Sunday January 6, 2002 Homily by Fr. Robert Altier Epiphany
Reading I (Isaiah 60:1-6) Reading II (Ephesians 3:2-3a, 5-6)
Gospel (St. Matthew 2:1-12)
Today we celebrate one of the greatest feasts in all of the Church year. In ancient days, this was certainly one of the highest feast days; it has sort of lost some of the solemnity in the way that modern people think about this feast. But in the Church's way of thinking, today is one of the greatest feasts. Traditionally, there were actually three mysteries that were celebrated today: not only the coming of the three kings, but also the Baptism of the Lord and the Miracle at Cana. That was because these were the three primary manifestations of the Lord. Next week, of course, we will celebrate the Baptism of the Lord; the Church has now separated that out.
But the word epiphany means a "manifestation". And so the Lord was manifested to the Gentiles. The word Gentiles, remember, means "nations"; it meant anybody who was not Jewish. Anyone from all of the other nations around Israel was considered a Gentile. And so today there is the celebration of the manifestation of the Birth of Christ to the nations, to the non-Jewish people. We see the three kings coming to the Lord to be able to worship Him, to do Him homage.
Then, also, they traditionally celebrated the Baptism of the Lord because at the moment the Lord was baptized, the heavens opened and the Holy Spirit descended upon Him. Saint John the Baptist, then, was able to make known to all the peoples that this is the One of whom the Lord had spoken: that when he would see the Holy Spirit descend upon someone in the form of a dove, it is He who would baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire.
Then there was also the celebration of the first miracle of our Lord at the wedding feast of Cana. Saint John makes very clear in his Gospel that it was then that the apostles believed, that the Lord had manifested Himself in this way for the first time publicly and His apostles came to believe in Him.
And so it is these things we celebrate today: the manifestation of Jesus Christ, the manifestation of the love of God, the manifestation of the mercy of God to the world. It was no longer only to His chosen people, but it was to all people because God is the Father of all. And like any father, He is concerned for all of His children. He had chosen the people of Israel to manifest His love and His mercy to the whole world, but they had failed in that attempt. So God chose a different way. It was from His people, from the people of Israel, that He has raised up a Savior, as He promised He would do. And it was from the people of Israel, from the tribe of Judah in particularly - and more specifically, even, from the line of David - that He has raised up One who is a King, One who is a Prophet, One who is a Priest, One who is the Savior of the world. It is from Him, now, that there is this manifestation.
As we celebrated the feast of the Birth of Our Lord a week and a half ago, we saw that the initial manifestation was indeed to the people of Israel, but it was also to the shepherds. The shepherds came to Bethlehem and they saw what the angels had spoken of. It is interesting, when you consider what the Lord had done in appearing to the shepherds, that He had appeared to the lowliest of all of the people. The shepherds were the least in the hierarchy of the peoples of the ancient world. They were considered the lowliest. Yet when these lowly ones came in all of their humility, they found a King. But beyond that, the shepherds found a Lamb. The shepherds found the Lamb of God who was to take away the sins of the world. But they also found their Shepherd, the Good Shepherd, who would lead them to the fullness of God, to the fullness of truth, who would lead them to salvation and to freedom for their souls.
Now we see also the way that God revealed His mystery to the nations: that through the guidance of a star, He brings three kings to the worship of His Son. And when these three kings come, they find a King. But they also find One who is the lowliest: a little baby in a manger. They find One, then, who is the Shepherd and who is the Lamb, all at the same time.
We see God, then, bringing people of both extremes: bringing representatives of the Chosen People in the person of the shepherds, and bringing representatives of all the nations in the three magi. But we see God also bringing the lowliest in bringing the shepherds, and the exalted ones, the great ones of the world, in bringing the kings.
Yet, even in the midst of this, we see that the great ones within Israel did not have faith, and the common people of Israel did not have faith. So among the Chosen People, we see that only the lowliest, only the humble had faith in Christ. We see that from the very beginning because God chose the most humble of all human beings to be the mother of Christ and to be the first one to have this mystery revealed to her. The second one to have the mystery revealed was also among the most humble of the earth, and that was Saint Joseph. From the Chosen People, God could choose only a couple of them. It was similar to when Our Lord went to His own town of Nazareth and could only work a few miracles by healing a couple of people - but nothing more - because of their lack of faith.
