Homily for the Feast of the Epiphany
St. Agnes, Cincinnati
January 5, 2003
"Herod inquired of them where the Christ as to be born."
And where is the Christ born? In Bethlehem, of course. But not only there.
The Christ -- the whole Christ of the epistles to the Ephesians and Colossians -- is still in the process of being brought to birth.
The story of the Magi is a great dramatic piece. It's very evocative and exciting. I might have said that it has all the elements of a Cecil B. deMille movie, but a lot of our younger members wouldn't know what I was talking about. So let's make it a Steven Spielberg film, or maybe even Spike Lee. It has kings. There is this strange star which appears and guides them. There are gifts of exotic stuff we know only in our imaginations: frankincense and myrrh. There is even a villain, which adds intrigue to the story. There are dreams, and escape from pursuers. And finally it ends in a massacre of innocent children.
There is a lot of good stuff there for our imaginations, and for prayer and reflection. But there is a risk that with all that drama we can trivialize it and miss the deeper questions it raises. There are more profound issues at stake here, food for our on-going conversion.
It may help to remind ourselves that in the early church the feast of the Epiphany was celebrated as the feast of the Incarnation, long before the church began to celebrate Christmas.
It's called Epiphany, and it's all about revelation, and manifestation of what's really going on beneath the surface; it's about un-covering and disclosing, and light suddenly breaking through darkness.
These are the things Isaiah foretold in our first reading, long before the coming of Jesus. Dark clouds over the earth, then light. And glory! The nations will discover what is being manifested. They will be drawn together from afar. First to Jerusalem, then to the Messiah.
Matthew in today's Gospel is writing some years after Peter's experience of epiphany. We tend to think perhaps of Peter as the first pope -- and did he need further conversion after experiencing the risen Jesus?
Let's recall that experience in Acts 11 when the pagan Cornelius comes to Peter's house. Peter is up on the roof praying, when he has a vision of a large sheet with all sorts of animals on it, and God commands him: "Eat." And Peter says, oh no, I don't eat those unclean things. And three times God commands and three times Peter resists. And God says, "who are you to call unclean what I call clean?" And Peter hears the commotion downstairs and goes down to see what's going on. And the visitors tell him they have already received the Holy Spirit and are asking to be baptized. And Peter uses that extraordinary expression to describe what happened next: "I came to myself --- I came to myself! -- and I remembered the word of the Lord, and "if God was giving them the same gift he had given us, who was I to interfere with him?"
The manifestation, the epiphany, the revelation is that the saving power of God is not the 'possession' of Israel, something to be hoarded and kept from 'outsiders'. Oh, they were elected, a chosen people -- but the danger of being a chosen people is that you begin to think others can't be equally chosen.
The whole long story of Israel's dealings with God was always about the temptation to restrict God's power, to contain it and box God it, to tie the assurance of God's favor to some manageable reality. First there was the Ark of the Covenant, then there was the Temple; and there were the set rituals, the code, the purity boundaries. If we just speak this way, or performs these rituals, or observe these norms, we will have God on our side.
And all along, the prophets describe God as the Potter, who is always able to go down to the potting shed and take a perfectly good vessel and smash it to pieces because God wants to make one more beautiful. The light that is trying to break through and shine forth is the power and mercy of God on all humans, on the
whole of creation.
It's a marvelous, wondrous revelation -- but it can also be very troubling. You mean I've kept all the rules, I've gone to church, I'm a 'practicing' Catholic -- and there's more? More blind spots to be enlightened, more conversion, more re-thinking, new forms of doing?
It's possible to be a loyal believer, a 'good Catholic', and miss the whole point. We can miss the whole revelation: God couldn't be acting there, could God? In those people, those outsiders, those ways of speaking and praying and thinking and behaving? That's all darkness!
I want to share with you a modern experience of epiphany and how it compelled a man to change his whole life.
Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador was a 'good bishop'. A good bishop. Welcome in all the homes of the best people of the country, presiding at all the great festivals and religious occasions. Archbishops don't need conversion, do they?
Romero had a young priest in his diocese, a Jesuit actually, who was a trouble-maker. His name was Rutilio Grande and he agitated and spoke out against the government's policies that were oppressing the poor people. The total opposite of Romero, but someone he admired.
One day as he rode on his motorcycle to visit a poor village Rutilio Grande was ambushed and killed. Romero had to preside and preach at his funeral. And that was where the meaning of it all blazed up before him, that an economic system controlled by the 16 wealthy families of El Salvador was wrong, unjust and immoral, and he had to separate himself from the system and join the poor and speak out against the country's leaders. And we know what that epiphany and its implications cost him. He was martyred while celebrating Mass. Because he dared to speak up for the voiceless.
In my Christmas mail I received from a friend some words of the converted Romero that I want to share with you:
So that no one would be left out,
our God, in Jesus Christ,
became an outsider:
born on the margin,
lived on the margin,
died on the margin.
Always outside the established order.
We will only be able
to discover the Child and the star
where the star and the Child are,
if we go to the margin,
if we become outsiders
with the marginalized on the earth,
with the marginalized God.
I have to ask myself; you have to ask yourself; we have to ask ourselves: where am I blind to God's ways in our world? What containers have I established to define where God 'must be' -- so I won't have to face my 'outsiders?'
Who are my outsiders? White people? Black people? The police, or the boycotters, or the kids in gangs? Or the mayor; city hall? Or the people in the Pentagon? Gays and lesbians?
I don't know where the star might suddenly burst forth in my consciousness and call me to scrap that container, that 'right way' of thinking or speaking or seeing. I don't know, you don't know, we don't know when a new conversion will suddenly be asked of us because our blinders have been removed and we have to start over and break down and confront our darkness.
Another friend gave me a good one-liner this Christmas: I you really want to make God laugh -- if you really want to make God laugh -- just tell him your plans. . . .
I'm pretty sure the star won't be a physical star, and I suspect that I probably won't be called, as Romero and Rutilio Grande were, to martyrdom. That's our romantic-illusion side coming out: Oh, if some godless soldier burst into the church and asked us if we believe in Jesus we'd shout alleluia! And ride off to the heavenly Jerusalem -- but don't ask me to deal with the guy next door. . . .
The thought of endless conversion could be disheartening -- except we know from the Scriptures and our experience that the God who shines that light is a loving, redeeming, consoling God who gives us the power to respond. A Savior.
The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness will not overcome it.