Fr. Roger J. Landry
Espirito Santo Parish, Fall River, MA
Feast of the Epiphany, Year A
January 6, 2002
Is 60:1-6; Eph3:2-6; Mt2:1-12
1) We have heard the story of the Epiphany — the manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles represented by the wise men — so many times that the truly remarkable aspects of it can be lost on us. The facts have become so routine that we can miss their meaning. That’s why today I would like to focus on three aspects of the account of today’s Gospel, so that we can look at them with fresh eyes, with a fresh heart, and receive from them crucial lessons that will help us live our faith more fully now. I’ll focus first on the Star, second on Herod and third on the Wisemen and the gifts they brought.
2) First, the star. In order to appreciate the importance of the star, we have to understand two things about the ancient world. The first thing is the importance of stars. The ancients, particularly in the deserts of the Middle East and on the seas, did not have compasses like we do, or highways, telling us “17 miles to Providence,” but were highly dependent on the stars for their direction. The stars were fixed in the sky and could be used as reference points. God had made them that way for them. 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 thing about the ancient world that we have to know is that there were prophecies outside of Israel, to women called Sybils, that heralded one day the birth of a King in Israel who would be king of all. One of these Sybilline prophecies predicted that the forerunner would be preceded by a sign in 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 it to be that God was saying something to them, but that God was saying that there would be this newborn King of the Jews, who would be a universal king.
3) So they prepared for a journey. They needed to make proper preparations and then go on their way. It wasn’t like they could catch a flight either. How long did it take for them to arrive? We don’t know for sure, but the Gospel gives us a very good idea. Herod asks them the exact time of the appearance of the star, and then, a short time later, when they don’t return to him, proceeds to kill every boy in Bethlehem under two. So the time in preparation and then the journey probably took close to a year and a half. Yet they came, because they knew that the star meant something. Then came to Jerusalem. It’s obvious why they would have come there first, because the distance between Bethlehem and Jerusalem is only six miles, straight down hill from Jerusalem. 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. They also wanted to ask for more precise information from those who would know. It’s logical, too, that they would have wanted to meet with Herod, because they probably would have thought that the newborn king of the Jews would be a son of the present King of the Jews. So they got an audience and asked their question. They were probably very well-to-do, and probably gave Herod some of their gifts, which was part of the custom of the time. They then likely would have told Herod their story, 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, curiously, only the Magi, the Wise men, went to Bethlehem. This is an amazing reality. They had probably journeyed thousands of miles, convinced in the truth of the message of the star. Yet none of the experts around Herod, who knew the Scriptures inside out, were curious enough to follow them. Only the Magi left.
4) What does this mean for us? Quite a bit. It’s very often those who know the faith very well who begin to think that they “know it all” and lose all zeal and hunger for the faith. I’ve seen it happen that graduates of Catholic colleges or high schools, after having gotten an education in the Catholic faith, stop practicing it all together, thinking somehow that their knowledge exempts them from practice. It sometimes can happen to priests. But is the star still burning? Does the analogy hold today?
5) Yes. The star still burns. And while some people hunger for it and seek it and follow it, the vast majority of people, including those who call themselves disciples of Christ, do not. Where does it burn? It burns in a few places. One of the most notable places is in the red flame of the tabernacle lamp. The star burned pointing and attracting to the presence of the Son of God. The tabernacle lamp burns pointing to the presence of that same lamb of God. Yet how many people come in search of Christ, to adore him like the wise men? Churches are empty. Fewer and fewer people are coming in search of the God who will make us wise. Here at Espirito Santo, very few of those who attend the English Masses ever seek Christ out during the week. If it weren’t for exclusively Portuguese speakers, the adoration of the Blessed Sacrament and Holy Hour on Mondays would be basically empty. The 5:30 pm daily Mass would have 1-2 people. Protestants are converting to Catholicism and coming to daily Mass, coming to Eucharistic adoration, but where are the Catholics? Sometimes we get more English speakers who come from other parishes in the city for our 5:30 pm Mass during the week than we get from our own parish. Would it be that too many of our parishioners are affected by the same spiritual virus which which those experts around Herod were affected? Are they seeking Christ, following that star here, or have they failed to see what the meaning of that star is? Prior to Christmas, I visited several of the sick members of our parish. It’s always very edifying. Some of these people are very sick and can barely move, but they drop to their eyes in a pool of tears when they see Christ come to their home in the Eucharist. They cry because they can only watch Mass on television, but no longer have the ability to come on their own. They hunger for the Christ to whom that flame burns. Do you?
