Homily for the
Solemnity of the Epiphany
Jan. 3, 2016
Is 60: 1-6
Matt 2: 1-12
Ursulines, Willow Dr., New Rochelle
As it happens, I was here last year for this feast, and I preached on the Prayer over the Gifts. 4 years ago I preached to you on the Collect. Not that I think you should remember either of those occasions; I know only because I checked my collection of past homilies. If any of you suffer from insomnia, I can give you the link to the blog where I post them each week.
So I guess it’s time to reflect with you on one of the Scripture readings: “Rise up in splendor, Jerusalem! Your light has come, the glory of the Lord shines upon you” (Is 60: 1).
This post-exilic passage from Isaiah 60 promises fresh glory to the Holy City, a glory she hasn’t know since Solomon was building the temple, since Solomon’s renown spread thru the entire region and such as the queen of Sheba came to hear his wisdom, bearing piles of wealth. The part of Isaiah that scholars commonly call 2d Isaiah, ch. 40-55, encouraged Israel with hope for a new exodus, a return from their Babylonian exile and restoration in their land. The rest of the book, ch. 56-66, is generally considered to have originated slightly later, after the exiles have come home, and it too offers encouragement. This time, however, the encouragement is broader, as we just heard: Jerusalem will become a beacon of light and hope for the entire earth that’s covered in darkness; Jerusalem will be a light to all the nations, and those nations will stream thither with their tribute.
Matthew paints for us an image of the nations coming with tribute—but not to Jerusalem. In Matthew’s story Jerusalem rejects the light of the world: “King Herod was greatly troubled” by his visitors from the East, i.e., from the pagan nations, “and all Jerusalem with him” (2:3). The chief priests and the scribes, the important people of the city, point the magi toward the light of the world but make no effort themselves to pursue that light; as Matthew continues the story thru Jesus’ public life, those important people will conspire every bit as much as murderous Herod to get rid of the light. We have in the story an unspoken echo of the prolog to John’s Gospel: “The true light that enlightens every person was coming into the world … yet the world knew him not. He came to his own home, but his own people received him not” (1:9-11).
From one perspective, the situation is just as bleak today—a world full of murderous Herods and indifferent people of influence in government, the media, academia, popular entertainment, business, and sometimes the Church too. From another perspective, the light hasn’t ceased shining amid the darkness: the glory of the Lord is still in our midst, in people of good will, good heart, and good works—many of them motivated by their having received “the true light that has come into the world,” others motivated by that something that God has planted in every human heart impelling us to seek truth and goodness rather than power, wealth, pleasure, or fame.
The prophet foretold that “nations would walk by your light, and kings by your shining radiance,” addressing Jerusalem (60:3). In Matthew’s story, the light has moved to Bethlehem and it’s personified in the Child the wise men find there (2:9-10). Today we are that light, as that Child—grown up—tells us: “You are the light of the world…. Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is heaven” (Matt 5:14, 16). We who believe in and follow that Child are to enlighten the world by our faith, our praise, and our action. We don’t pay tribute to the Child in gold or frankincense or “the riches of the sea” (Is 60:6,5), but in our simple adoration and our efforts to be faithful to what the Child teaches us.
January 1 is marked as “World Day of Peace,” but that gets overshadowed by the beginning of the new civil year and our homage to Mary, Mother of God. We may pay attention to peace today. The title of Pope Francis’s message this year is “Overcome Indifference and Win Peace,” which we might relate to the indifference of the priests and scribes in Jerusalem to the birth of Jesus. The Holy Father identifies many “scourges” of our time that stem from individualism or selfishness, and then from a lack of interest in the problems of others, an unwillingness to make a commitment to the human community, or even various ways of assaulting that community: massacres, corruption, trafficking, the exploitation of persons, hostility toward refugees, the denial of people’s elementary rights, such as food, water, health care, or employment (n. 4). Francis calls upon all of us, instead, “to make compassion, love, mercy and solidarity a true way of life, a rule of conduct in our relationships with one another” (n. 5). This is the way toward peace.
I’m sure you know Henry van Dyke’s story “The Fourth Wise Man.” I don’t remember many of its details. But this imagined 4th wise man missed his rendezvous with the other 3 and never caught up with them or with Jesus until Calvary because he kept stopping to practice compassion to people in need. The one specific that I remember is his giving a precious jewel or something to one of Herod’s soldiers at Bethlehem to save the life of child.
So Francis is challenging us to practice compassion toward others even when it’s inconvenient, when it disrupts our plans.
We’re aware of so many people and places that demand our compassionate attention, e.g., Syria, Missouri, Central African Republic, the southern border. Without excluding those legitimate concerns, we need to be even more attentive to our own cities, our own families, our own house. This is where we can make the light of Jesus shine upon our dark world and do our little bit to transform it, to be part of the light that overcomes the darkness.