Continuing the Journey in the Footsteps of the Wisemen, Epiphany Sunday, January 7, 2018

Fr. Roger J. Landry
Annunciation Convent of the Sisters of Life, Suffern, NY
Solemnity of the Epiphany
January 7, 2018
Is 60:1-6, Ps 72, Eph 3:2-3.5-6, Mt 2:1-12

 

To listen to an audio recording of today’s homily, please click below: 

 

The following text guided today’s homily: 

Today’s Triple Epiphany

Today we celebrate with joy the feast of the Lord’s epiphany, his “manifestation” to all the Gentiles in the persons of the Magi coming from afar. But the Lord’s epiphany also was an epiphany of the men whom tradition has always called “wise,” as essential aspects of their true character was revealed. Likewise today, those two epiphanies — the Lord’s continual epiphany, the ongoing presence of Emmanuel, God-with-us, and the revelation of how to respond to it in the epiphany of the wise men — provide a mirror that can give us an epiphany of who we really are, our character, our desires. To bring this mystery we celebrate alive, it’s key for us to learn from the response of the wise men, whose example will help us to become the wise men and women our culture, our country, our Church, our community and our families so need. So today we go on pilgrimage with the wise men to Bethlehem, and to learn from them invaluable lessons about how we’re called to desire God, act on those desires and help accompany others on a pilgrimage to Jesus. Today we can ponder seven lessons.

Seeking God

The first thing we learn from the wise men is the importance of seeking God.

Pope Francis yesterday in his Angelus meditation focused first on how the Magi were seekers, careful searchers for God. Unlike the shepherds who had angels appear to them proclaiming good news of great joy and telling them that a Savior was born for them whom they would find in swaddling clothes, the Magi had much fainter indications. First they had the Sybilline prophecies that heralded the future birth of a universal king who would be king of all. The famous Roman history Suetonius wrote in his Life of Vespasian, “There had spread over all the Orient an old and established belief that it was fated at that time for men coming from Judaea to rule the world” and Tacitus wrote in his Annales, “there was a firm persuasion … that at this very time the East was to grow powerful and rulers from Judaea were to acquire universal empire.” One of these Sybilline prophecies predicted that the birth of the king would be preceded by a sign in the heavens. And so the wise men searched the heavens.

This was the context in which the wise men would have been looking into the heavens. When they saw the star at its rising, they not only interpreted that God was trying to communicate something to them in general, but that God was specifically heralding the birth of the newborn King in the east, who would be a universal king. The stars as we know were incredibly important to ancients. 2000 years ago, in the deserts of the Middle East and on the seas, people were highly dependent on the fixed stars in the sky as references for their direction. They firmly believed that God had made them this way for that reason. Whenever anything happened in the sky that was new — like the appearance of a comet, or meteor shower, or a planet’s or star’s shining more brightly — the ancients thought that it had to bear some message from God, the creator of the heavens and the earth. So they studied the heavens, because in studying the heavens they were seeking the message of God. And when they saw a star at its rising, they didn’t respond as curious astrologers but as those who hungered to find what they sought. Led by the star, and their simple faith in its meaning, the wise men went on a journey toward the Holy Land. We don’t know how long their pilgrimage took, but the Gospel gives us indications that it wasn’t brief. After Herod asked them the exact time of the appearance of the star, and then, a short time later, after they did not return to him, he proceeded to kill every boy in Bethlehem under two years of age. So the time of their preparation and the journey to get there probably took 18-24 months. Whether they walked or had the help of animals, we don’t know, but they came. The made a journey of many months each way because they believed God was speaking to them through the star.

It leads us to ask how and how ardently we’re searching for God. The consecrated life is defined precisely by the search for God. Back in 2008, the Vatican’s Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life summarized the consecrated life by the words of Psalm 27, “Your face, O Lord, I seek” (Ps 27:8), saying that the consecrated life “flourishes in the environment of this search for the face of the Lord and the ways that lead to him” (cf. Jn 14:4-6). It noted that the search is not easy, but rather is a “struggle, because God is God, and His ways and thoughts are not always our ways and thoughts” (cf. Is 55:8) and added that “the consecrated person, therefore, gives witness to the task, at once joyful and laborious, of the diligent search for the divine will, and for this chooses to use every means available that helps one to know it and sustain it while bringing it to fulfillment.” The consecrated life is about this search. Pope Benedict XVI would stress in his powerful address to representatives of the world of culture in Paris in 2008 — many of whom were atheists — that this service of consecrated men and women seeking God’s face helps everyone rediscover the proper coordinates of life. He said that the essential goal of consecrated life, the way of life that inspired the first monks to live “civilization” behind and go into the desert, was “quaerere Deum,” to seek God. “Amid the confusion of the times, in which nothing seemed permanent,” Pope Benedict said, “they wanted to do the essential — to make an effort to find what was perennially valid and lasting, life itself.  They were searching for God, … they were seeking the definitive behind the provisional.  Quaerere Deum: because they were Christians, this was not an expedition into a trackless wilderness, a search leading them into total darkness.  God himself had provided signposts, indeed he had marked out a path which was theirs to find and to follow.” Pope Benedict would say that in our own day, when “God has truly become for many the great unknown” this quaerere Deum — this seeking God and letting oneself be found by him — is “no less necessary than in former times.”

