the gifts for us - gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

In the 8th century, Venerable Bede, the Benedictine historian writing in England, gave us the traditional interpretation of their symbolism. The gold paid homage to the Child's royal line. The incense saluted His divinity. The myrrh forewarned of the passion. However, I prefer the charming explanation of the 13th century Frenchman, Bernard of Clairvaux. The gold was to pay off the bills at the supermarket. The incense was to fumigate the house. The myrrh was intended to be a herbal medicine against worms in the Child.

Matthew does not tell us how long the magi remained. It could have been but a long weekend or an extended stay. But, whichever, fearful of assassination by King Herod, they rode off into history more quietly than they came. A centuries old tradition says Mary gifted them with the swaddling clothes of the Infant. Matthew does not speak of them again. We do not know whether Herod pursued them. We can only hope they got home safely for a deserved rest. A late 20th century Japanese artist pictures them traveling home by ship.

What is certain is that they did not march off into obscurity. These were men who would remain famous for more than Andy Warhol's fifteen minutes. They left behind them so much charm that artists, poets, and preachers have been living off them for two thousand years.

In the 20th century, two Nobel Prize poet laureates, TS Eliot and Miguel Angel Asterias, along with their celebrated confrere, Langston Hughes, felt compelled to write of them at length.

We owe Jesus a gift. Why not adopt Thurman's platform - find the lost, the hungry, the broken, and the sorrowful?

We make much of the Child this season. But dare we forget more than a billion children, over half the world's boys and girls, suffer extreme hardship because of war, HIV/AIDS, or poverty? (UN) We have much work to do this new year.

Homily from Father Joseph Pellegrino
Solemnity of the Epiphany of the Lord: Journeying with the Magi

The Solemnity of the Epiphany is one of the oldest celebrations of the Church, probably even older than the celebration of Christmas.  It emphasizes that in Jesus all people have been saved from the ravages of sin.  The Old Testament makes it clear that God loves His people.  The Epiphany makes it clear that all who reverence God are His people.

There are three events that the ancient liturgies referred to as epiphanies or manifestations of the Lord: the homage of the magi, the Baptism of the Lord, and the changing of water into wine at Cana.  The Eastern and Orthodox Churches combine all three events in one celebration.  The Western, the Roman Catholic Church, separates the events, focusing on the homage of the magi during the liturgical celebration of the Epiphany. 

We call them magi, wise men, and kings.  Which were they?  They were probably all three.  The term magi refers to Persian priests who could interpret dreams, They were also astronomers and astrologers, people who sought God's message to humans in the stars.  They were probably Kings because their arrival in Jerusalem created quite a stir and earned them an audience with Herod.  They may have been leaders of various groups of people or of areas of Persia.  We really don't know.  We do know that they were wise men.  A wise man is attuned to the will of God and puts it into action.  We always consider that there are three magi because they brought three gifts, one from each magi.  The names Balthasar, Melchior and Gaspar appeared somewhere in tradition.

They sought the newborn King of the Jews.  Now this was Herod's official title, King of the Jews.  So you could see why they thought Herod would know where the baby was.  They assumed that he was a member of the King's family.  We can also understand why Herod was upset.  He recognized the magi's understanding of the stars and realized that there must be a threat to his position out there, somewhere.  He was correct.  There was someone out there who would be called the King of the Jews.  In fact in this same gospel, the Gospel of Matthew, this is the title that was put over Jesus' head when evil crucified Him. 

Regarding the star, the ancients believed that the birth or death of a great person was accompanied by astral phenomena.  Perhaps the star was the confluence of the planets Jupiter and Saturn that modern day astronomers theorize occurred around that time. Perhaps the star was a comet.  Perhaps it was a supernova.  Or, perhaps, it was, as we often like to show, an angel guiding the magi.  I, myself, prefer that last thought.  The way I see it, if the Eternal Son of God, whom the universe could not contain, took on our human nature and become a baby for us, well, next to that, an angel becoming a guiding star is a mere sleight of hand.

Finally, the magi sought to do homage to the newborn king, and did so when they found him in the house in Bethlehem.  Doing homage means to make an action of submission before a person of great dignity and authority.  A person would bow or prostrate himself.  Homage is the proper attitude of humans before God.  We continue this when we enter Church and genuflect before the Blessed Sacrament, or kneel during the Eucharistic Prayer and after receiving communion.

The magi sought the newborn King of the Jews to do him homage.  We also seek the Lord.  Why?  Why do we seek him? We seek him because we want him to be our king.  We want him to be the focus of our lives.  We are not satisfied with just calling upon him when we need him in times of crisis and challenge.  We don't just call out to Jesus when a loved one is hurting, or has died, or when we have strife in our family, or when we need help at school or at work.  We call out to him every day to be the center of our lives.  This takes courage and determination.  It is easy for us to say, "Lord, I need you here in my life, but not there.  I need you in the hospital, but not when I'm thinking about going to that questionable party."  It is easy for us to ask the Lord to be with us as we care for a sick person, but not with us when we go with a person with whom we sin.  We know that we can't just call upon God some of the time, and ignore him the rest of the time.  We don't want a God who will leave us alone so we can join in with the sin of the world.  We want a God who will help us conquer sin, conquer sin in the world and conquer sin in our lives. 

