The Wise Men’s and Our Preparation and Homage for the Lord, Epiphany (C), January 7, 2007

Fr. Roger J. Landry
St. Anthony of Padua Parish, New Bedford, MA
Epiphany, Year C
January 7, 2007
Is 60:1-6; Eph 3:2-3,5-6; Mt 2:1-12

1) Today we celebrate the Lord’s Epiphany, the “manifestation” of his light, glory and presence to all the nations, represented by the wise men coming from afar. It is first and foremost a feast about God’s actions: God wanted to reveal himself and the mystery of his love to us; he came into our world, he became one of us, to reveal to us who we are in his eyes and invite us to follow him on the path of love all the way home. But today is also a feast of the human response to God’s action. In the wise men, we see before us the paradigm of the search for God, the finding of God, the loving worship of the God found, and the transformation that occurs when one truly embraces the Lord. Today I would like to focus on the “human side” of this feast and what it means for each of us.

2) How can any of us not be filled with wonder about the wise men? They were wise not just because they were their age’s astronomical equivalents of Copernicus, Galileo and Kepler; they were wise because they were searching for God. Their hunger for him meant was so strong they could detect his coming presence in the appearance of a bright star. This should not strike us as so bizarre. The ancients knew that God had created the heavens and — well before the invention of compasses and GPS systems — filled it with stars to give us direction. Whenever anything new happened in the sky, like the appearance of a comet or a meteor shower or a new or brightly burning star, they thought that it contained a message from their Creator. They were also likely influenced by the prophecies of the Sybils, ancient near-eastern prophetesses, who foretold that one day there would be a universal king whose birth would be announced by a sign in the heavens. When they saw the star, they viewed it as a fulfillment of these prophecies.

3) But it wasn’t enough for them merely to know that a universal king was being born. They wanted to be with him. They wanted to worship him. And they were willing to go through enormous sacrifices to do so. So they began the preparation for a journey to search for him. St. Matthew’s Gospel does not tell us precisely where they came from or how long their journey took. All we know is that they came from the East, which meant that they came from or through the desert. Theirs was by no means an easy journey or a short one. Based on Herod’s killing all children under two when they failed to return to him, it’s likely that their journey took about 18 months. They sacrificed their time. They sacrificed much of their fortune, giving up the work they were doing, assuming the costs of the journey, and preparing for the newborn king the best, most lavish gifts they could give. When they finally arrived, they gave him more than gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. They gave themselves, falling down before Jesus and giving him homage. And it was worth it! St. Matthew tells us they were “overjoyed.” For them, Christ was the “pearl of great price,” the “treasure buried in a field” worth selling all they had to obtain (Mt 13:44-46). He made the whole journey, all their sacrifices and all their preparations worth it. When they finally left — and they were probably in no rush to do so — they were changed forever. St. Matthew uses the expression, “they went home by another route,” which the early saints interpreted as leaving different than they had come. They came in search of a king and they found him — and not just a king, but their Creator, their Lord, their God — and that changed everything.

4) On this great day, we not only recall who the wise men were and what they did. We look to them as examples, preserved for us in the Gospels, so that we, in imitating them, might become the wise men and women of our own day. The truth is that a star still burns. It’s the gentle flicker of the tabernacle lamp. It points to the presence of Christ. The same Jesus who was held in Mary’s arms and laid in a manger now becomes present in the priest’s hands and is later placed in the tabernacle. We don’t have to cross deserts on foot or camels to get to him. We don’t have to have to give up years to encounter him. But it is the same Jesus. Today, with the help of the example of the wise men, we need to look to how we prepare for this encounter with the same newborn king. We have to look at our desire and search for him. We need to look at what we give him when we come. We need to look at how we’re changed when we leave. For our encounter with him is even greater than the wise men’s: they encountered him only on the “outside” through their eyes. We encounter him on the inside through Holy Communion.