And so we’re called to be wise men and women today by the nature that we never stop searching for God.

The Journey of Faith

The second thing the wise men show us is that the life of faith is a pilgrimage.

The wise men were ready to move. Even though they must have had good lives where they were since they could afford a long journey and precious gifts at their arrival, they accounted being with the newborn universal king more important than staying where they were. They were willing to leave everything behind and make a long, difficult journey, following the star they had seen in the East.

That they came to Jerusalem shouldn’t be a surprise. The distance between Bethlehem and Jerusalem is only six miles; as they were following the star, it’s very likely that they would have thought that the star was coming to rest on the important capital of the Jews rather than over a small village close by. Moreover, they probably thought that the newborn King of the Jews would be the son of the present king of the Jews, and so it’s logical that they would want to meet Herod. They received an audience and told Herod the story about why they had come so far to adore a child to whom God in the heavens was testifying by means of this star. Herod called all his experts around him and asked where this universal king was to be born. From the book of the prophet Micah, they told him that he was to be born in Bethlehem of Judea. Then something happened that we really shouldn’t miss: only the Wise Men left. None of the experts around Herod, who knew the Scriptures inside out, were curious enough to make the short journey, even though the wise men, who had already journeyed many hundreds of miles, left with zeal. Herod feigned an interest in seeing the child, but he was only trying to deceive the Magi so that he could assassinate him; the experts seemed to have no fire to discover whether it might be true that the Messiah was only a short distance away. The star wasn’t just shining for the Magi. They didn’t have special goggles to see it that others didn’t. But only they were hungry and courageous enough to leave where they were and set out to follow its light. Pope Francis talked about this yesterday when he first suggested in his Epiphany homily that the others weren’t raising their eyes to heaven to look to God for signs, longing for God, expecting the newness he brings. Because of the way their heart was looking, he said later in his Angelus, they responded to news of the sign and the signified with indifference, as in the case of the experts, or fear, like Herod.

Are we ready to make the continuous journey of faith, a spiritual pilgrimage? Christian life is a pilgrimage that begins with baptism and is meant to lead to the eternal Bethlehem and Jerusalem. To be strengthened on this pilgrimage, this exodus, this Passover, was what we prayed for at the beginning of this Mass. “O God, who on this day revealed your Only Begotten Son to the nations by the guidance of a star, grant in your mercy that we, who know you already by faith, may be brought to behold the beauty of your sublime glory.” We ask God to inspire us by the journey of the wise men to be given the grace to journey to behold God-with-us not in swaddling clothes lying in a manger but in the beauty of his heavenly glory. That is a journey that for most of us will take more than 18-24 months of preparation and walking, but a lifetime.

In order to be able to make this journey, as the Holy Father said yesterday, we need to “free ourselves from useless burdens and unnecessary extras that only prove a hindrance. … Jesus allows himself to be found by those who seek him, but to find him we need to get up and go, not sit around but take risks, not stand still, but set out.” He stressed that many believers are risk adverse. They want everything to remain as it is. They don’t have the courage to leave their comfort zones. They can talk at length about the faith like the experts but won’t take a personal risk for the Lord. But he concludes, “Those risks are immensely worth the effort, since in finding that Child, in discovering his tenderness and love, we rediscover ourselves.”

A Joint Pilgrimage

Third, they show us that this pilgrimage of life is not one that we’re supposed to make alone.

