Fr. Roger J. Landry
St. Bernadette Parish, Fall River, MA
Epiphany, Year B
January 4, 2015
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 this homily:
The Epiphany in the Year for Consecrated Life
Today we celebrate the feast of the Lord’s epiphany, his “manifestation” to all the Gentiles in the person of the Magi coming from afar. But the Lord’s epiphany also was an manifestation of the wise men, as their true character was revealed in how they responded to the Lord’s revelation. Likewise for us the way we react to the continued epiphany of the Lord — who manifests himself to us in prayer, in the Sacraments, in the Church, in events, in others — makes plain the nature of our own character. As we come together on this feast, there’s much we can learn from what the wise men got right — and Herod and his courtiers got wrong — that can help us to become the wise men and wise women, the sage boys and girls, of our age.
Insofar as this year’s Solemnity of the Epiphany is taking place during the Year for Consecrated Life, which is meant to influence everything the Church does during this 14-month holy year, it would be beneficial for us to examine the mystery of Epiphany from the lens of what it teaches us about the consecrated life not only of religious sisters, brothers and priests, consecrated virgins, widows and hermits, members of societies of apostolic life and secular institutes, but what it teaches every one of us about the consecrated nature of our baptism.
With that in mind, therefore, I’d like to ponder two essential things: first, what the wise men teach us about the “search” that is essential to the consecrated life and to the Christian life in general; and second, what we can learn about the gifts the wise men presented that can nourish our understanding of the consecrated life and influence the way we live out our baptism.
The Wise Men as Seekers
The first thing to look at is what the wise men teach us about the search that is involved in Christian existence. The wise men were seekers. The sought God. And they did this in two ways.
First, they studied the stars — which they believed God had fixed in their places as references for their direction — precisely because they were looking for a message from him. 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 interpreted it as an indication of a message from God, the creator of the heavens and the earth.
The second way was that they studied the prophetic texts of the ancient world. At that time there were prophecies outside of Israel from prophetesses called Sybils that heralded the future birth of a king who would be king of all. One of these Sybilline prophecies predicted that the birth of this univeral king would be preceded by a sign in the heavens. The Roman historian Suetonius wrote, “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 penned in his Annals, “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.”
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, the one who would be a universal king.
And because they genuinely sought God, they needed to respond. 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. I repeat: 18-24 months, which was not just an indication of the physical exertion involved — we don’t know whether they walked or had the help of animals, but either way it was a grueling trip — but also it was a sign of how they were prepared to sacrifice everything else in their life for what seems to have been a 3-4 year round trip. All of this because they were searching for God whom they believed — it turns out correctly! — was communicating to them through the star.
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 King Herod. They received an audience with King Herod and told him 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.
The Contrast between the Wise Men and Herod and his Courtiers
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 six miles down hill to see if the prophecies of the Messiah had come to fulfillment. They weren’t willing to budge an inch 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 the Messiah might have be alive an hour and a half away. What a contrast there is between the searching for God of the Magi and the hardened hearts of Herod and his court! All the Magi had were the stars and the Sybilline prophecies; Herod and the chief priests and the scribes around him had the treasure of Sacred Scripture. But Herod and those around had stopped seeking God. They had stopped their pilgrimage of life. They had ceased being guided by anything other than by their own appetites.
That brings us to the present day. Are we actively seeking God? Do we want to get to know him much better in prayer, in the sacraments, in moral life, in others? Are we prepared to make the effort and set aside the time in order to find him? Do we look toward 2015 as a chance to grow much more fervent than we were in 2014? The great American Catholic preacher, Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen, used to say that there are no plateaus in the spiritual life; we’re either climbing uphill or we’re sliding down hill; if we’re where we were a year ago spiritually, we’re actually worse off, because we’ve wasted what should have been a year of growth. Are we willing to keep journeying, to keep climbing in our faith or are we static and self-satisfied? Have we given up the search? Do we want God to come to meet us on our own terms rather than our make a journey, perhaps across some desert, in order to meet him where he is to be found? It’s quite striking that what the Son of God entered into our world, he didn’t drop through our fireplaces into our living room so that we could stay put in our Lazy-Boy recliner. He drew near to us, but he still wanted us to journey. For some of us we need to travel a short distance like the shepherds, leaving one cave in Bethlehem for another with haste. For others, we might need to journey longer distances like the Wise Men. But God wants us moving and the question for us is whether we’re still seeking him, we’re still hungering for him, we’re still growing.