The Chosen People thought they already had the light, but indeed they walked in darkness. As Isaiah told us in the first reading: "Darkness covers the earth and thick clouds cover the people." The darkness was covering not only the Gentiles, so that they would not understand the mystery that God would reveal to the world, but the Chosen People as well. So much did they completely miss the revelation of God, that when the Three Wise Men came to Jerusalem in search of the King, not only did Herod's heart tremble, but Matthew tells us that the hearts of all of Jerusalem trembled as well. They were troubled by the fact that a Savior was born. Rather than rejoicing and desiring to seek Him out, they were afraid because they recognized that their way of life would change.
Herod was terrified because his kingdom, he believed, was about to come to an end. If Herod had done what he said he would do, and that is to come and worship the Child, he too would be set free; he would truly become a priest, prophet, and the true king; he would have eternal life; he would have the freedom to be the king that he really desired to be. But because of his selfishness and his desire for power and kingship the way that he defined it in the worldly way, he wanted instead to destroy the Child.
And among the common people of the Chosen People of Israel, we also see that lack of faith. They wanted simply to continue to live their life the way that they had known it. If a king was going to be born into the world while they were under Roman occupation, what would happen? After all, there were the Zealots who were saying that a Messiah was going to be raised up who would banish the Romans, who would destroy the tyranny of these foreign peoples, of these Gentiles, of these people who were unclean that were in the Holy Land. What was that going to do to their land, if suddenly someone was raised up who would cause all kinds of strife and would cause the Romans to rise up against them? And so they wanted this king to be removed. It was because of their lack of faith that 70 years later the very thing they had feared indeed happened: the Romans destroyed their temple and they destroyed Jerusalem because the Zealots wanted to war against them. They rejected the Messiah who would indeed bring peace and they chose instead a worldly way, rather than a spiritual way, and it ended up in the destruction of the holy city.
But the destruction of the holy city was necessary because God had raised up a new people, a new Israel, a new holy city, a new temple. He had brought a new kind of worship, and so He put to an end the old form of worship because now all peoples were to worship His Son. They were to offer a different kind of sacrifice: no longer the lambs that they offered in the temple, but now it was indeed The Lamb who was to be offered no longer slaughtered in a bloody sacrifice, but now in an unbloody sacrifice; worshiped not only by the people of Israel, but by the people of the New Israel, those who were incorporated into His Son, those who now had the light of faith. That is the light that these three kings saw.
We do not know how it was that God worked. The astronomers can talk about how there was a convergence of planets that took place right around the time of the Birth of Our Lord, and three planets lined up so that there was a very brilliant star that was in the sky. But we do not know if that is, in fact, the way it happened because in the Gospel reading we heard today, we heard that suddenly the star appeared again and led them to Bethlehem and stopped right over the house where the Child was. So the timing, in fact seems to be that perhaps the star first appeared to these three wise men who came from completely different countries: one from the area of China, one probably from the North, and one from Africa. They came to worship the Child.
But one would wonder why only these three recognized the sign and came to Jerusalem. Perhaps God had revealed this star only to the three of them so that they would be able to go back to their countries and proclaim the Gospel, to proclaim what they had seen. Just as when Jesus went into pagan territory 30 years later and healed the demoniac who was infested by a legion of demons, the man wanted to come with Jesus and the Lord told him, unlike anyone else that He told in the Gospels when He healed them - He told everyone else to be silent - to go back into the pagan territory and preach the Gospel. That is exactly what these three wise men were to do: to go back to their own countries and tell people of the Messiah, to lay the foundation so that when Saint Paul and the other apostles would go into the pagan territories [the people] would have already been prepared in their hearts and in their minds for the revelation of the mystery of which Saint Paul speaks in the second reading.