5) The U.S. Bishops in November gave all Catholics in the country — you included! — a beautiful, practical and clear document to help us to prepare for our encounter with the Lord with the same preparation, homage, and fruitfulness that the wise men did. It is entitled “Happy are Those Who Are Called To His Supper”: On Preparing to Receive the Lord Worthily in Holy Communion. I have included a copy of this six-page document in this weekend’s bulletin and on our parish website. I ask all of you to read it over the course of the next week, as your Epiphany gift to the Lord, knowing that if you give him your time and attention, you will always receive much more in return. If you’re a slow reader, it will take you only about an hour. If you’re a fast reader, I’d encourage you to slow down, so that it can sink from your head to your heart! But I ask you to block out an hour sometime in the next week to take it to your prayer and have it influence the way you prepare to meet Christ in the modern Bethlehem of his Church. This morning I would like briefly to highlight some of what the bishops say and apply it directly to the lessons we’ve learned from the Magi.

6) The first lesson of our preparation for our meeting Christ is that we have to search and hunger for God. The wise men searched the heavens, ready to leave their old ways behind and travel to another place. Our “remote preparation” for our encounter with Christ, the bishops write, should involve three elements:

a. To search the Scriptures and pray regularly — In prayer and in reading the Bible, the bishops say “we allow the Holy Spirit to work within us and so engender a love for Jesus and a desire to do the will of the Father in our lives.” Prayer and Scripture meditation help us to look for Christ and where to find him. The bishops in particular encourage us to follow the star of the tabernacle lamp and to pray and meditate Blessed Sacrament whenever possible.

b. To fulfill with faith and love the duties of our state in life — We are called to seek to Christ in the people we meet every day and to make all the occasions of our life encounters with Christ. While our responsibilities may vary, the bishops say, it is by “faithfully living out in our daily lives the call of the Gospel to love God and our neighbor — especially the poor and the vulnerable — that we grow in charity and so draw closer to Jesus and to one another.”

c. To repent daily for our sins and regularly receive the Sacrament of Penance — Like the wise men, we’re called to leave behind whatever keeps us from encountering the Lord, foremost among which is sin. Sin, the bishops tells us, “undermines and weakens our communion not only with the Blessed Trinity but also with one another.” The bishops call us, each night before we go to bed, to make an examination of our conscience and an act of genuine contrition. They encourage us frequently to go to confession, even when we are not conscious of having committed a mortal sin, because, they say, it will increase our hunger for and growth in holiness. Furthermore — and this is important, because there are many who are confused about this today — they state, “If we are conscious of having committed a mortal sin, we are obliged to confess it in the Sacrament of Penance with true sorrow and purpose of amendment before receiving Holy Communion.” If we are aware that we have committed a mortal sin, something that cuts off our communion with Christ, then we first must go to Christ working through the ministry of his priests in the confessional before we come to receive Christ in Holy Communion, working through the ministry of the same priests. For us to receive him who is “holy, holy, holy,” we cannot still be attached to serious sins. Out of love, to eliminate any possible confusion, the bishops then give a partial list of mortal sins to which people today are prone and for which they must be forgiven before a person comes for Holy Communion:

i. “Believing in or honoring as divine anyone or anything other than the God of the Scriptures” — Have we made someone or something else first in our lives instead of God?

ii. “Swearing a false oath while invoking God as a witness” — This is the worst type of lying, which is lying to God. It’s not uncommon. As I mentioned last week, it’s what many of our state legislators have done with respect to their sworn duty to uphold our Constitution.

iii. “Failing to worship God by missing Mass on Sundays and holy days of obligation without a serious reason, such as sickness or the absence of a priest” — This is a particularly important one to stress. If we voluntarily miss Mass one Sunday or on a holy day of obligation, the bishops remind us that before we can receive holy communion again, we need to receive his forgiveness, because by our choice, we put something more important than Him on the Lord’s day. To be very concrete, if you voluntarily choose to miss Mass, because you want to sleep late, or because you are at Disney world, or because you want to play sports, then you need to go to confession before you can come to Communion. Sometimes Catholics don’t see missing Mass as a mortal sin. They think that if they come to Mass two to three times a month, they’re in good stead with God. I always ask, “If you were unfaithful to your husband or to your wife (only) twice a month, would you still be faithful overall or not?” Our love and fidelity to God must be even greater our love and fidelity to our spouse. God’s the one who told us to keep his day holy. He’s the one who told us to do THIS in memory of him. Simply put, except for sickness, the absence of a priest or very dangerous weather, a faithful Catholic must have the intention and try to come to Mass every Sunday and Holy Day of Obligation. If we fail, we fail, and we should be humble enough to come to say we’re sorry, confess our sins in the way he established, be forgiven and returned to communion.

