The Epiphany of Christ, the Wise Men and Us, January 5, 2014

Fr. Roger J. Landry
Retreat for the Seminarians of Cathedral Seminary House of Formation, Douglaston, NY
At Immaculate Conception Seminary, Huntington, NY
Solemnity of the Epiphany
January 5, 2014
Is 60:1-6, Ps 72, Eph 3:2-3.5-6, Mt 2:1-12

To listen to an audio recording of this conference, please click here: 

 

This was the written text that guided the homily: 

The Wise Men Also Bring Us Gifts Today

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 epiphany of the wise men, as their true character was revealed. Likewise, the Lord’s continual epiphany, the continual presence of God-with-us leads to the epiphany of who we really are, our character, our desires. During this retreat in which God wants to make his presence known to us once again and more profoundly, he also wants us to ponder and grow in our response to him. Therefore it’s key on this for us on this day to learn from the response of the wise men, whose example will help us to become the wise men, young and old, of our day. As they bring Jesus gifts, they likewise bring us gifts that are meant to help us receive the gift of God. 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.

Seeking God

The first thing we learn from the wise men is the importance of seeking God. The wise men ended up in Bethlehem because of three factors.

The first factor was the star. The stars were incredibly important to ancients.  2000 years ago, in the deserts of the Middle East and on the seas, people did not have compasses like we do, or highway signs telling us “50 miles to New York.” They 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.

The second factor is that there were prophecies outside of Israel, from women called Sybils, that heralded the future birth of a universal king who would be king of all.  One of these Sybilline prophecies predicted that the birth of the king would be preceded by a sign in the heavens. 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.” 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.

And the third element is that the wise men were not simply curious astrologers. They were seekers of God. And when they saw those two factors, they knew it had to impact their lives. 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.

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.

So the first thing we learn from them is the ardent search for God, to hunger for his presence, and, when we find it, to be willing to go to meet him. A vibrant faith is always characterized by this desire for God, this passion and zeal for him, a zeal that is found in the way we pray, the way we study Sacred Scripture, which has far more info than the wise men ever had in the star, in the way that we follow the various stars that God has given us to point out his presence, like the tabernacle lamp.

Faith is a Pilgrimage

The second thing that 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.

We, too, need to be willing to make the journey, a spiritual pilgrimage. Christian life is a pilgrimage. The whole purpose of the Year of Faith which concluded six weeks ago was, as Pope Benedict said in his letter announcing the year, “to rediscover the journey of faith,” a journey 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 wisemen 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.

A pilgrimage we make together

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. Priests and parishioners need each other. The word parish, in Greek, means “station,” or “hostel,” the types of houses that were made for pilgrims on long journeys so that they could rest and be nourished. The parishes from which we come, which we serve, or which we’re preparing to serve, are places in which we meet fellow pilgrims on the journey of faith, those whom the Lord wants us to accompany and to accompany us. During the years in seminary, every future priest needs to become ever more conscious of that reality, so that we can strengthen each other in faith in the midst of many obstacles on the journey. The Church’s pilgrimage is a family journey, one done in communion, trying not to leave anyone behind, but getting everyone moving.

The stars to guide us

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. Back at World Youth Day 2005 in Cologne, Germany where the relics of the wisemen are reputedly kept, Pope Benedict spoke about this docility 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 wisemen studied the stars. During seminary years, it is so important to grow in our knowledge of the map and help to eternal life contained in Sacred Scripture.

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. For seminarians, however, this would obviously include getting to know the theology that’s distilled in the catechism, so that you, too, can serve as faithful, not blind, guides of others.

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.

Accepting God as he is

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. Pope Benedict told the youth of the world that God’s ways are not as we imagine them or as we might wish them to be. God is different. Likewise throughout life but especially during the years of formation, we must learn God’s ways and how to conform our ways to his.

True 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 giving. Through this act of adoration, these men from the East wished to recognize the child as their King and to 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 Huntington on this altar. We are called to prostrate ourselves in humble homage and at the same time receive the blessing that Christ wants to give us by coming to meet us in humility, to lift us up and to help us continue on the journey.

Returning Differently

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, changed 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, at this station on our own pilgrimage, 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 “wise men” to show them where the star of the tabernacle lamp and altar candles still burn to help and encourage them 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 “wise men,” the modern Melchiors, Balhasars, and Kaspars of our day. And he wants to give us here all the help he knows we need to fulfill this mission!

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 Psalm
PS 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 2
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.

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.