The wise men didn’t journey solo. They walked together. They knew that it order to make the destination they needed each other, but more than that, they wanted to journey together. Likewise, the Catholic pilgrimage of faith is not a do-it-yourself thing. We need the help of others on the search for God, to pass through the various deserts of life. Just as much as pilgrims on the Camino de Santiago, we need fellow travelers. Spouses need each other. Children need their parents. We all need our friends and spiritual siblings. Those in consecrated life so much need the strength of their community. Priests need their brother priests and parishioners need each other. The Church’s pilgrimage is a family journey, one done in communion, trying not to leave anyone behind, but getting everyone moving.

Guidance

Fourth, the journey of the Magi shows us that we need to be guided on the path of faith.

They got to Bethlehem because they had allowed themselves to be guided by the star. They were attentive and obedient to the guidance God had given them. Likewise, we all need to be guided.

Pope Francis said yesterday that we all follow some star and challenged us to ask whether we’re following earthly luminaries and gurus, bright and flashy, momentary meteors that eventually burn out, or shooting stars that mislead, or whether we’re following the star of the Lord with docility.

At World Youth Day 2005 in Cologne, Germany where the relics of the wise men are reputedly kept, Pope Benedict spoke about this capacity to be led by God to the young people of the world. He said that the main guide we have, the main star, is Jesus, who himself is the way. And Jesus guides us in several ways:

  • He guides us in Sacred Scripture, but we should respond with a desire to know him in the Scriptures like the wise men studied the stars.
  • Another guide is the Church. Pope Benedict specifically encouraged all Catholics to get to know the Catechism, which documents how the Holy Spirit has guided the Church in faith since the foundation of the Church.
  • A third guide is the saints. These are the radiant stars who show us how to respond in faith to God. They show us how to be Christian. They are the successful alpine climbers who have gotten to heaven and now not only point to us the path but intercede for us, help us and cheer us on to the summit. Among all the saints, the greatest is the Blessed Virgin Mary. In the faith, while we don’t follow astrological signs, we do follow a Stella Maris, the Star of the Sea, guiding us both through storms as well as calm waters.
  • And a fourth, especially important for us in the priesthood and religious life, is the guidance of spiritual directors, who can help us constantly calibrate our interior receptors to where the Holy Spirit is seeking to lead us.

Accepting God as he is, not according to the idol we’ve made of him

Fifth, the wise men show us how to be willing to accept God on his terms, not on ours.

When the wise men found Jesus, he was far from what they must have been expecting. They likely expected to find the newborn king in a palace, not in a stable; wrapped in royal silk, not in swaddling clothes; surrounded by courtiers, not animals and shepherds. Yet when they found him as he was, they didn’t turn back. They were willing to let their own categories be changed by God rather than to fit God into their own categories. They needed to change their ideas about power, about God, about man — in short, they had to change themselves and see that God’s power is not like that of the powerful of this world. God’s ways are not as we imagine them or as we might wish them to be. God is different. Likewise throughout life, we must learn God’s ways and how to conform our ways to his, especially when he asks us to model our life on the mystery of his self-giving love on the Cross.

Adoration

Sixth, the Magi teach us all about true adoration.

The greatest gift they gave the Lord Jesus was not gold, frankincense and myrrh, but themselves. St. Matthew tells us that they prostrated themselves and did him homage.

Pope Benedict commented to the young people of the world, “They had come to place themselves at the service of this King, to model their own kingship on his. That was the meaning of their act of homage, their adoration. Included in this were their gifts — gold, frankincense and myrrh — gifts offered to a King held to be divine. Adoration has a content and it involves self-giving love. Through this act of adoration, these men from the East wished to recognize the child as their King and humbly, lovingly, place their own power and potential at his disposal.”

That’s what we’re called to do as well. The same Jesus before whom they prostrated themselves comes here to Annunciation Convent on this altar. We are called not just to look at Jesus, not just say a prayer before him and get on our way, but to prostrate ourselves in humble homage before him, lay ourselves and our gifts, and at the same time receive the blessing that Christ wants to give us by himself coming to meet us in humility, to lift us up and to help us continue on the journey.

Changing Direction 

Lastly, the Magi show us how the encounter with Christ is meant to change us.

St. Matthew says that the wise men returned home “by another route,” which the great saints of the Church have always said points to far more than a detour to evade Herod. It points to the fact that they returned change, the returned differently than they arrived, converted more and more to the new King’s way and categories, to the way of faith, to the way of Christ-like love.

Similarly every time we come to journey to Mass, every time we come together with others on pilgrimage to bring him our gifts and sacrifices but especially the offering of our whole life in prayerful homage, we’re supposed to leave changed, changed by the word we heard, changed by our truly praying the collections and petitions of the Mass, changed by becoming one with the Lord on the inside. Every Mass is meant to change our life forever and send us back by different, transformed for the better, following no longer our own way but following Jesus’ own path up close.