iv. “Acting in serious disobedience against proper authority; dishonoring one’s parents by neglecting them in their need and infirmity.” — This applies to all sons and daughters, no matter how young or old.

v. “Committing murder, including abortion and euthanasia; harboring deliberate hatred of others; sexually abusing another; physically or verbally abusing another that causes grave physical or psychological harm”

vi. “Engaging in sexual activity outside the bonds of a valid sacramental marriage” — This means sins with those of the opposite sex, same sex or alone. It also refers to “sexual activity” that is not really conjugal, meaning unitive and procreative.

vii. “Stealing in a gravely injurious way, such as robbery, burglary, serious fraud and immoral business practices.”

viii. “Speaking maliciously or slandering people in a way that seriously undermines their good name.”

ix. “Producing, marketing or indulging in pornography” — With the rise of the internet, this sin is quite common and needs to be confessed before one can go to Holy Communion.

x. “Engaging in envy that leads one to wish grave harm to someone else.”

xi. Publicly rejecting definitive Church teaching in such a way that it would scandalize others and tempts them toward evil. — This applies not just, for example, to Catholic politicians who support abortion or same-sex marriage, but also to all Catholics who in their personal or professional life knowingly and obstinately repudiate her definitive teaching on moral issues.

d. These are not the only mortal sins one could commit, but they are some that occur often today. If we have committed them, then we need to be humble out of love to come to ask the Lord’s forgiveness before we would ever try to receive Him in Holy Communion. Think for a minute if our lips were bloody, filled with pus or warts, or otherwise filthy or infected. We would never kiss someone we love in that situation because we love them. We’d wait until they were cleaned or healed. It’s the same way with the embrace of the Lord in the Eucharist. If our souls are unclean, we need to love him enough to let him clean them before we try to embrace him in Holy Communion. If we haven’t had a chance to go to confession before Mass, then we should remain in the pews and make an act of spiritual communion. Don’t worry what others will think. They know you’re not the sinless Virgin Mary and they know you’re not a serial killer! Your good example of love for the Lord and personal integrity may be exactly what they need to examine their consciences better before coming to receive the Lord.

7) Next the bishops turn to what they call “proximate preparation” for the encounter with the Lord, which would be like the preparation of the wise men as they were getting near to Bethlehem. Their hearts doubtless would have beating in anticipation. Our should too. The bishops call their fellow Catholics to three things:

a. Prayerful recollection before Mass — This involves:

i. Arriving at Mass on time or early, to prepare our minds and hearts for the liturgy.

ii. Maintaining a reverent silence as we enter, so that we and those around us are able to pray before Mass.

iii. Peaceful recollection, to eliminate distractions and allow ourselves to focus more easily on the great mystery of the Eucharist.

iv. Prayerful reading the Scripture selections before Mass begins so that we might be better soil to receive the seed of the Word of God.

b. The Eucharistic fast — They remind us that we are to refrain from food and drink (except for water and medication) for at least one hour prior to receiving Holy Communion. The fast helps us to hunger for Jesus in Holy Communion and shows reverence and respect for Jesus whom we’re about to receive. We shouldn’t receive Jesus, in other words, with a mouth filled with jelly or sugar from a morning donut. One of the benefits of being a parishioner of St. Anthony’s is that Fr. Blyskosz and I make the fast easy for you by the fact that we don’t rush in celebrating Mass; even if you ate fifteen minutes before Mass, you would still likely have fasted for an hour by the time for the reception of Holy Communion. But I’d like to ask you to try not to eat or drink anything before Mass unless you absolutely need to. In the olden days, people fasted from midnight until the time they received Holy Communion and it was never cited as a cause of death. It’s not at all bad to arrive at Mass hungry, because it may increase our desire for God. It will also cut down on other distractions during Mass — for you and for others — like needing to go to the bathroom, or needing to bring your kids to the bathroom.