Many, many times in the letters of Saint Paul he refers to the mystery. But, in fact, it is a mystery what the "mystery" is because he never says - except in one spot. And that is where we hear in the second reading today from his Letter to the Ephesians when he tells us that the mystery is that the Gentiles are now coheirs with the Jews, that they too have been brought into this mystery of the Son of God, that they are coheirs, that they will inherit the same inheritance as the Jewish people. This is the fulfillment of what had been spoken through the prophets of old. But the people of Israel had not understood; they had completely missed it. But that is exactly what Saint Paul tells us: that this was a mystery which was hidden from ages past, but had now been revealed to him. It had not been revealed to anyone previously. Although the prophets had told of what this mystery was, even the prophets did not really understand it. They simply spoke on God's behalf, saying, "This is what will happen in the future." But what it meant, they did not understand.
Now it had been revealed. It was indeed the light of faith, just as this light shone in the darkness for these three kings when they came into the darkness of Israel - the darkness meaning a pagan ruler; the darkness meaning the darkness of the hearts of the people who did not want a Messiah, who did not want things to be changed; the darkness even of the great ones of Israel, not meaning only Herod, but all of the chief priests whom Herod had gathered to ask where the Messiah was to be born. You would think that these people who knew the prophecies and indeed were able to tell them that the prophet Micah had said He was going to be born in Bethlehem of Judea. This was the town of David, but this prophet had lived some 700 years after David, so he was not prophesying that a king would be raised up and that would be David, but that someone in David's line was going to be born in the same town where David was born. He would indeed be the son of David; He would be the fulfillment of the prophecy that was made to David that one of his sons would reign forever upon his throne. They knew the time because they knew the prophecies of Jeremiah: that after 70 weeks of years the people would be freed. They were awaiting the Messiah; that is why they sent word to John the Baptist asking if he was the Messiah. It is why they thought that maybe some of these various individuals whom we read about in the Acts of the Apostles might be the Messiah, and indeed proved not to be; they knew that because it was the time. But here the people who knew the prophecies, the people who were to be the priests and the king, they failed to shepherd the people because they refused to believe. They indeed dwelled in darkness and in gloom, as the prophet Isaiah said.
But the high priest recognized that if indeed the King, the Messiah had been born, they would have lost their positions because a new High Priest was raised up, One who would be a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek. He would do away with the priesthood according to the order of Aaron, and what would they do now? They had little faith that God would raise them to a new kind of priesthood so they stuck with what they knew because they did not want to change. They were afraid of what it might be and so their hearts trembled at the news that the Messiah was born.
Then we need to ask about ourselves because this light has been revealed to each one of us. Indeed, on the day of our baptism, a candle was given to our godfather with a beautiful prayer talking about faith and that this was the light that would lead us through the darkness of this world into the glory of eternity. We need to ask ourselves, "Are we willing, like the three wise men were when they saw the star and recognized what it meant, to leave our present earthly kingdom in order to follow the Lord? Are we willing to change whatever is in our lives that keeps us dwelling in the darkness - the areas where we think we have control so we do not want God to tell us how we are to live our lives because it will mean that we will have to change?
Each one of us is a priest, a prophet, and a king. We see the priests in the Gospel reading; we see king Herod in the Gospel reading; we heard in Saint Paul about the prophets and they did not understand either, even though they prophesied what was to happen as we celebrate it this day. Do we want to live it as they did and remain in the darkness and try to tell God how we are to live our lives rather than allowing God to tell us how we are to do it? Are we going to snuff out that light of faith that shines like that brilliant star within each one of us, the light that Jesus has enkindled within each one of us and that He wants burning brightly? Or are we to do exactly what He told us not to do and take that light which He has enkindled within us and put it under a bushel basket so that it does not shine in our hearts or for anyone else? - That we choose the darkness because the light hurts the eyes when we walk out of the darkness into the bright sunlight? -That we choose the darkness because it means we can stay in our sins and we do not have to make any changes in our lives? - That we choose the darkness because it means that our little kingdom which we have chosen for ourselves has come to an end and a kingdom of light is going to replace it? - That, like Herod, we want to hang onto what we think is power rather than choosing what is true power. - That we want to hang onto the false freedom, the freedom to sin, rather than the freedom of the sons of God that has been revealed to us? - That we want to hang onto the false hope rather than hanging on to the fulfillment of our hope? Do we want to be like that? Do our hearts tremble as we hear about the King who is born for us, the Prophet who has come into the world to teach us the truth, the Priest who has come to offer Himself as the sacrifice for the salvation of our souls?
