Fr. Roger J. Landry
St. Francis Xavier Church, Hyannis, MA
Epiphany of the Lord
January 2, 2005
Is 60:1-6; Eph3:2-3,5-6; Mt2:1-12
1) We celebrate today the Lord’s “Epiphany,” the Greek word for his “manifestation” to all the nations. In today’s Gospel, we see three different reactions to that manifestation — the reaction of Herod, the reaction of the chief priests and Biblical scholars around Herod, and the reaction of the wise men. Prayerful examination of their reactions will prepare us better to determine OUR reactions to Christ and his manifestation among us.
2) Herod responded with HATRED AND HOSTILITY to Christ’s appearance. Today’s Gospel tells us that when he heard from the wise men about the birth of someone they were calling “king of the Jews,” he was “deeply disturbed” and “frightened.” Under the pretense of wanting to pay Christ homage, he queried where that child would be born. His true plan, as we know, was to assassinate this little child. When the Magi failed to return to give him the location of the child, he, in a rage, sent out his henchmen, not to investigate whether the Messiah had been born or where he might be, but — in order to be safe — to KILL all the first born male children under two. He responded to Christ’s appearance by ordering a massacre.
3) Hostility to Christ did not die with Herod. There are still those who would try to destroy Jesus Christ, because they, like Herod, see him as a threat to their ideas, their power, their way of life. We see it, very readily for example, with the Chinese communist government, that has for now almost sixty years tried to extirpate true Christianity from the country, if Christians will not bow first to the state as a god. We see it in northern India, where fundamentalist Hindus attack and kill Christians, including obvious peace workers like Mother Teresa’s sisters. We see it in the Sudan, where the Muslim government of Khartoum bombs Catholic schools while they’re in session, and sends out assassins to attack Christians on their long walks to Church. We saw it in Germany with Hitler. We saw it in France with the Revolution. We saw it in Russia with Stalin. We saw it in Mexico during the 1920s. We saw it in Spain during the 1930s. We can go on. Today we are seeing that hostility in an up-to-now less homicidal form in the militant secularism that is sweeping western Europe and a sizeable minority of our nation. These are people who view the mere mention of Christ as a threat to society. They find the very word “Christ” oppressive. They do not want to allow any reference to Christ in our schools, in our courts, in our culture. So they sue to get crèches off city property. They instruct their employees not to wish anyone a Merry Christmas. They send kids home from school because they dress like Santa Claus.
4) But sometimes even Catholics who come to Church regularly can react with hostility to Christ under various disguises. To understand this, we should reflect a little bit more on what happened to Herod. He wasn’t always a tyrant and a murderer. When he acceded to the throne, he had the reputation for being a pious, observant Jew. His great desire — which lasted his entire reign — was to rebuild the temple of Jerusalem, which he did with such munificence that the Jews used to say that you hadn’t seen real beauty until you had seen the Second Temple. Once, during a famine, he melted down some of his gold to feed his starving countrymen. What happened? Little by little he started to compromise with the moral law in order to do what he wanted rather than God wanted. He started to look on his temporal kingdom as the treasure worth sacrificing everything to maintain, rather than on God and his commandments as the true treasure. He stopped going up to pray at the temple he had built. He surrounded himself with concubines and started to live in a debauched way. The mothers of his various children then started to conspire against each other so that the children they conceived from Herod would reign after him, and Herod’s family situation spiraled out of control. Most of all, he became so concerned about his being in control of everything and everyone that it led him to great atrocities. He killed three of his own sons. He had his wife Mariamne executed. At the end of his life, because he knew that people would celebrate rather than mourn his death, he had his advisors prepare a list of the most beloved people in and around Jerusalem. He had them rounded up and put into a hippodrome. And he gave orders that as he breathed his last, every one of them should be slain. He wanted to control others’ emotions so much that he determined that if people were not going to cry BECAUSE OF his death, they would at least cry AT HIS DEATH. Little by little, by his actions, Herod had been transformed from a religious man, to an observer only on the outside, to not much of an observer at all, to a hedonist and egomaniac, to a mass murderer.