The Continuous Epiphany 

As we celebrate the Epiphany today, we thank God for the gift of the lessons he teaches through the wise men about the search for him, about the pilgrimage together with others that constitutes the Christian life, about our need to be guided by Sacred Scripture, the Church and the Saints, about our openness to letting God change us and send us onward by a new and exciting path, and about how to adore Christ his Son in spirit and in truth. We ask for each of these graces so that we, too, will be able to leave today by another route on our journey to “behold the beauty of his sublime glory,” glorifying and praising God. The Mass is Christ’s continuous epiphany, but our contemporaries need us, once again, to be the “wise men” who show where the star of the tabernacle lamp and altar candles still burn to help and encourage those we know to join us on the journey to find Christ and come into a life-changing communion with him. God is calling us, you and me, to be those modern Melchiors, Balhasars, and Kaspars. And he wants to give us here all the help he knows we need to fulfill this mission! As we fall to our knees today before the same Lord before whom they prostrated themselves as a small, poor, vulnerable infant wrapped in swaddling clothes, God wants us, like them, to discover the glory of God in the highest. Welcome to Bethlehem! Come, let us adore him!

The readings for today’s Mass were: 

Reading 1 IS 60:1-6

Rise up in splendor, Jerusalem! Your light has come,
the glory of the Lord shines upon you.
See, darkness covers the earth,
and thick clouds cover the peoples;
but upon you the LORD shines,
and over you appears his glory.
Nations shall walk by your light,
and kings by your shining radiance.
Raise your eyes and look about;
they all gather and come to you:
your sons come from afar,
and your daughters in the arms of their nurses.Then you shall be radiant at what you see,
your heart shall throb and overflow,
for the riches of the sea shall be emptied out before you,
the wealth of nations shall be brought to you.
Caravans of camels shall fill you,
dromedaries from Midian and Ephah;
all from Sheba shall come
bearing gold and frankincense,
and proclaiming the praises of the LORD.

Responsorial PsalmPS 72:1-2, 7-8, 10-11, 12-13.

R.  (cf. 11) Lord, every nation on earth will adore you.
O God, with your judgment endow the king,
and with your justice, the king’s son;
He shall govern your people with justice
and your afflicted ones with judgment.
R. Lord, every nation on earth will adore you.
Justice shall flower in his days,
and profound peace, till the moon be no more.
May he rule from sea to sea,
and from the River to the ends of the earth.
R. Lord, every nation on earth will adore you.
The kings of Tarshish and the Isles shall offer gifts;
the kings of Arabia and Seba shall bring tribute.
All kings shall pay him homage,
all nations shall serve him.
R. Lord, every nation on earth will adore you.
For he shall rescue the poor when he cries out,
and the afflicted when he has no one to help him.
He shall have pity for the lowly and the poor;
the lives of the poor he shall save.
R. Lord, every nation on earth will adore you.

Reading 11 EPH 3:2-3A, 5-6

Brothers and sisters:
You have heard of the stewardship of God’s grace
that was given to me for your benefit,
namely, that the mystery was made known to me by revelation.
It was not made known to people in other generations
as it has now been revealed
to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit:
that the Gentiles are coheirs, members of the same body,
and copartners in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.

Alleluia MT 2:2

R. Alleluia, alleluia.
We saw his star at its rising
and have come to do him homage.
R. Alleluia, alleluia.

Gospel MT 2:1-12

When Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea,
in the days of King Herod,
behold, magi from the east 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.”
When King Herod heard this,
he was greatly troubled,
and all Jerusalem with him.
Assembling all the chief priests and the scribes of the people,
He inquired of them where the Christ was to be born.
They said to him, “In Bethlehem of Judea,
for thus it has been written through the prophet:
And you, Bethlehem, land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
since from you shall come a ruler,
who is to shepherd my people Israel.”

Then Herod called the magi secretly
and ascertained from them the time of the star’s appearance.
He sent them to Bethlehem and said,
“Go and search diligently for the child.
When you have found him, bring me word,
that I too may go and do him homage.”
After their audience with the king they set out.
And behold, the star that they had seen at its rising preceded them,
until it came and stopped over the place where the child was.
They were overjoyed at seeing the star,
and on entering the house
they saw the child with Mary his mother.
They prostrated themselves and did him homage.
Then they opened their treasures
and offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod,
they departed for their country by another way.