Or are we like the three wise men who saw the star at its rising and immediately set out from three completely divergent parts of the earth to come into a certain kind of convergence on Bethlehem to be able to recognize the true Light of the world? They knelt down before Him and worshiped Him. In our translation, it says "did Him homage" but the Greek word that is used there means "to worship". They recognized that He was God, not just that He was the king of the Jews, and offered their coffers of gold, frankincense, and myrrh because He was God, because He was a king, and because He came into this world to die for us. They offered Him those three gifts. But that was not the homage that they did, that is, simply offering gifts: They worshiped Him. Herod refused any kind of worship. The priests refused the worship. The people of Israel refused the worship. The little ones, the humble ones came and they worshiped Him. The three wise men came and they worshiped Him.
They were willing to change their lives, and they went out and told everybody. We hear about the shepherds who went out and told others what they had seen and heard. Now we have the wise men who go back to their own countries by a different route and they went back changed. You can be guaranteed that they did not walk away and say, "Well, wasn't that impressive. Now we need to keep this mystery to ourselves." No, they went back to their own countries and they were changed. They told the people what they saw. They recognized God made man and they worshiped Him and they changed their lives. No longer did they need the star that stopped over the house because they had a fire enkindled within them. They saw the true Light of the world and they bowed down before Him. They did away with the darkness of their lives because the light now shone within each one of them. And they brought that light into the darkness. They brought that light to the people who dwelled in darkness and in gloom. And they brought the light of truth, the light of freedom, the light of salvation.
That light shines in each and every one of us. Each one of us is priest, prophet, and king. Each one of us is called to recognize the Lamb, who is also the Shepherd, who is also the King, but is the lowliest of all and is born in a manger. Each one of us is to bow down and worship Him who is the Light of the world who came into our darkness. And even if we try to put the bushel basket over the light, the light will not be overcome by the darkness. Each of us is to bring that light out into the world to the people who live in darkness. We are to bring to them the message of salvation, the message of true freedom: freedom from sin. Not freedom to sin, but freedom from their bondage so that they can have the true life, freedom from death so that they can live forever, freedom from the worship of self so that they can worship the true God who has revealed Himself and revealed to each one of us the mystery that was hidden from ages past: that now we are coheirs with the Jews, that we too are sharers in the life of God, that the promises made to the Jews are now obtained by each one of us.
The mystery has been revealed to us and it needs now to be accepted by each one of us and lived. We need to choose the light and reject the darkness. We need to choose Jesus Christ and reject the ways of the world. We need to recognize that He is God, that He is our Shepherd, that He is our King, and we need to bow down and worship Him. We need to open, not our coffers, but our hearts. We need to offer Him, not gold, frankincense, and myrrh, but our very lives, our very selves. And we need to allow Him to be the light that shines in our darkness and guides us along the path that leads us to Him, not in a little place in Bethlehem, but in eternity in Heaven, in the kingdom where He has prepared a place for each one of us so that where He is, we also may be forever. That is the promise that He holds out. That is where the guiding light will bring us. As it brought the three kings to find Him, so now it will bring each one of us to find Him in His eternal kingdom. That is what He desires for each one of us. It is what He has already done in each one of us.
Now it is a matter of us, like Saint Paul, accepting the revelation that has been given to us, hidden from ages past but now revealed in our hearts and in our minds. We need to be, not like Herod and the chief priests and the people who tremble at this mystery and reject it and choose to remain in the darkness, but we need to be humble in the face of this mystery, and, like the three kings, leave the way that we have chosen to live in the world and live according to the way of Jesus Christ. Rejoice at the mystery and bow down and worship Him.
* This text was transcribed from the audio recording of a homily by Father Robert Altier with minimal editing.