5) His example shows the pattern for even some Catholics to become hostile to Christ’s presence. It normally always starts with little sins, that prepare one over time to commit awful sins of which one would never have thought himself or herself capable. We can see this with regard to one modern instantiation of an Herodian slaughter of the innocents: abortion. In the past few days, all of us have lamented the terrible loss of life due to last week’s Tsunami. Over 100,000 people are estimated to have perished. But in America, over 100,000 unborn children die every month. One dies every 23 seconds. The aftershocks of the moral earthquake of Roe v. Wade continues to destroy one out of every three children conceived. We have to ask ourselves: How could a mother ever choose to abort her own flesh and blood? It’s often because of a string of previous, sinful choices that prepare a woman to allow her own offspring to be “off-ed” by a doctor-gone-bad. Those other sins make her “deeply disturbed” and “frightened” by the appearance of the child, much like Herod was. Women who are dealing with the pain of post-abortion trauma often cite that the history of their choice for abortion began with a fear of losing control over one’s life if the child were to be born. Others add that it began with the sin of sex outside of marriage and an irresponsible lifestyle. Some married women state that it began with the sin of contraception in marriage, in which the couple was already saying “no” to the child in the very act made by God to say “yes” to the possibility of a child. Others attest that they felt pressured by the sinful patterns of others: by husbands or boyfriends who were so selfish that they’d rather have their child killed than have to spend a penny or any effort raising the child; by their parents who worshipped the “family name” more than God and hence would rather see their grandchild’s life ended rather than suffer any shame. Since every child is created in God’s image and likewise, with a soul infused directly by God, whatever we do to these least ones, we do to Christ himself (Mt 25:31-46) — and therefore abortion is one of the greatest manifestations of hostility to Christ and to his message. We cannot pretend, either, that this is not a problem for Catholics. The two states with the highest per capita abortion rates — Rhode Island and Massachusetts — are also the two states with the highest percentage of Catholics. Despite their Catholic majorities, they have two of the most pro-abortion congressional delegations in the nation’s capital. And any priest who preached on the subject of abortion with regard to the presidential election a couple of months ago — as the priests in this parish did — will tell you, by the volume of angry calls and letters they received, that there are still Catholics in their parishes who are in favor of allowing a woman to do to her own children what Herod had done in Bethlehem.
6) The second reaction to Christ’s manifestation in the flesh was that of the chief priests and biblical scholars who were Herod’s advisors. They responded not with hatred and hostility but with INDIFFERENCE. These advisors’ whole lives were spent in and around the temple, offering sacrifices of prayer to God, pouring themselves into God’s revelation in the sacred books. Doubtless most of them at least had once had real fire for God. But eventually they grew habituated to what they were doing, eventually their appetites became satiated such that they had no real hunger left. When the Magi came from afar and suggested that the Messiah may have already been born, their reaction was, essentially, to yawn. They knew about God — and they share their scriptural interpretation — but they had no real desire to come to know Him personally through his Christ. Even though the walk between Jerusalem and Bethlehem was just six miles, down-hill, they didn’t budge. Their life was already full. They knew enough to think they they knew it all. They had “some room” for God, but no room for God to surprise them, to change them.
7) There are many who still today respond to Christ with indifference. They may, once, have responded to him with great zeal when they were younger, but right now, they are for the most part the stubborn soil Jesus describes in the parable of the sower and the seed: the Word of God, and the Word-of-God-made-Flesh, cannot really penetrate to change them (Lk 8:5ff). They are indifferent because their contact with God NEVER MAKES THEM DIFFERENT. An indication of this type of indifference to Christ would be if we really are no different interiorly now than we were two weeks ago before the celebration of Christmas. Has the celebration of Christ’s birth brought about any real change in us? In our parish as a whole, if it did, the pews at every Mass would be packed like they were at Christmas. Another very tangible indication for us would be how we have responded to Christ’s vicar’s call to live an intensely Eucharistic year. Has this year of grace in which the whole Church focuses anew on the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist made any impact at all on our lives, or are we still doing the same thing we did last year at this time? I often like to ask that if we knew Christ were now in the manger in Bethlehem, would we go to Bethlehem or would we make an excuse about why we “can’t” go? If we would not be indifferent to his being in Bethlehem, then we should not be indifferent to his real presence in the Eucharist and should come to visit him in Eucharistic adoration and receive him at Mass as often as we can — even every day.