6) Another star is the one on the top of the confessional in the back, which heralds the presence of Christ acting through the ministry of one of his chosen priests in the sacrament of God’s mercy. Christ is truly present there, doing what he came from heaven to be born as a child in order to die to bring about: the forgiveness of sins. We sing it in so many of our beautiful Christmas hymns. “Hark! the herald angels sing, Glory to the Newborn king. Peace on earth and mercy mild, God and sinners reconciled;” or in “O Little town of Bethlehem”: “O holy Child of Bethlehem, Descend to us, we pray; Cast out our sin and enter in, be born in us today.” But fewer and fewer people are taking advantage of Christ’s mercy in that sacrament he instituted. The priests in the city all noticed — and it was noticeable here too — that confessions were down pretty much everywhere in the city this Advent. Why’s that? Is it because people have lost the hunger for Christ and his love, is it because people are taking him for granted? Is it because they’re stubborn, thinking that God will forgive their sins they way they want, rather than they way he wants and the way he instituted? We always need to have great love for the sacrament of confession, because Christ instituted it for our salvation.
7) Now to Herod. Herod was one of the most talented leaders the ancient world had seen. He was a great organizer and builder, full of talents. He built all types of roads and public works and constructed the Second Temple in Jerusalem, the one which lasted until the Roman’s destroyed it in 70 AD, leaving nothing but what is now the wailing wall standing. As talented as he was, he had an extraordinarily serious flaw, one that led him eventually to doing awful things: he wanted to be in control so much that he ended up committing great sins. He killed three of his own sons, who he thought were looking a little too forward to eventually being kings themselves. We know what he did in order to try to kill Jesus, he killed every boy under 2. A Mass murder of the young and innocent, lest he lose control over his kingdom. (Little did he know that Christ was not coming to be a temporal leader, but to lead us home to heaven). And at the end of his life, Herod knew that people would celebrate rather than mourn his death and that thought tremendously bothered him. Even though he had done some great things, people feared him rather than loved him. So he asked his advisors to prepare him a list of the most beloved people in and around the Holy City. They didn’t quite know why then; maybe, they thought, he was trying to ingratiate himself with popular people to make himself more popular. After he looked over the list, he told his soldiers to round them up and put them in prison. And as his death approached, he gave orders that on the moment he breathed his last, that every single one of them be slain. They might not mourn my death, he said, but they would at least cry at my death. This was a man who, fearing not being in control of everything, was capable of such hideous deeds.
8 ) What does that mean for us? None of us is probably as wicked as Herod, yet. But we’re caught up with the same virus. Herod didn’t start by this terrible acts of mass murder. He started in little ways, when he resented not being in control around the house, with his family, with those around him. He stopped practicing the Jewish faith. Stopped going over to the temple on the feasts. Stopped sacrificing. Started to have concubines, women who weren’t his wives. All of these sins eventually led him to become the murderous tyrant he turned out to be. It’s the same way with us. Little sins, in which we say to God that he’s wrong, that we’re going to do it our way rather than his way, lead us, more and more, to become people capable of doing such terrible deeds. One deed we can talk about explicitly is what happens every 23 seconds in America. Every 23 seconds, a mother kills another innocent child growing in her womb. Every 23 seconds! Now these women who have abortions aren’t necessarily evil. But they fear the control that having a child will bring about in their lives. They fear what the consequences, for school or for work, with their husband or boyfriend, with the parents and friends. Perhaps the habit of sin that lead them to have sex without wanting to conceive a child led them to the possibility of, like Herod, killing their own innocent children. It also happens when we backstab others, when we try to seek revenge on others who have hurt us, out of fear. What’s the solution? The solution is to accept the offer of Christ’s forgiveness, so that he can rip out these desires to be in control right from the start. But we have to say yes to that gift and go to receive it on his own terms. Sin separates us from God, and the longer we stay in separation, and the more we out of a sinful habit, push ourselves away from him, the more likely it is that we can become like Herod.
8 ) Finally, we turn to the wise men. They were wise, because their knowledge led them to God. They were willing to leave everything to follow God, even when his signal was faint. Gifts, Gold = king, worthy of everything; frankincense = priest, symbol of prayers rising up to God; myrrh = death. Isaiah prophesied first two. Death was how he would unite all three, with the throne of the Cross, the crown of thorns. What do we give to the Lord? He wants it all. The greatest gift they gave him was their adoration.
9) Magi didn’t have angels pointing out to them the presence of their Savior, of their God, in the ancient equivalent of a dog dish — unlike the Shepherds. What they saw was a little boy much like the sons or nephews or grandchildren or little brothers that we have. They needed faith in order to recognize that that little boy was something far greater, that that little boy was something that was worthy of everything they could give, their money, their prayers, their veneration and their loving adoration. It’s the same thing for us here. If we could see all of the angels, they’d be all around that tabernacle and soon around this altar, testifying to what is here in the Eucharist. But we don’t see them visibly, like some saints have. We, like the wise men, need faith to see that what is bread now will in the course of 15 minutes, be the same Christ they adored in the manger in Bethelem, that what I will soon hold in my hands is the same Christ whom Mary held in her arms. This is the continual manifestation of God, this is the continual Epiphany. Come let us adore him!