Father THOMAS IDERGARD SJ
Homily for the Epiphany of the Lord
Isaiah 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,
The Venerable Fulton Sheen, American Archbishop and Catholic TV preacher in the 1960s and 70s, once noted that according to the gospel accounts of the birth of Jesus Christ “only two classes of people found their way to Christ when he came to this earth: the very simple, and the very learned – the shepherds who knew that they knew nothing, and the wise men who knew that the did not know everything” but “never the man who thought that he knew”.
This is a first spiritual lesson from Epiphany: humility is a precondition for seeing how and when God acts. But what is humility? Unfortunately, also among Christians, “humility” is too often mistaken for not being sure about the truth, although our Lord Jesus so clearly states that he is the Truth. As our Lord also claims to be role model for humility, “humility” cannot have anything to do with uncertainty about the truth. Such uncertainty can instead open for relativism. “Humility” instead acknowledges the Truth, but with the insight that I do not invent it myself. For a Catholic, humility therefore starts by acknowledging the full faith and teaching of the Catholic Church, and that the common, 2000 years-Church tradition covers a much greater knowledge and understanding than I do on my own. To pick and choose teachings that my individual ability agrees on, or to openly manifest divergent opinions on Church teachings and practices, e.g. on morals or sacraments, is the very opposite to humility. And thus, seriously threatens the ability to see how God acts, as “me, myself and I” stand in the way.
A second spiritual lesson can be drawn from the fact that the Magi, a group of most probably Persian philosophers and astrologers, moved, acted, once they saw the astronomical phenomenon reminding of a star. Despite the length and probably inconvenience of the journey. We often know what God wants us to do, not least because the Catholic Church gives clear directions, holiness and its features, to reach by using our freedom to order things in our lives accordingly. But quite often we do not act, out of fear, laziness or the influence of bad habits. The Magi, however, urge us to move.
This is very different from the modern appreciation of “seeking” experiences of “the spiritual” to add interior feelgood in a hectic life. The core of Epiphany and a unique feature of the Christian faith, is the truth that God, the pure existence itself, the primary cause of all, the personal creator and sustainer of the universe – and notsomething indefinitely “spiritual”! – seeks, reaches out for, calls us. The baby boy in the manger is God’s ultimate and final way to seek and find us: by assuming a human body and soul.
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, like the wise men of the East. They therefore linked the observed, new star to it, in which they interpreted symbols of a Jewish king, who they as non-Jews felt connected to. Here is indeed the heart of Biblical revelation: Of all nations, God elected Israel to become a beacon to the world, to finally 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.
After having sought and found us in this way, God wants our response of free will. God wants us to act. To believe in him as he is, i.e. as the Church, on his direct command, believes and proclaims, from the eye witnesses and throughout the ages. God wants us to trust in him and what he is doing, and to choose to go with him through life’s trials, particularly with the crosses of our temporal sacrifices for the truth, to eternal life with him. When the answer is so clearly given and we have been found by God, a life dedicated to a constant seeking among general spiritualities, is a dangerous waste of time. Do what you can to help people around you out of that!
When the Magi arrived in Bethlehem, they did the child Jesus homage and gave him gifts, because he had invited them to come to him through the star. Here is a third spiritual lesson of Epiphany, making concrete the call to move and act: Christ invites us too to come to him, every day if we want, and particularly, when there is not a pandemic obstructing, every Sunday, in the Holy Eucharist. As our answer, we should break open the very best of ourselves and make it a gift for Christ, i.e. to something that can be used for spreading and anchoring God’s kingdom in our world.
In the Gospel narrative we also heard how the tyrannical king Herod tried to use the wise men to come at and kill the baby boy. This teaches us a fourth spiritual lesson: when we want to walk God’s path for us, on Christ’s example, explained by his Church, we must expect opposition. From within ourselves and the voice of original sin always speaking there. And from outside, e.g. when secularism labels every expression of Christian faith and morals as “offensive” or against “diversity”. Like the Swedish Public Service TV did on New Year’s Eve, viz. manipulating the annually performed 19th century poem “Ring Out, Wild Bells” by removing a reference to “the Messiah”. Opposition of any kind must never stop us proclaiming Christ. Finally, fierce opposition can be our call to martyrdom in the sense of losing not life, but honour and popularity for Christ. So be it, our reward in heaven will be far greater than the loss.
We finally heard how the wise men returned home by another route. And once again to quote the Venerable Fulton Sheen: “of course they did; for no one comes to Christ and goes back the same way he came!”.
So, dear sisters and brothers, ponder the meaning of God’s self-giving revelation, celebrated in Christmas and highlighted today, out of these four spiritual lessons: cultivate your humility in, and vis-à-vis, the Church to be more able to understand God’s actions; move and act yourself in response; give the best and most precious of yourself to the service of God’s kingdom; and do not let opposition stop you on the way. In contemplating how the God of Israel, the one and true God for all, comes to us to make us partakers of his divine, eternal life so that it can be shared through us; why not asking yourself what your new route looks like, by which you will travel in your life of faith through the year 2021. Amen.