Saturday, January 4, 2014

Homily for Solemnity of the Epiphany

Homily for the Solemnity
of the Epiphany
Jan. 5, 2014
Matt 2: 1-12
Iona College, New Rochelle, N.Y.

“When Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, in the days of King Herod, behold, magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem” (Matt 2: 1).

Image "stolen" from The Deacon's Bench
In the 1st chapter of his gospel, St. Matthew has already shown Jesus’ legal descent from King David.  Now he places his birth in David’s city, Bethlehem, solidifying his identity as the one who fulfills the messianic prophecies associated with the Son of David.

Matthew also gives us a more or less specific historical context, “in the days of King Herod”—not as specific as we’d like, to be sure.

We’d also like to know more about these magi:  who they were, where the came from, why they came to look for “the newborn king of the Jews” (1:2), how they knew what the star they saw indicated, what was the nature of this star.  Biblical scholars, astronomers, and historians have delved into all that, and it’s quite interesting, but we can’t go into it here.

Suffice it to say that the magi, whoever they were, wherever they came from, however many they were, however they became aware of this “newborn king” and of his import, come as Gentiles, as representatives of the nations, looking for the Messiah.  Matthew will end his gospel with Jesus’ command that the 11 go out and make disciples of all nations (28:19).  In the magi story he links that purpose with Jesus’ birth:  this is why he was born, for the redemption of the whole of humanity, and not only of Israel.  In him all of humanity finds its true king (no tyrant like murderous Herod), its true God, and its redeemer.

King, God, and redeemer—these offices of Jesus are symbolized by the gifts of the magi:  their gold, frankincense, and myrrh.  When they find “the child with Mary his mother” in the house at Bethlehem, they “prostrate themselves and do him homage” (2:11) as one would worship a god or venerate a king.

Pope Benedict gives us insight into why these foreigners come looking for Jesus.  He writes in his little book on the infancy narratives that, having seen “his star at its rising” (2:2), they set off on their great journey as

people of inner unrest, people of hope, people on the lookout for the true star of salvation.  The men of whom Matthew speaks were not just astronomers [one reasonable interpretation of who the magi were].  [They] were “wise.”  They represent the inner dynamic of religion toward self-transcendence, which involves a search for Truth, a search for the true God and hence “philosophy” in the original sense of the word.  Wisdom, then, serves to purify the message of “science”:  the rationality of that message does not remain at the level of intellectual knowledge, but seeks understanding in its fullness, and so raises reason to its loftiest possibilities.[1]

These magi are the scientists, the intellectuals, of their age and their culture.  But they recognize that their science and their knowledge require something more:  the wisdom that will give meaning to their studies and their knowledge, that will teach them how their science and their learning ought to be used.  To find this wisdom they follow the star, the star “by whose light nations shall walk,” as Isaiah had prophesied (60:3), and kings as well (hence the mistaken identification of our magi with kings).

There is timeless truth here.  Our knowledge, our science, always needs to be guided by wisdom, by a search for truth:  truth grounded in human nature, in human dignity, in our status as part of God’s created world.  Just because we can split the atom doesn’t mean we should be building nuclear weapons; we’re not even sure whether we should be making nuclear power plants.  Just because we can create human life in a laboratory doesn’t mean we should be doing so.  Just because we can do one thing or another with the stock market or the banking system or international markets doesn’t mean we should be doing so.  Here we do well to follow the advice of King Herod (believe it or not!):  “Go and search diligently for the child” (2:8), for the One who brings true light into the world and teaches us how to live rightly in God’s eyes.

Adoration of the Magi
Oostsanen, 1475
The magi come to Jerusalem, the logical place to look for a “newborn king of the Jews.”  King Herod consults with “all the chief priests and the scribes of the people” about the Messiah (2:4).  The curiosity of the priests and scribes goes no further than their book learning.  They take no step to go and find this Messiah “who is to shepherd my people Israel” (2:6).  Jesus’ future battles with Israel’s religious leaders are foreshadowed here.  As for Herod—you know about him.  He killed 3 of his own sons and his favorite wife on suspicion that they were plotting against him, and he intends to eliminate any other potential rival.

So—knowing where Christ is to be found does not necessarily mean we will make the effort to look for him or to listen to him, or to be saved by him.  That always remains our free choice.  It’s not enuf for us to read the Bible, study the catechism, even to come to church.  We must do Jesus homage, let him into our hearts as our ruler, our king, our God, so that he may be our redeemer.

       [1] Pope Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives, trans. Philip J. Whitmore (NY: Image, 2012), p. 95.

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