Darkness Covers the Earth
January 2, 2005 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 a feast that has lost much of its meaning for people in the modern day. In the ancient world, the Feast of the Epiphany was one of the most important of all the feast days in the Church year. The word epiphany, recall, means “manifestation”, so it is the manifestation of the divinity of Christ, that God has become man and He dwelt among us. What was so important about this feast to the early Christians was not only that Our Lord was made manifest, but particularly that He was made manifest to the Gentiles. It is precisely the mystery of which Saint Paul speaks, the mystery that was foretold by the prophets but not understood, and now the mystery that has been brought to its completion in Christ, the mystery that the Gentiles are now coheirs with the Jews, that they are members of the same body, that they are children of God and heirs of heaven. It is a mystery that points to the fact that all of us, being made in the image and likeness of God, now have the opportunity to live according to the fullness of our human dignity. In fact, in Christ, we have the opportunity to live with a divine dignity. This is something that the Jewish people of old were able to do, and now the Gentiles have been united with them so there is no longer this separation but all are one in Christ.
Now we look at this in our own day and we ask ourselves, “What is so important about this?” This feast is critically important because the mystery we celebrate today is so important for us. If we look in the first reading today from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah, he talks about how darkness covers the earth and the thick clouds the people. Look around and ask yourself if it is not true that our world is in darkness and if most of the people we know are not walking around in something of a fog. Thick clouds seem to cover the minds and the hearts of the people. They cannot see clearly. They do not understand. They have given themselves over to sin.
What happens when someone gives themselves over to sin is the same basic problem that happened in Jerusalem when the three Magi came to the palace in Jerusalem to ask Herod where they would find the newborn King of the Jews. One of the most tragic lines of all Scripture tells us what we would expect to hear and what we would not expect to hear: Herod was troubled (who would be surprised?) and all Jerusalem with him. The people of Israel were awaiting the Messiah. They knew the time, and now that the newborn King of the Jews was born, they were troubled, they did not want Him. Some of the people were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem, but the vast majority wanted to live in darkness because their sins had clouded their minds, just like today. When God makes Himself manifest, people do not want to believe. They do not want to see. They have chosen darkness instead of light.
But the beauty of what we celebrate today is that a star, which would be seen only in the darkness, is shining brilliantly so that anyone with the eyes of faith can see it. God made Himself manifest in this way to some pagans who were looking at the stars to try to discern what was going on in the world. Obviously, that is not the way Christian people are going to be operating. But it is not a question of a star up in the sky that we are looking for; rather, inside of each one of us God has placed a light. It is a light of faith that illumines the night of this world, that brings light into the darkness that surrounds us. It is, once again, exactly what Isaiah says: Upon you a light shall shine, and the glory of the Lord will appear above you.
We could ask ourselves in general, “How is it possible, on a natural level, that there would be darkness in some places while right next to that darkness is light?” It is not what is on the natural level; it is what is on the spiritual level. If you are in the state of grace, this light burns within you and it shines brightly in the darkness so that if you are surrounded by people who have rejected the truth, they have chosen darkness while the light shines in you. This is the way that prophecy can be fulfilled, that darkness covers the earth and the thick clouds the peoples; but upon you a light shall dawn, and above you the glory of the Lord will be revealed. That is happening inside of you.
If we consider what it is that the three Magi were seeking, it was not the star, but it was the Person represented by the star. It is precisely the fulfillment of what we hear way back in the Book of Numbers when the pagan prophet Balaam was hired to curse the Hebrew people. He climbed up the mountain, and instead God required that he bless the chosen people. In one of those occasions, the oracle of Balaam says something to the effect of I see him, thought not near; I behold him, yet far away. A star shall rise in Jacob and a staff in Judah. The star is a king – it is the newborn King of the Jews – a newborn king not only for the Jewish people, but for the Gentiles as well so that all of us will be one in Christ. This being the case, what the Magi sought was a Person, and that Person is the Light, as Saint John makes very clear: He is the Light of the world. The Light came into this world and the darkness could not overcome it. Like that star the Magi saw, He shines brilliantly in the darkness of this world. And it is He Himself Whom we must seek.
We have been given knowledge of the truth. For whatever reason, in God’s mysterious ways He has chosen each one of us. He has given to us this gift of faith, and He has given us knowledge of Himself. It is purely a gift on God’s part; it is not something we have earned or deserved, but it is a gift. Now the question is, just like the gift the Magi were given, what are we going to do with this gift that has been given to us? The three Wise Men were willing to leave everything behind and travel a long and arduous journey across the desert to come to find this Child and bow down and worship Him. If this light of faith truly burns within our hearts, then it is that light of faith that allows the eyes of our hearts to see. Just as the Magi would not be able to see with their bodily eyes the fact that this little baby is God, yet with the eyes of their hearts they were able to recognize Him and they worshiped Him. They would not worship Him if He were just a human king; they will worship Him only because He is God. And they left behind all of their paganism. They left behind the darkness from which they had come because they found the light.
Now that we live in this neopagan society of ours, we too must reject the worldly ways, the pagan ways, because we have seen the light. We know Who He is. The eyes of our faith allow us to recognize that what appears to be a piece of bread is truly God. The eyes of faith allow us to be able to enter into our hearts and have knowledge of the One Who dwells there. In the darkness that surrounds most people because they have rejected Christ, when they enter into their hearts all they find there is themselves. Their little world revolves around themselves, and everything is about themselves. For one who has seen the light of Christ and that light shines within their hearts, their lives then revolve around Him. And when they go inside of themselves, they do not find just themselves but they find Jesus Christ, indeed, they find the Holy Trinity Who dwells within. It is that which helps us in the midst of the darkness to continue to move toward our goal, toward the goal which is union with this One Who is the light. Just as the Magi followed the star and the star led them directly to the place where they found Our Lord and Our Lady, so too this light of faith shining within us is going to lead us directly to the place where we too will find Our Lord and Our Lady – and that is heaven.
In the meantime, we learn from the Magi what we are to do. We are to come before Him, to recognize Him for Who He is through the eyes of faith and open up our coffers. Not gold, frankincense, and myrrh, but a heart that is filled with love. That is all Our Lord wants. He wants us to give Him the greatest gift of all, and that is love – a life that is completely devoted to Him, a heart that is filled with love for Him, a mind that accepts the truth and lives it. Those are the treasures we can give to Him now. They are not too difficult for us, but it is just like the Magi: We will have to make a journey and we will have to give Him something which is very, very precious to us. But in return for their gold, frankincense, and myrrh, the Magi walked away with the greatest treasure of all. They held God within their hearts, and so can we. If we are willing to open our hearts and allow that light to shine in the darkness that is there to fill us with love, then we can give Him back that love. And the greatest treasure is ours because the light, Who is Jesus Christ Himself, will shine within us and the darkness will be dispelled. In this world that is filled with darkness, we will be able to see clearly as the light of faith guides us to the fulfillment of all our desires: union with Jesus Christ forever in heaven.
* This text was transcribed from the audio recording of a homily by Father Robert Altier with minimal editing.