c. Appropriate attire — The bishops say, “We should come to the sacred liturgy appropriately dressed, … wearing clothes that reflect our reverence for God and that manifest our respect for the dignity of the liturgy and for one another.” How we dress is a sign of how important we think something or someone is. There is something we need to recover about the old tradition of the “Sunday best.” If God is really God in our lives, he deserves our best, including our best clothes. If we have been brought up with class, we would always dress up to meet the President, or the Pope, or for a friend’s wedding, or for a job interview. If we would do that for them, would we do it for God? I have to say that parishioners here at St. Anthony’s are better than parishioners in many other local parishes in one respect on this score: even during the hottest days of summer in a Church without air conditioning, I seldom find people wearing shorts or tee-shirts, which we would never wear to an important event. That said, I must also add that even during the winter, few parishioners could be accused of wearing their best clothes — or even of dressing “up.” Few men wear suits, even men who wear suits to work during the week. Few women wear what they would if they were going out to a fine restaurant for dinner. It’s obvious that the Lord cares more about our hearts and souls than he does our clothes, but he does care about what we wear (see Mt 22:12!), because our clothes is an external sign of our reverence. I would encourage you to pray about what you wear on Sunday and to show your love for Christ above every other love by dressing up for him and giving him your best.

8 ) The bishops then turn to the “homage” paid to Christ during Mass. I’ll leave for you at home what they write, but I would like to call your attention to three things.

a. First, they call us fully to participate in the Mass, “with our whole hearts and minds and bodies.” That means to put love into our genuflections, to put love into how we listen to his word, how we sing, how we pray the Our Father, how we wish the sign of peace to our brother and sister. The Mass is not for spectators, but for participants, and they call us to full, active and conscious participation.

b. At the time that we come to receive Christ in Holy Communion, they call us to make a profound bow while the person in front of us is receiving Holy Communion. This is a sign of reverence, for us and for others, that we know that we are receiving not a piece of bread but Christ, the king of kings. I’d also add for those who receive Holy Communion on their hands, that they are supposed to make a throne with their hands, one on top of another in the form of a cross, to receive Christ the King.

c. They call us to make an act of Thanksgiving after receiving the Lord. We who are “called to His supper” are meant to be happy, joyful and grateful. After meeting the Lord, the Magi were “overjoyed.” Our joy and thanksgiving can take many forms. There are beautiful prayers, like Mary’s Magnificat or many written by the saints, that can be recited. You can make your own the words of the Communion Hymn and Meditation. You can simply inwardly, “thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you… Lord!” enough times until you are meaning it with your whole being.

9) If we’re well prepared for Mass, the Mass will change us. Like the wise men, we too will leave by a different route, glorifying and praising God. One practical tip I would encourage as you to do as you leave Mass is to reflect on what you’ve heard. As you’re in the car or walking home, talk about the readings and the homily with the members of your family. Pass on to others what the Holy Spirit whispered to you. Apply them more concretely to your lives. Water the seeds God tried plant in the soil of your heart during the Mass. Seek to keep Communion with the Lord you just encountered alive as you go about your other duties. Like the wise men must have done, tell others along the way that you have met the Lord and let them see in your joy the incarnation of the good news. The simple fact is that THE MASS IS CHRIST’S CONTINUAL EPIPHANY, but our contemporaries need “wise men” to show them where the star still burns and help and encourage them to make 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 and women,” the modern Melchiors, Balhasars, and Kaspars of our day and he will give us all the help he knows we need to fulfill this mission!

Welcome to Bethlehem!