The Epiphany of the Lord January 6, 2010

Isaiah 60:1-6                                                                       

Ephesians 3:1-12                                                                

Matthew 2:1-12

[At Holy Cross Church, we celebrate major feasts that fall on weekdays with informal evening house Masses. A congregation of a dozen or so gathers at the vicarage. The celebrations are followed by potluck desserts.]

Increasingly these major feasts in the Church calendar – All Saints’, Ascension, the Epiphany – can be celebrated on the nearest Sunday. That’s true with the Epiphany now in the Roman Catholic Church in North America, the Anglican Church of Canada, even the Church of England. The Sunday celebration allows the whole congregation to share in what are important liturgies of the Christian faith. But keeping the celebrations on weekdays does have the advantage of reminding us that the Church moves to a deeper and more ancient rhythm that the commercialized, secular world around us. We have lost a lot of the richness of a world that was oriented around the cycle of feasts and fasts, holy days with their rituals and stories.

Sometimes I come up to a Mass like the one tonight and I wonder what I can possibly find to say – to say that is fresh and new for this congregation of faithful house Mass attendees, who have all heard my thoughts many times before. But then, praying with the readings, they begin to open up and reveal new depths of richness, new allusions and insights. And these major feasts also are so much more than the readings appointed for them. They gather up thematically all sorts of strands that interweave in the great matrix of the Catholic faith.

This one, the Epiphany of Our Lord, for instance: One of the things it celebrates is the truth that Jesus Christ is not Lord and Savior only of a parochial part of humanity or Creation – in Matthew’s perspective, the Jews. No, he is the King of the entire world, of all time and space and history. That is the significance, as you all know, of the Magi from the East – Gentiles, of course; Zoroastrians, the scholars tell us, who practiced a kind of religion of the natural elements, of earth and water, wind and fire, who were astrologers, scientists of the time – the significance of the star. Christ and the Gospel of Christ are not enemies of the natural world and true science, but complementary, completing our knowledge. Their truth is in some sense universal.

There is also what might be called the political theme in our celebration of the Epiphany. Christ is born the King of kings. Herod, the puppet king of Judea, does not really want to worship the newborn Child, we know; he wants to kill him, and will shortly murder a whole lot of Holy Innocents in his determination to do so. Christ is therefore above all political and civil allegiances (a reason I’m so dead-set against flags in worship spaces).

These themes of Epiphany are being played out in an effort in the Roman Church, that I became aware of as I was drawn into the conference at Villanova Law School last fall, to elucidate a new understanding of natural law. Natural law has been used (and many would say misused) in the past by the Church to condemn things like birth control and homosexuality. But this is a much more sophisticated philosophical enterprise, with Pope Benedict behind it, to try to find some bases on which people of all religions, and even people of none, might agree. Is there a natural law, for instance, that supports the dignity of every human person, including women and children? Is there a natural law that dictates respect for individual conscience? That makes the interest of the community equal to the interests of the individual? That sort of thing. If we could discern a pattern of natural law at this level, it might help us live together in peace and harmony in our global village.

This is not easy, we need to recognize. Christians – and here the Roman Church not least of all – have had a way of asserting the universalist claims of Christ to back their own particular understanding of Christianity, their own particular institutional authority. Christ may be King, his truth universal, but that does not mean that you or I or the Pope or the Archbishop of Canterbury or anyone else has a lock on who Christ is or how his truth is manifest in a particular time or place or culture. Perhaps we need to recognize in the story of the Magi that we are all of us seekers, pilgrims on a journey. Coming to worship and to surrender our treasures means that we must be open to receive, to learn, to let go of old certainties and grow into new possibilities. So there is this theme in the Epiphany as well.

Well, an impromptu homily at a weeknight house Mass is not the place to delve deeply into such questions. It is merely to point to the fact that these major feasts that we celebrate so simply are rich with light and truth, beacons on the round of the Christian year that lead us onward and steady our course to eschatological glory.

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