Saturday, January 5, 2013

Homily for the Vigil of the Epiphany

Homily for the Vigil
of the Epiphany
Jan. 6, 2013
Is 60: 1-6
Christian Brothers, Iona College, N.R. 

“O Lord, may the splendor of your majesty, we pray, shed its light upon our hearts, that we may pass through the shadows of this world and reach the brightness of our eternal home” (Collect).
Stolen from The Deacon's Bench. Original source unknown.

More than the Mass texts of Epiphany Day, those of the vigil Mass emphasize light and darkness, continuing an obvious Christmas theme that’s more than appropriate, given the role of a star in today’s story, not to mention the darkness dominating the heart of King Herod.  You all know the sequel to tonite’s gospel.

The readings are the same for both Masses, the vigil Mass and the day Mass.  The light of the Lord’s presence is the powerful theme of the 1st reading (Is 60:1-6):  “Rise up in splendor, Jerusalem!  Your light has come, the glory of the Lord shines upon you.  Nations shall walk by your light, and kings by your shining radiance” (60:1,3).  Today’s feast announces that this light for the nations, for their rulers and for all humanity, has dawned in the infant born at Bethlehem.

A commentary on the Collect of the Vigil Mass brings this out:  “The ‘splendor’ of God’s majesty is Christ, and the ‘light’ of Christ is the gift of faith by which we walk.”[1]

Quite realistically, the commentary also brings out that neither Christ nor our faith in him removes the darkness that surrounds us:  “‘shed its light’ renders the Latin verb illustret, which means to illuminate or radiate.  The light of faith, revealed on this day, does not eradicate the ‘shadows of this world’ but enables us to ‘pass through’ them without fear.  This is what it means to hope.  The light of faith enables us to trust in the promise of a future homeland, and this hope gives us courage to continue walking amidst the shadows.”

That observation reminds us of Ps 23, doesn’t it?  “Even tho I walk in the dark valley I fear no evil; for you are at my side with your rod and your staff that give me courage” (v. 4).

He who is at our side is none other than Emmanuel.  His rod and his staff bespeak his shepherding role (“The Lord is my shepherd” [Ps 23:1]; “I am the good shepherd” [John 10:14]).  But, to return to the “light” metaphor, the Lord Jesus is the light who points out and leads us along the path toward the “verdant pastures” and “restful waters” we desire (Ps 23:2), which speak to us of salvation, of that “eternal home” mentioned in the Collect.

We need lots and lots of light in a world that’s full of Herods.  The massacre of children, ethnic cleansing, heartless jihad, drug trafficking, human trafficking, nuclear annihilation hanging over our heads—how long a list could we make of the forms of darkness that ever threaten the valleys of our pilgrimage toward peaceful rest and harmony!

If the splendor of Christ enlightens our hearts, then we are full of hope that we can find our way thru all the darkness.  We are certain of it, as the paschal candle assures us year after year—and at our funeral rites.  Christ has overcome the darkness and reached “the brightness of our eternal home,” the home where, he tells us at the Last Supper, he has gone to prepare places for us too:  “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places….  I am going to prepare a place for you” (John 14:2).

It’s not enuf for us pilgrims in the dark world to look toward Christ for light.  If his light is “shed upon our hearts,” as the Collect prays, then that light must illuminate the world, must radiate from us.  Doesn’t he tell us that we are the light of the world, and our light must shine out into the world (Matt 5:14-16)?  He also gives us the parable of the wise and foolish virgins with their lamps, ready—or not—to illuminate a wedding feast (Matt 25:1-13).  In short, by our lives—our deeds, our words, even our thoughts and our attitudes—we who bask in Christ’s light have to enlighten the world, have to counteract the Herods of the world: the Assads and the Talibans, the drug lords and slum lords, the racists and the nativists, the merchants of sex and the merchants of death in whatever form.

A Redemptorist named Fr. Kevin O’Neil in Washington offered an op-ed reflection in the Times the day after Christmas on the darkness that so pervades our world.  It’s titled “Why, God?”  He admits that he doesn’t know any more than the rest of us “why” God allows evil to happen, like the Newtown massacre.  Then he suggests that God wants us to bring light into the darkness:

For whatever reason, certainly foreign to most of us, God has chosen to enter the world today through others, through us.  We have stories of miraculous interventions, lightning-bolt moments, but far more often the God of unconditional love comes to us in human form, just as God did over 2,000 years ago.

We are human and mortal.  We will suffer and die.  But how we are with one another in that suffering and dying makes all the difference as to whether God’s presence is felt or not and whether we are comforted or not.

We need one another to be God’s presence.

Which brings us back to that 1st reading:  “Rise up in splendor, Jerusalem!  Nations shall walk by your light.”  Jerusalem isn’t Christ but God’s people.  Jerusalem is us.  The splendor of Christ shining in us will make the world brighter, better, more like the world that God created when he 1st said, “Let there be light!” (Gen 1:3).
Ancient of Days by William Blake
                [1] Daniel J. Merz and Marcel Rooney, OSB, Essential Presidential Prayers and Texts: A Roman Missal Study Edition and Workbook (Chicago: LTP, 2011), p. 26.

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