8 ) The third reaction was that of the wise men. They were searchers for God, hungry for his presence. They had not been blessed by God’s written revelation as the Jews had been. All they had was what God revealed through nature and a few pagan prophecies that one day a universal king would come from Jerusalem, with his birth preceded by a sign in the heavens. When they discovered a star behaving strangely, they interpreted it as the fulfillment of that prophecy. So they prepared for a journey across the desert, one that, including their preparation, would have taken, one-way, about 18-24 months. (That is the reason why Herod killed every child under 2). They left their lives as they knew them behind. Doubtless many of their friends and acquaintances would have deemed them anything but wise for making such a journey. They, more likely, would have been considered out of their minds for going so far on the basis of their questionable astrological interpretation. Yet off they went. That they went first to Jerusalem is logical, because the distance between Jerusalem and Bethlehem is so short and as they were journeying they doubtless thought that the star for the newborn king of the Jews would rest over Jerusalem where the present king of the Jews resided. But after Herod’s advisors told them, on the basis of Micah’s prophecy (Mic 5:2), that “the ruler who is to shepherd [God’s] people Israel” would come from Bethlehem, they headed the last leg of their journey down hill. They might have expected the new king to be born in a palace, lying with royal purple in an expensive crib, but when they found him in an ancient animal trough within a cave used as a stable, they didn’t think they had the wrong address. They humbly dropped to their knees and paid homage.
9) What is most distinctive about the wise men’s reaction, however, is not that they were so hungry for God that they went such great lengths — on such weak indications — to search for him. What is most illustrative is that when they arrived, when they found him, they opened up their coffers and gave him the best they had. The reaction of the wise men was one of ADORING LOVE. So often we can think that we love God by the mere fact that we don’t hate him, that we’re not hostile to him like Herod, that we have good “feelings” toward him. It’s easy, after all, to have warm feelings toward one who loves us so much. But real love — as Jesus himself showed us — is not a feeling, but an action, or, better, a habit of action. Love is always shown in deeds. And these wise men showed their love for God by their actions, from the first appearance of the star to the epiphany of the Messiah pointed out by that star. They came to the king not to get something from him, but to give something to him. They were elated because they had the privilege to adore him, and their adoration was shown to be true by the fact that this new born king was worth their best material gifts, as well as what would have been several years of their lives.
10) We can ask ourselves what gifts have we prepared to give Christ this Epiphany. What sacrifices have we made, or are we willing make, to show him our love in deeds? What gifts would he want? Today none of us has brought gold fit for a king, but the Lord would gladly accepted lives gilded with holiness. We have not come with frankincense fit for a priest, but the Lord would happily accept a commitment to have our hearts “rise up to him like incense” in prayer. We have not come with myrrh fit to anoint someone for burial, but the Lord would gladly accept our dying-to-ourselves and to our vices so that he might right again. The Lord wants whatever part of us he does not yet have.
11) There were three reactions to the first Epiphany of the Lord — hatred and hostility, indifference, and concrete, hungering, adventurous love — and there are those same reactions to his perpetual presence. That is why the Lord’ epiphany is always simultaneously OUR EPIPHANY, because our reaction to his manifestation manifests, in turn, who we really are in relationship to him. Our reaction to Him this Christmas season is like a spiritual mirror in which we see the reflection of Herod, or of his advisors, or of those people tradition has always called wise. If we find that our reaction has not been what would most please the Lord, there’s still time for us to enkindle that hunger, to make the journey from where we are to where he is and wants us to be, to drop to our knees in adoration, and to give him all we are and all that he has given us. The star indicating Christ’s presence still burns on top of the confessionals. The star still burns in the tabernacle lamp.
12) The last line of today’s Gospel is often overlooked, but it is the most fitting way to end our reflection. It tells us that the wise men, having been instructed by the angel, departed for home by another route. They left changed. As we come to this modern Bethlehem, to adore and receive the same Christ the wise men adored in the city of David — in His perpetual epiphany! — may we leave wiser men and wiser women, “by another way,” changed by Christ forever.