January 7, 2018
(Isaiah 60:1-6; Matthew 2:1-12)
Epiphany is that time of year when we get to say, “ah ha!” We say this, “ah ha”, maybe in a different manner than they did at Jesus’s birth, but, we still have an epiphany - and could have them almost every day of our lives – at least for those of us who stay open to Christ in our lives.
There are a few interesting points to our reading today. As we discussed for Christmas, the gifts the Magi brought to the Christ child, were and are unique. Those who offer gold, frankincense and myrrh show more in mystery then they offer in knowledge. Whether this visitation of the Magi took place or not, as some would argue, or whether it happened at some later time period as some others argue, I think misses the point. So, let us look at the passage merely as it is meant to be taken.
Gold proclaims Christ’ kingship and royal dignity. Gold is fitting for a king, a ruler, one with power and authority. Gold was also a symbol of divinity. This Child in the manger came to transform our perspective of wealth to treasure again the things of God. To treasure compassion, forgiveness, mercy, and peace; these are the coins of the realm of the newborn King.
Frankincense, of which its smoke represents divine majesty, is offered to adore the Christ child as our God. It comes from a small tree usually found in Arabia and parts of North Africa. Needless to say, somewhat hard to come by. It’s a hardened resin and the plant was used as medicine for many elements. Elements such as to stop bleeding and to heal wounds; it has been used as an antidote for poisons and a salve for bruises, ulcerations and even paralyzed limbs. And with this, the Christ child comes to restore and heal not just the physical ailments of those He will encounter in His Gospel journey, but to heal us of our fears and doubts; to bridge that which separates us from one another and from God.
Then we have myrrh which is an acknowledgment of His mortality as a human being; for God came to us in the Christ child as fully God and fully human. Myrrh was an expensive extract from the resin of a myrrh tree. It also was used as a medicine, but more prominently it was used in embalming the dead. During that period, only the royalty and the very wealthy were embalmed; myrrh, therefore, was a gift reserved for kings. The Christ child comes to re-create humanity in the life of God. Christ’s death will be the defeat of death; His cross will be His - and our – glory.
And so, the three gifts of the Magi are a gospel in themselves. They honored a child who is Himself a gift from God whose love is beyond our comprehension, whose goodness knows neither limit nor condition. Further still, the number of their offering bespeaks the Trinity, while there single devotion gives evidence of unity.
Something to consider here. The Magi, as best as we know, were most probably not Jews. They were Gentiles. Yet they come to worship Jesus. And because of this, it gives us a look into the future when Jesus tells His Apostles to “make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” (Matt. 28:19) All nations - most obviously - would include the Gentiles - or the non-Jews. And so we see these Gentile Magi coming to worship Jesus, indeed - before Jesus himself makes the command to make disciples of all peoples. And thus, all peoples are coheirs with the Jews of the promises of God. We cannot limit God’s mercy. It knows no bounds, and it includes all.
At the time of Jesus’s birth, exiled Jews had just recently returned to Jerusalem - a Jerusalem that was in ruins. Somehow, the words of the prophet didn’t quite match up with the realities on the ground. But that didn’t stop these believers from rolling up their sleeves and working to bring about the glory that had been promised to them.
Also, how did the Magi recognize an earthshaking event in the humble stable with Joseph and Mary? Even the religious and political leaders of Israel missed the birth of the Messiah. So how could these pagan foreigners fall to their knees so readily, and offer such valuable treasures to this seemingly lowly child? Again, their expectations didn’t match up with what they found when they first laid eyes on the Holy Family. And although what they found is not what they expected, they understood there was much mystery and significance to how the Messiah chose to enter the world.
Today’s feast tells us that the glory of God can be present in the most hidden and unlikely people and situations. It tells us that God is there in the everyday rhythms of our lives. We should pray that He would give us eyes of faith to see Him and trusting hearts to build the kingdom with Him. The results would be another spectacular epiphany!
There is something very important that we should take from all this. We need on this Epiphany Sunday to experience another epiphany. We need to experience the epiphany of not only the Christ child coming incarnate, but in so, notice that He set the world on its head.
