Father THOMAS IDERGARD SJ
Homily for the Epiphany of the Lord
Isaiha 60:1-6; Ps 72; Ephesians 3:2-3, 5-6; Matthew 2:1-12
St. Eugenia Catholic Church, Stockholm (English Mass)
Dear sisters and brothers in Christ,
“Who is Jesus Christ to you?” I think most of you have heard that question and hopefully also posed it to yourselves. It is an important question for a Christian. But it cannot be answered unless we first get the answer right to another, almost similar, although different question: “Who is Jesus Christ? Full stop.” Because unfortunately that is not clear within all of Christianity. Like the wise men from the east in today’s gospel, we therefore have to approach the infant in the manger in Bethlehem. Why is it that we 2000 years later still relate to him and his birth?
One answer was recently given in Swedish public television. In the annual Lucia broadcast, it was said that we celebrate this baby boy because he grew up and did and said “good stuff”. Now we know many children throughout history who as adults have said and done “good stuff”. But not one single of them is celebrated with a particular solemnity thousands of years later. Therefore, it is not a sufficient answer to our question about this particular baby boy that he said and did “good stuff”.
Only some years younger, the Catholic Church is of the same age. She will be founded by the infant as grown up. No human organisation, no order in the world, has remained, unchanged in core and visible signs for as long. Because she, the Church, although populated by humans, has no human origin. And neither has the baby boy.
The faith of the Church, our faith, is that the infant in the manger who grows up as Jesus of Nazareth is the Son in the Most Blessed Trinity; God’s own Word, that analogously to how our words express us, fully expresses who God the Father is and what he wants. And the Son is eternal, proceeds from the Father before all ages and is God in the same sense as the Father, “consubstantial” as the Creed expresses it. At a specified point in time he was born as a man of Virgin Mary. In order to save us from humanity’s self-chosen God-absence, Jesus must be divine. And in order to go through death so that God can face and conquer it, he must be human.
The faith of the Church, our faith, is also that this Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah; the fulfilment of God’s promise in his covenant with the people of Israel. In our first reading from the prophet Isaiah, 500 years B.C., we heard a prediction about a divine light drawing all peoples to itself. This prophecy was known also in non-Jewish circles, and the Magi, a group of Persian philosophers and astrologers, linked a sudden phenomenon in the sky to it: a super nova combined with a particular planet conjunction, confirmed by contemporary astronomy as occurring around the time of Jesus’s birth, telling them that the light was a Jewish king. A king they sensed also belonged to them.
We here have the heart of Biblical revelation: of all nations, God chose to make of Israel a beacon to the world, to draw all to God. So yes, the king is born of the Jews, but will not be for the Jews alone. As we heard in the second reading from the Letter to the Ephesians, and affirmed in our responsorial psalm, the king will gather all peoples and nations through faith, in a new covenant and a new Israel – the Church.
Accordingly, it is not up to every person or every era to decide who the baby boy in the manger is. The question posed to us by Epiphany, revealing the God of Israel as the one and true God for all, is if we want to believe in him as he is, i.e. as the Church, on his direct command, believes and proclaims throughout the ages? Our choice is truly digital: to go with him, through life’s trials and particularly with the crosses of our temporal sacrifices for the truth, to eternal life with God; or not to go with him, and thus lose out on eternal life. There is no compromise, no third way.
No human can demand such a choice of us. Only God, who created us, sustains us in being and is our ultimate goal, can; and finally does, when he becomes part of the matter, in which we exist, to offer us the bridge to himself. And thus, every effort to play down Christ’s divinity threatens salvation. Unfortunately, we regularly hear “Christian” representatives publicly questioning Christ’s virgin birth, miracles or resurrection, turning them into mere “symbols” for something (“good stuff” perhaps?). The very latest trend is to talk about Jesus as “queer” or with the word “hen” in Swedish, a non-natural, politically constructed word to signify a person as an “it”. This all in a way goes a step further, turning also Jesus’s humanity into nothing; something fluid, invented.
Beginning with the infant in the manger, God presents us with himself and thus adds to the world something that otherwise doesn’t exist in the world, in nature, in history or inside of each one of us; something not possible for us to create, not accessible through our efforts: grace, i.e. part of divine, eternal life, beginning here and now and fulfilled in the glory of the bodily resurrection. No one else than Jesus Christ, born in a manger, no one before or after him, can give that to us.
This is what we experience in the seven sacraments of the Church, where material elements, divinely chosen and established by Christ himself and thus not at our disposal, carry divine life, into our perishable matter, where it needs our cooperation to manifest itself, in us and through us. Questioning or obscuring the true divinity and/or the true humanity of Christ, made manifest in his birth, life, teaching, miracles, death and resurrection, ultimately questions that God makes himself and his eternal life accessible. By removing God from the calculation, we turn ourselves into gods. First it perhaps feels cool, but eventually it kills every hope and gives the final word to our limitations.
When we instead, with the Magi, fall to our knees and make homage to Jesus as our Lord and God, understanding and professing who he truly is, we then can ask the question: “What do you, Lord want me to do for you?” Because that is ultimately to ask who Jesus Christ is to me, and what he wants from me, i.e. how he wants to be visible and share divine life through me. That is to ask about my way, from contemplating and acknowledging the mystery in Bethlehem, and out into the world. Amen.