Learning from the Consecrated Life How to Seek God
These questions point to one of the reasons why the Year for Consecrated Life is so important for the entire Church to be living now, because the consecrated life is defined precisely by the search for God. That’s what distinguishes more than anything else the life of those who have said yes to vocations to follow God as religious or as consecrated men and women in the middle of the world. 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 when we seek God in this way, it’s not that we stop loving anyone else around us. Rather, as we see in the lives of so many religious and consecrated men and women, this search for God also spurs them on to search for God’s lost sheep and draw near as Good Samaritans to so many others in need. St. John Paul II wrote in his 1996 exhortation on the consecrated life, “The fact that consecrated persons fix their gaze on the Lord’s countenance does not diminish their commitment on behalf of humanity; on the contrary, it strengthens this commitment, enabling it to have an impact on history, in order to free history from all that disfigures it. The quest for divine beauty impels consecrated persons to care for the deformed image of God on the faces of their brothers and sisters, faces disfigured by hunger, faces disillusioned by political promises, faces humiliated by seeing their culture despised, faces frightened by constant and indiscriminate violence, the anguished faces of minors, the hurt and humiliated faces of women, the tired faces of migrants who are not given a warm welcome, the faces of the elderly who are without even the minimum conditions for a dignified life.” That’s yet another reason why this quaerere Deum, this seeking the face of the Lord, is just as important today as it ever was.
Throughout this Year for Consecrated Life, therefore, all of us should focus on the search for God, the seeking his face, especially in prayer, in adoration, in the elevation of the Sacred Host at Mass, in the Sacrament of his Mercy, speaking to us in his word, crying out to us for help in the needy and in so many other ways. Like the wise men, the Lord is asking us to set out on a journey. He’s wanting us to imitate consecrated men and women in putting other things on hold to come to seek him, to find him, to be found by him, and to enter into deeper communion with him and others. The temptation for us is to respond like Herod and the chief priests and scribes and do nothing in response to the signs God is giving us to invite us into a deeper relationship. This feast of the Epiphany is an occasion for us consciously to choose, rather, the search for God’s face, for his will, for his presence, just as the wise men teach us.
Learning from the Wise Men How to Adore the Lord
The second thing we can all learn from the Wise Men about the Christian life within the context of this Year for Consecrated Life is about what to do when we find the Lord. St. Matthew tells us, “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.” The first thing they did is they offered themselves in adoration. Sometimes we can pass over this detail because we’ve heard the phrase so many times, but it’s important that we grasp that they didn’t fall down before something that was objectively “awesome,” like for example if they found God speaking to them from a burning bush like he spoke to Moses or if he was transfigured in glory before them as Jesus was before SS. Peter, James and John on Mount Tabor. No they fell down in adoration before a little baby who must have shattered so many of the expectations they would have been nourishing along their long journey. 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. God’s ways are not as we imagine them or as we might wish them to be. God is different and very often in life God wants us to learn his ways and conform ourselves to them. The wise men did and they fell down in adoration. That’s a tremendous example for us. We may not find the Lord’s appearance in the Holy Eucharist “awesome,” but we’re called to grasp that this is God and imitate the wise men in falling down before him.
Back in 2005, Pope Benedict spoke about the adoration of the Magi to the young people of the world gathered in Cologne, Germany. He said that there are two aspects to the adoration, encapsulated, respectively, by the word for adoration in Greek and Latin. In Greek the word is proskinesis, which means to humble oneself and go prostrate before the majesty of God. That’s what they did when they did him homage. That’s what we always should do before God, even when God appears in a form that we might not expect. But there’s a second aspect, which is given to us by the Latin word, ad-oratio, which means, literally, “mouth to mouth contact,” or more specifically a “kiss.” When we go down prostrate before God, God comes to us to “kiss” us, he humbles himself to our level to allow for an embrace. We give ourselves to God at the end of our search, but God comes all the way down to our level to embrace us. That’s precisely what Christ did in his Incarnation and birth, taking on our nature so that he could embrace us with human hands and a human heart. That’s what he does in the Holy Eucharist, as he seeks to embrace on the inside as we adore him. We give ourselves to God and he gives us something far greater — Himself — in response. And that’s what we see him do with the Magi in response to the three gifts they presented him, as sign of the homage they were giving him with their whole existence. They give these precious gifts to God and God in turn gives far greater blessings in response.
Our Own Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh
The Magi’s three gifts can be likened during this Year for Consecrated Life to the three priceless evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity and obedience that those in consecrated life live by vow or promise and all Christians are called to live to some degree according to our state of life. On this Epiphany during this Year for Consecrated Life, these would be three gifts the Magi would be beckoning us to present as part of our adoration.
The first gift is gold. This is a sign of consecrating to the Lord all our material resources, all our money and goods. This is something that those in the consecrated life do. They actually make the wise choice that the Rich Young Man foolishly turned down, to sell what they have, giving it away to others, and coming to follow the Lord (Mt 19:16-22). As they make this type of financial homage to the Lord, accounting the Lord more valuable that bank accounts or property of their own, the Lord, however, comes down to embrace them, to fill them with true wealth, to fill them with himself, who is the pearl of great price (Mt 13:46) who can’t be bought on the cheap but is worth all that everyone has. In giving to the Lord the material goods with which he has blessed us, we paradoxically become richer, not poorer, in the only wealth that matters. This feast of the Epiphany during this Year for Consecrated Life is an opportunity for all of us to offer, not our loose change, but our very own “gold” to the Lord in homage. In response to the proskinetic emptying of pockets in poverty, Jesus gives the embrace of true riches. To grow in the true wisdom that will make us wise men and wise women, to advance in the ways of God, depends on our giving the Lord this gold of spiritual poverty.