As we know from the book of Genesis, Adam was created in the image of God. However, that image was shattered and an became irreparably distorted image. And since Adam was meant to be the beginning of all humankind, the image of God in all of us was shattered and distorted. Since mankind inherited the broken image from Adam, all humans are broken and prone to sin. They are not judged for Adam’s sin however, because of his sin, we, Adam’s progeny, have all been born broken. Because of his sin, we all sin.
In the infinite riches of God’s working with His creation of humankind, He went through various steps to attempt to reconcile us in His image. Many prophets, kings, salvations, and destructions all came to pass, but nothing seemed to correct the distorted image. His image kept walking away from God instead of toward Him.
And so God decided the best way to resolve this once and for all was to join us down here in and on His creation. And so we have the Epiphany - Christ is born. And like the Magi, we too want to see the Christ. We want an encounter with the living Christ; or at least we should want to.
Let’s explore a little bit more about this “Magi” that came. The term “Magi” is a designation for Persian priestly lineage. It has also come to be known as that of a king or astrologer. But most commonly at that time, they were thought to have more than just human knowledge. Thus, why we see in some interpretations as the Magi being referred to as the “wise men.” They must’ve been wise, for in that time it was believed that a new star appeared at the time of a ruler’s birth. They travel far from their home - said to be from the east, hence the Orient - to see this great star and whom the star announced. To be able to determine all this from the alignment of a star or stars and where to go to follow the star(s) is pretty remarkable! They were wise enough to know someone far more important than some insignificant ruler was being heralded.
We too are called to be wise, and follow what the star announced. Having made their visit to the Christ child and given gifts, the Magi began their long and arduous journey home. This time, however, they return a different way from once they came. And while they altered their route to avoid going through Jerusalem again, it certainly wasn’t the only thing about the Magi that had changed. Returning home by another route is a metaphor for living a changed life, and by their vulnerability and letting this holy moment speak to their hearts, the Magi could make a clean break with some past practices and habits and head home changed and chastened, molded to the shape of Christ’s own triumph. This is how new life is created from old.
In our lives we also may choose to take another route in light of our effectiveness as Christians in a fragile world. We can decide to resist Herod in all his guises and go back home another way. We can resist all that kills childlike wonder, optimism, hope, imagination, play, creativity and adventure. We can also decide to pay close attention to all of life, including the silences, and to live less hurriedly and more openly and imaginatively so that we might catch sight of the shimmering star. Nearly everyone who encounters Jesus goes home another way. After they have met this Jesus they seem incapable - or certainly unwilling - to go back the same way they came.
God had to find a new way to reach His people. He needed us to take a different direction. He needed us to stop being so selfish and cruel. He needed us to clear up our image so that it would best reflect that of God in each of us. And so He came in the second person, as Jesus Christ.
Jesus Christ came and changed the rules. By the time Jesus had come as man, the Jewish religion had 613 various laws and commandments. When Jesus said, “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matt. 11:29), He was telling us that He understands that we could not live up to all these rules - especially if the teachers of the law made it more difficult than God may have intended. God gave us ten Commandments and man expanded them to 613.
There is no mercy or grace in rules, not even for one mistake. That’s why Jesus fulfilled all for us - so that it no longer has jurisdiction over us. In the law that once contained impossible demands – “Thou shalt not [this]…Thou shalt not [that]” actually becomes a promise that Christ fulfills in each of us.
But we must keep in mind that if we live our lives alone and independently - meaning away from the church in particular and Christ specifically - the promise is empty. Jesus laid the demand of the law to rest; it no longer has any power to accuse or command. Jesus is both the promise and its fulfillment! Trying to keep the law is actually a declaration of independence, a way of keeping control.
By keeping all the various laws, outside of the two that Jesus made clear we must follow, we are attempting to grant ourselves the power to judge others and to feel superior to them. We believe we are living to a higher standard than those we judge. Enforcing rules, especially in more subtle expressions like responsibility and expectation, is a vain attempt to create certainty out of uncertainty. And contrary to what we might think, God sometimes wants us to have a bit of uncertainty. Rules cannot bring freedom; they only have the power to accuse. By being uncertain, we rely more on the power of God.
