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,
Our contemporary, secularist society’s most central virtue is “openness” – and only so, as a general phrase. One ought to be “open”. Full stop. You hear it everywhere, in media of course, from politicians, in workplaces, but also among fellow Christians. A quite reasonable specification, as I see it, is to say that one should be open to good things and closed to bad. But I guess, that form of thinking is not considered as particularly “open”, assuming that there is good and bad, that everything is not relative. Because in fact, the ideology of general “openness” is often just another name for relativism.
On the area of faith, the unspecific, “open” attitude goes something like this: “Most important is to be ‘spiritual’; religions with faith dogmas often limit searching”. Or like this: “Basically, all different religions provide equal but different paths to the divine”. The meaning of life seems to be an endless seeking without finding any particular belief to be true, and thus also concrete and challenging. However, these and similar “open” reasonings are heavily rejected by the historical event recalled in today’s solemnity.
Of course, there are common features in different religions. Many things in the natural order around us, and mystics from different religions, can be vehicles for important spiritual insights, i.e. insights about the supernatural order of existence. Definitely.
But, there is no general or mixed spirituality where the seeker is addressed by the living and personal God. The “divinity” of “pure” spirituality either remains a distant and abstract force, without demands on us but therefore also without care; or finally becomes our own invention in order to confirm us in all our desires, actions and choices, only to produce some feelgood. But the meaning of existence hence becomes dependent upon our achievements, and limited by our deficiencies. When I am expected to save myself by an unending searching, I will end up lacking true hope.
Today’s gospel tells us about the Magi, Persian philosophers and priests, and their visit to the Holy family in Bethlehem, drawn by the star. Or, speaking with astronomical science: a super nova combined with a particular conjunction of the planets Jupiter, in Ancient Persian astrology symbolizing the Babylonian God-king, and Saturn, an astrological symbol for the Jewish people; a conjunction that actually did occur at the time of Jesus’s birth. Recollecting older pagan legends with mystical links to Jewish prophecies on the Messiah, one of which we heard in today’s first reading from the Prophet Isaiah, the Magi became convinced that the celestial phenomenon they had observed, really pointed at the appearance of a very special, Jewish king, whose reign would not only affect the Jews.
This whole event of the Epiphany sends two powerful messages to the whole world, at all times.
First this: Everything spiritual and religious, everything wise, seeking knowledge, with an existential quest, needs to be directed to Jesus Christ; God’s complete revelation of himself, and thus also of us and the aim of our existence. Through the star, the Infant Jesus – who also is the creator of the world and consequently Lord of all matter and all laws of nature, and fully informed about different prophetic traditions – moved the Magi to set out on a journey, and at their entering into the Holy land to seek for more knowledge from Jewish, Biblical revelation, in order to find the Messiah, God’s chosen liberator king of Israel and therethrough of the whole world. Jesus Christ, the Lord, is always in control.
This leads to the second powerful message: The faith of the people of Israel, in what we call the Old Covenant, was not one religion among many. It was the divine revelation; of the creator of the universe, the Lord of cosmos, who elected a people to prepare his entry into his own creation for the revelation to, and salvation of, all peoples, as described by St. Paul in today’s second reading from the Letter to the Ephesians. As we sang in our responsorial psalm: “All nations shall fall prostrate before you, O Lord”. Here is God’s key to the unity of mankind, how to overcome all our splits and divisions: Not by saying all religions are alike, but by becoming man and accessible to all, through Israel’s faith.
The ultimate self-revelation of Israel’s God in a little child as manifestation of his divine love, which both made and sustains the whole universe and passionately seeks us out as persons, each one of us, is a totally unique idea among all historic and present religions. It is God as no other religious system or idea knows or worships him: God comes to us, not as an idea, or a book, or a rule, or an avatar – but in a person in our physical world. Our seeking finally does not matter. We are being sought after, by a God who opens his own heart for us; who in human flesh will suffer and die so that death no longer can exercise fearful power over us. Our seeking must surrender. We must allow ourselves to be found!
Of course, the God who seeks and appeals to us, also has demands if we freely respond to him, because true love cares. Demands materialized in the teaching of the Catholic Church, by Christ himself authorized to speak on his behalf through her teaching office of St. Peter and the apostles, and their successors. Demands, that the God who loves and seeks us offers all the help we need in order to fulfil, through his presence in the seven sacraments of his Church, conferring supernatural grace that directs and strengthens our will. Just like he soon will repeat in and through the Holy Eucharist.
We heard in the gospel that the Magi took a different way home from Bethlehem. When you ponder the meaning of God’s self-giving revelation, celebrated in Christmas and especially highlighted today; when you in the holy sacrifice of the Mass, together with bread and wine, present yourself and your life as a sacrifice to the Father; and in Holy Communion receive divine, self-giving life to live in and through you – why not ask the Lord to show you how your way home from Bethlehem this Christmas will look like?