The second gift is frankincense. Incense is used for worship. As it is burned and rises, it symbolizes the rising of our prayer to God, as Psalm 141 indicates (Ps 141:2). Ultimately we worship what we love most and we’re called to love God with all our mind, heart, soul and strength (Mt 22:37). That is what those in the consecrated life do through the vow or promise of chastity. Chaste celibacy is not opting for what some in the world denigratingly call a “loveless life,” but rather it means choosing a life in which God is loved above all and in which one dwells in the love of God. Through chaste celibacy, one’s own love rises up to God like incense. All Christians are called to chastity according to our state in life, which means that we love unselfishly, that we imitate Christ in sacrificing ourselves for those we love rather than sacrificing those we love for our gratification. This means that those who are not married do not engage in conduct that only married people, joined in one flesh by God, are privileged to, because such behavior is a fruit of a total loving commitment for life two people have made to each other, and if there’s no such commitment, then such behavior wouldn’t be loving at all, but using others for one’s own pleasure. And such unchaste behavior in one’s mind through pornography or in one’s flesh, rather than lifting sweet incense to the Lord actually blows spiritually toxic fumes. Likewise, all married couples are called to ensure that their conjugal love is chaste like Christ’s, helping each other through their marital to learn to love God more, to worship God better, to make their love truly holy. The feast of the Epiphany during this Year for Consecrated Life is an opportunity for us to offer God this frankincense of chastity. In response to the proskinetic emptying not just of our self-centered lusts, Jesus comes to meet us with the embrace of true love. Our growth as the wise men and wise women that our age needs, our development in God’s ways of holiness, depends on our giving the Lord this chaste incense.
The third gift is myrrh, which was a precious aromatic ointment used to anoint dead bodies. Not only would it prevent the smell that would come from rigor mortis, but it was a sign of extravagant love, that one was “wasting” something precious on a deceased loved one who would never be able to thank or repay you in this world. We remember the time, just before Jesus entered on Palm Sunday, when Mary of Bethany spent a whole year’s salary anointing Jesus’ feet with precious aromatic nard, and Jesus said she was doing it for his “burial” (Jn 12:1-8). Myrrh signifies this death. To offer myrrh is in a sense to offer one’s own death to another, and the type of death that is most pleasing in ordinary circumstances is the death to one’s own will, to one’s own ways, to one’s being in control. Myrrh can symbolize this type of obedience whereby one says, “Not my will, but yours, be done.” This is what consecrated men and women do through the promise of vow of obedience, freely humbling themselves before God working through human ministers. This holy obedience is tied strictly to Jesus’ own death, as St. Paul said to the Philippians, stressing that Jesus “humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross” (Phil 2:8). And we know what happened after that death on the Cross: Jesus experienced the full joy and glory of obedience in his resurrection. On this feast of the Epiphany during this Year for Consecrated Life, the type of myrrh we can offer the Lord Jesus is this sacred obedience, committing ourselves to follow Jesus wherever he leads, to do what he asks, to accomplish what pleases him, to live by his commandments, and beatitudes and counsels all the way until death, so that we might experience the risen life he came into the world as a baby to give. In response to the proskinetic emptying of our will in obedience, Jesus comes to our level to kiss with the grace of true freedom. Our becoming truly wise men and wise women, our becoming truly like God, depends on our giving the Lord this myrrh of obedience, entering into Jesus obedience until death so that we might experience the glory of his resurrection.
Christ’s Enduring Epiphany
As we celebrate the Epiphany today, during this Year for Consecrated Life, we thank God for the gift of the lessons he teaches through the wise men about the search for him and about how he embraces us when we empty ourselves in loving homage before him. The best way we can live out these lessons is here at Mass, because the Mass is Christ’s continual epiphany. It’s here he wants us to come as modern Melchiors, Balthasars and Kaspars. It’s here we find the goal of our search and the longings of our hearts, God himself. It’s here that we have the opportunity to lay lay down before Jesus all we have and are. It’s here we present the gold of our material possessions, the incense of our love, the myrrh of our obedience, and it’s here that he comes to embrace us in response. It’s here that we come to unite our consecration to his consecration to the Father on the altar and discover the full meaning of the consecration of our baptism. It all happens here. This is Christ’s continuous epiphany. This is truly Bethlehem! Inspired by the example of the Magi and the witness of all consecrated men and women, let us all come and adore Christ the Lord.
The readings for today’s Mass were:
Reading 1 IS 60:1-6
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 Psalm PS 72:1-2, 7-8, 10-11, 12-13.
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 2 EPH 3:2-3A, 5-6
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.