Solemnity of the Epiphany of the Lord
January 6, 2019
Homily by Fr. John De Celles
St. Raymond of Peñafort Catholic Church
For the last few weeks–both in Advent and during the Christmas season–
almost all of the people we’ve encountered in the Scriptures at Mass
have been Jews living in Palestine
–and most of those of humble origin and state.
But today we find a radically different sort of people–Magi from the East:
extremely well-educated and wealthy,
and perhaps even priests in their own pagan religion.
Yet, the Scriptures tell us that when they arrive in Bethlehem
–after traveling hundreds of miles
and enduring great discomfort and suffering–
these great wise men “prostrate themselves and do homage”
to a tiny vulnerable peasant child.
And they offer Him gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.
And while these gifts are generous and full of meaning,
they are not the greatest gift given that day.
The greatest gift was not from the magi at all,
but from God to the magi, and to the whole Gentile world
–the gift of His Epiphany,
of God’s manifesting, or showing Himself to the world,
as the human baby Jesus.
Still, while today’s Gospel is principally a reminder
of God’s Epiphany to the Gentiles,
it also reminds us of Christ’s coming to His chosen people–the Jews.
On Tuesday, on the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God,
we read from St. Luke’s Gospel
about the Jewish shepherds
coming to adore the baby Jesus in Bethlehem.
But today St. Matthew also tells us about another Jew
discovering the birth of the Messiah–King Herod.
Herod is a Jew, but not by race
—he is not a descendant of Jacob who was called “Israel.”
His family was Idumæan, but his family converted to the Jewish religion
about 100 years before the birth of Christ.
So he was technically a Jew.
But how different this Jew reacts to news of the Messiah
than the way the Jewish shepherds react.
So caught up in his enjoyment of power and riches
allowed him by his Roman masters,
he hears of the birth of the messiah
and instead of immediately going to worship Him with the Magi
he sends them on alone, while he waits behind,
planning to kill the child.
Since the days of the apostles,
the Church has seen herself
as the fulfillment of the promises to Israel under the Old Covenant
–she views herself as the continuation of the chosen people
–the New Israel, the New Jerusalem,
under the New Covenant.
And in that sense, we can see those who do not believe in Christ
as sort of a “New Gentiles”
–those who are not members of God’s people.
The magi were Gentiles–but they were also the first to join the New Israel
— they became the first converts.
As a cradle Catholic, I’ve always been amazed and awed by converts,
especially those who come from among the New Gentiles
–especially the magi of our day
–who come to Christ not from birth
but by diligent search for the truth.
And of course, I’m also impressed by the cradle Catholics and other cradle Christians
who, like the shepherds, humbly accept the gift promised to their ancestors
and handed on to them as a rich inheritance.
But what about those of us cradle Catholics,
who act less like the shepherds, than they act like King Herod
–King Herod who was a member of the God’s people,
and yet treated the fulfillment of God’s great promise
as if it were news of the plague?
Now, many of us go back and forth
between being shepherds and being Herods.
And we live in a world that is more and more
like the world that the magi came from
than the world that the shepherds came from
–a world of Gentiles, or New Gentiles.
But still Christ remains the light of that world.
The prophesy of Isaiah is still true:
“Jerusalem! Your light has come,….See, darkness covers the earth,…
But upon you the Lord shines, …Nations shall walk by your light,
…Raise your eyes and look about;
they all gather and come to you.”
In the midst of a growth in the darkness
of non-Christian and even anti-Christian values and culture
–a culture that we Christians too often let effect
and even dominate our lives
–Christ is still the light that shines on us.
And if we look we will see millions of people
who are gathering to come to the light.
Like the Magi–the wise men following that bright star—
the light piercing the darkness
–everyday we encounter people who are searching for the truth,
for wisdom, for salvation, for the Savior—the Christ.
But when we meet them, do we meet them like the humble shepherds,
leading them as they led their sheep to the manger?
Or do we meet them as King Herod did?
When the magi came to him searching for Christ,
Herod sent them on alone to Bethlehem.
How many times do we have the opportunity
to lead someone who is looking for the fullness of the truth about Jesus
and we either send them on their way,
or allow them to go on searching without giving them anything
but the most cursory help?
Herod points to Bethlehem and says:
“When you have found him, bring me word…”
Herod should have led the way to Bethlehem!
And so should we, today!
But to do that–to assist the seeker of truth toward conversion–is difficult
because it involves a sacrifice of time and energy
–it involves an act of giving of ourselves.
Today’s Gospel tells us that the Magi gave gifts to the Baby Jesus,
and Tradition tells us that each of these gifts has a special meaning:
–the gold represented the kingly riches
that the new born King deserved.
–the frankincense represented the incense
which should be burned before Jesus as God,
symbolic of our prayers to Him.
–and the myrrh–a spice used in ancient times
for the preparation of the dead for burial–
tells us that Jesus the King and God
came into the world to suffer and die.
When Gaspar laid down his gold before Christ,
Herod should have been there to offer his gold crown to Christ,
and offer Him all the protection
that his worldly Kingship could provide,
instead of grasping after his power
in fear that the child would take it from him.
We too should offer Christ our gold
–the worldly gifts and talents and power he has given us
to help those who seek Him.
When Melchior offered his incense,
Herod should have offered to carry the Christ-child to the temple
to let Him sleep in the Holy of Holies
–his true Father’s home—
where incense and the prayer it symbolizes
could be offered to Him day and night.
We too should offer Christ our incense–our prayers–
–prayers of adoration
and prayers of intercession
for those who are struggling to find Him or accept Him.
When Balthazar laid down the myrrh,
Herod should have offered to suffer with Jesus,
to suffer the loss of Caesar’s respect
and die to all the power and comfort that it brought.
We too should offer Christ our suffering;
opening ourselves to the ridicule that often comes
–and which we so often fear–
when we share our faith in Christ and his Church with others.
Perhaps even opening ourselves to loss of friends,
and in some cases even employment
–Herod didn’t want to lose his friend Caesar,
or his cushy job as King of Judea.
We are Christ’s Church–his people on earth–the new Israel.
In Advent, we prepared for Christ’s coming to us
and during Christmas we celebrate that coming
–the dawn of the light that shatters the darkness.
But as the end of our celebration of this season approaches
we turn from our celebration of His coming to us,
and remember that He came not only to us, but to the whole world.
Today, we begin to focus on our vocation to assist Christ
in carrying His light to a world filled with so much darkness
–to those who don’t know Him at all,
and to those who know Him well, but incompletely.
So that as He manifests Himself to the world not simply as a star in the dark sky,
but as the Epiphany of His wondrous light that shatters the darkness,
let us offer Him our gold, all our worldly gifts;
let us offer Him our incense, our prayers rising up to Him;
and let us bring Him our myrrh, uniting our suffering to His suffering;
And so let us boldly proclaim His arrival to all we meet
–with prudence and charity,
but also with the clarity of the light,
and without concern for worldly pride, pleasure, or comfort.
And with the magi and the shepherds,
and with the entire Church,
“come let us adore Him,”
let us prostrate ourselves [before Him,] and do Him homage.