Why did Jesus want to put away the rules and the laws you might ask? Let me put it to you this way. When we ask our children to do something like clean their room, what do you think would make us happier: if they cleaned the room because they loved us, or if they cleaned the room because they were afraid that we would punish them? Of course we want our children to do it because they love us, not out of some threat of punishment. Obedience under the shadow of threat is hardly obedience at all, but merely a compulsion. Christian obedience is devoid of threat and rooted in love, because this is what God truly wants.
How does God want us to live? Does He want us to live focusing on love or focusing on law? And this is the great message of Jesus Christ. This should be an epiphany for you on this Epiphany Sunday.
We are a different form of Catholic Church, to be sure. But, as I’ve said multiple times, we are merely Catholic without all the guilt. We teach a God who loves us. We teach of a God that is full of mercy and compassion. We teach of a God who is focused on us as His creation; as His image of Himself. And if we are to live up to that image without it being distorted, we must learn to love. When we have that epiphany of loving one another, we will fulfill all the laws - Jesus made that very clear.
And so this Sunday, I want everyone to leave here with an additional epiphany. The epiphany that there are so few rules, but so much opportunity. We come here today to worship God. We come here today to feel the Holy Spirit move through us - and I hope you actually try to open yourself to this happening to you. We come here today to take Christ within our self in the holy Eucharist.
When people ask me questions about coming to communion at our church, my usual response is that there are very few reasons I would ever deny anyone communion at our church. Why is that? First, because we minister in the example of Jesus Christ - we minister in mercy and love. Secondly, sometimes no matter how grievous of a sin you have, all the words of some lowly insignificant priest such as myself, will not change your attitude toward what you are doing, but Christ can change your attitude! We believe in the Real Presence of Jesus Christ in the holy Eucharist. And as such, when you come to communion, you take Christ within yourself. And by so doing, you are opening yourself up to a plethora of possibilities and even miracles. Even if you live in a sinful life, there is the Confiteor during mass with absolution the priest gives which will dissolve you of such. And if there remains still some inclination toward whatever attachment you may have to some sort of sin, by taking Christ within yourself, you are giving yourself a great and potent medicine.
So do not be afraid this Epiphany. Tell your friends and your relatives that Christ is born. Tell them there is a gift greater than gold, frankincense and myrrh to behold. And if they can’t find a church that will accept them and/or allow them to communion, you tell them about us. And they can come here and know Christ freely and receive Him where they may not feel comfortable receiving Him elsewhere. So tell your friends; tell your relatives; Christ is born and He will live in our sanctuary and the hearts of our members. You will find it amazing how often you can have some “ah ha” moments when you seek out the new born King!
Let us pray.
That the Church will be like the star of Epiphany, drawing the world to worship Jesus Christ. We pray to the Lord. (Lord hear our prayer.)
That those who hold public office will imitate the goodness of God, who secures justice and the rights of all the oppressed. We pray to the Lord.
For the strength of mind and heart to defend our freedoms when they are threatened. We pray to the Lord.
That the observance of National Migration Week will move many to help the migrants of the world in their need. We pray to the Lord.
For those who face the hardships of life without the benefit of faith; that Christians will offer them compassion by helping and showing them the mercy and love of God in His son Jesus Christ. We pray to the Lord.
For the grace this week to surrender all selfish ways and follow the Way who is Christ. We pray to the Lord.
That those who struggle with the many perceived restrictions and laws listed in our Scriptures, and thus cause undue criticism, discrimination, and judgment toward others, may come to the realization of why God came amongst us so that we might learn to love instead of condemn. We pray to the Lord.
Loving Father, may every nation on earth adore You. We thank You for Your faithfulness and steadfast love since the moment You created the universe. Thank You for the many ways You draw all of creation closer to You. Reveal to us how we might serve You, love You, and truly be Your hands and feet in our world. Forgive us for the many moments that we choose comfort over speaking against what is popular. Forgive us for the times when we let our need to be right supersede Your prophetic calling for us. Hear our petitions and, united with our Lady Mary, draw us close to Your Son, who is our Lord now and forever. Amen.
God Love You +++
+ The Most Rev. Robert Winzens
Pastor –St. Francis Universal Catholic Church
San Diego, CA