And so, we also, like the magi, do him homage.  We prostrate ourselves before God and we proclaim with our hearts, with our words, and with our lives, "You are the Holy One.  You are Our God." 

Like the magi we have undertaken a journey.  It is the journey of our lives.  We journey to those places where the Lord is calling us to give witness to the world that He is the true King of the Universe. For our young people the places of their journey may include their schools, their colleges and those locations where they begin their adult lives. For our parents, the places of their journey may include each place their children need to go, each stage of their children's lives.  For our retirees the places of their journey include doctors' offices and hospitals, and those places where we can reach out to others finishing the journeys of their lives.  For each of us the places of our journeys include locations where people don't usually go to look for God, like a stable, or a homeless shelter, or a prison or a rehab program.

Our lives are a journey seeking the Presence of the Lord.  We journey with the magi to those Bethlehems where we can find the Lord.  May your journey and my journey be safe, beautiful and full of the love of God. 

Homily from Saint Vincent Archabbey, Latrobe, Pa
Saint Vincent Archabbey

Homily from Father Alex McAllister SDS

Today we celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany when we recall the visit of the wise men to the Child Jesus in Bethlehem. These mysterious personages from the East clearly represent the Gentiles, they are both foreigners and followers of a religion other than Judaism.

The word which is translated as 'wise men' in our text is transliterated from the Greek as 'Magi' which is where we get our word magician from. We might wonder precisely what Matthew meant by his use of this word Magi. It is thought to cover a wide variety of occupations ranging from Zoroastrian priests to astrologers. However, one is drawn to conclude that Matthew thinks that they are astrologers since they come to Bethlehem guided by a star.

We might wonder at his depicting of them as astrologers as there grew up very quickly in the Early Church a strong aversion to magic and astrology. It was quickly understood that with the appearance of Christ all such superstitions are superseded. Also, we note that all the other references to magic in the New Testament are negative. And yet here in Matthew's Infancy Narrative magic and astrology seem to be treated rather favourably.

In the past it was thought that once they had paid homage at the feet of Jesus the perceived superstition of these Magi was dissolved and that they immediately converted to belief in Christ. The only problem is that there is no actual evidence in Matthew's account to show that this is what they did. In reality Matthew presents these Magi as being wholly admirable and their following of a star is viewed as quite an appropriate way to find the Messiah.

In truth the whole story of the Magi is interesting. They visit King Herod and we get a glimpse at his Machiavellian plotting as he asks them to return to tell him precisely where the Messiah can be found. We immediately realise that this is a device so that Herod can exterminate any possible rival to his throne. But fortunately the Magi were warned in a dream not to go back to Herod and as a result chose to return home by a different route.

An interesting point in this story given to us by Matthew is that while the Magi are guided by a star this only takes them as far as Jerusalem. They then have to approach the Jewish authorities who in turn consult the scriptures to find the precise location of the birth of Jesus which turns out to be the town of Bethlehem. So while nature leads the Magi to roughly the right place we are being informed that the true secret of the location of the birth of the Messiah is only to be found in the Jewish scriptures. This location is then confirmed by the star reappearing over the place where Jesus is born.

This means that we are presented with the irony that the Jews had all the knowledge they needed in their scriptures to predict the coming of the Messiah even including the exact location of his birth but nevertheless they fail to recognise him when he does come. However, these foreigners following what are purely natural signs are able to see that the birth of the Messiah is imminent and are so drawn to worship him.

That the Magi come looking for a King is also an eerie foreshadowing of the sign written above Jesus on the Cross of Calvary, 'Jesus of Nazareth King of the Jews.' Then too, it was the priests and leaders who conspired to do away with him just as they attempted to do at the time of his birth.

As we noted right at the beginning the main point about the coming of the Three Wise Men is that they are Gentiles and so represent us, the non-Jewish followers of Jesus. Their appearance right at the beginning of the story clearly points to Christ's intention to bring salvation to the whole human race and not merely to the Jews.

The other characters to whom the birth of Christ is revealed are the shepherds. These shepherds represent the poor and the marginalised and with the Magi standing in for the foreigners we can see the wide scope of Christ's mission. From the very outset we can observe how God arranges things in such a way as to make it known just how universal is Christ's mission.

The extremely wide scope of Christ's purpose has direct implications for each one of us. It means that we ought to resist any temptation to narrow access to the Gospel or to confine membership of the Church to this or that group. The aim of the Church is to embrace every single person on the planet. The Church is meant for absolutely everyone and we should be very careful to ensure that nothing that we say or do can be interpreted as restricting in any way its universal mission.

This reminds us that there is no room for prejudice of any kind within the Church. We need to realise that any distinctions based on class, race, sexual orientation or on anything else have no place in the life of the Christian. We recognise that all people are equal in the eyes of God and his salvation is meant for every single person.

While it is only natural that we have a bond with those from our own country or locality or with those who share certain characteristics or cultural background with us, we need to realise that there can be absolutely no place for prejudice or discrimination in the Church. This is something that we have to constantly check on and be on our guard against.

Of course, adopting an attitude of openness can be very challenging but we need to realise that it is also very liberating. Being completely open means that we do not restrict ourselves to this group or that. It means that we accept everyone in the world and gradually learn to appreciate all their differences.
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