Epiphany Sunday – January 06, 2019 – 10:30 AM
Saint Cecilia Catholic Community
Rev. David Justin Lynch
Isaiah 60:1-6 Psalm 72:1-2;7-8;10-13
Ephesians 3:2-3A;5-6 Matthew 2:1-12
+In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, AMEN.
One of the advantages of living in the Desert is that when the sky is free of clouds, we can see thousands of stars as we are relatively smog-free compared to urban areas. Long before telescopes and computers, people named the stars and charted their long journeys through the heavens. These early stargazers noticed patterns and consistency in their movements. Early books of the Bible testify to the power of stars in the life of ancient people. The Book of Job, which some scholars say is the oldest book in the Bible, mentions three constellations: the Bear, Pleiades, and Orion, and Stars are said to “Sing together” and “shout for joy” in Job. In Genesis, Abraham goes out at night and hears a promise from God that he will have many children, as numerous as the stars. Psalm 147 tells us God names all the stars and determines their number. Clearly, the stars held meaning for the ancient people of God.
The Magi mentioned in today’s Gospel were most likely Zorastrian priests from Persia, the ancient name for the country now called Iran. They were astrologers. For them, stars are quite significant, since astrology is the study of the movements and relative positions of celestial objects as a means for predicting and characterizing human affairs and terrestrial events. Exactly which of those stars guided the Magi to the crib of Jesus, we do not know for sure. Some astronomers have said the star of Bethlehem was a comet, that is, a ball of ice, dust and rocks that orbits the sun. Others think it was a supernova, a large explosion that occurs in the last stage of the life cycle of a star. Still others think it was a meteor. No one really knows.
What matters more, however, is what that star symbolized for the Magi. A symbol is one thing that points to another. A star, in the days of Jesus, symbolized the power and divinity of a king. Both for the Magi, and for us today, the heavens proclaimed the glory of God, the light of Jesus, that shows us the way to Him. The theme of light appears throughout Epiphany, not only in the star guiding the Magi to Jesus, but in today’s first reading from Trito-Isaiah as well, which speaks of the glory of the Lord shining upon the exiles returning from Babylon and invites us to rise up with joy to contemplate the revelation of the glory of God. By following the star to where Jesus lay, the Magi were our forerunners in faith. Their journey to Jesus was a response of faith, just like our journey.
The visit of the Magi affirmed the idea of the universal saving power of Jesus. Their visit was fulfillment of God’s plan that Jesus was the savior of all humanity, not just the Jewish people. Their visit demonstrated that the Jewish nation into which Jesus was born was not the only group to recognize His significance. In fact, an alternate name for the Feast of the Epiphany is “The Manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles”, because the visit of the Magi was the first contact Jesus had with people outside the Jewish world, a precursor to the writings and missionary activity of Paul the Apostle, who would later make clear that is Jesus was sent to save not only the Jews, but Gentiles as well, a point made he repeatedly made clear in the Epistle to the Romans and elsewhere in his writings. Hence, in the visit to Jesus by the Magi, we see that God wanted to reveal himself through his Son, Jesus, not to a select people only, but to all nations.
We hear plenty from politicians about “unity,” and by that, many of them mean cultural uniformity, everyone fungible, one like the other. Some politicians exploit the fear many people feel when confronted with including people in their lives than the mainstream. The immediate society into which Jesus was born, and the foreigners from all the ends of the earth, are all members of the family of God and share the same promise of a Messiah that God made to the Jews. God excludes no one.
The Feast of the Epiphany commemorates the manifestation of Jesus to the peoples of the earth. Just as every human culture is unique and different, the ways in which different cultures find and understand Jesus will be different, too. We cannot predict or assume how the diverse cultures within our own communities will find Jesus. We must try to be open to the many ways people find Jesus, especially the ways that people different from us find Jesus. For example, our Muslim sisters and brothers don’t consider Jesus to be the Son of God, but do regard him as a prophet.
Today’s Gospel reading doesn’t tell us that the Magi recognized Jesus as the Son of God, but it does say that they prostrated themselves and paid him homage, gestures usually reserved for someone very important. And they gave Jesus gifts usually given to a king, gold, frankincense, and myrrh. That is probably why the Magi are often identified as “The Three Kings” The Magi knew Jesus was someone extraordinary. The idea is that those who were kings would recognize a king.
The appearance of Jesus to the Magi was in the realm of mystery, full of hidden meaning, concepts that would be very familiar to Zoroastrian priests, who were known for listening to their dreams in conjunction with their observations of the celestial bodies in the sky. They intensely listened to voices inside and above them, and were open to hearing things that ordinarily would not make logical sense to ordinary people. They listened to what was in the depths of their souls to give their lives a sense of direction while simultaneously listening to the powers beyond and above them in the heavens. Watching the star of Jesus, they perceived an incredible, splendid event, similar to the radiant scene which the author of Third Isaiah envisioned in the first Reading.
The Magi were attracted to the star of Bethlehem because of the spiritual energy it transmitted to them. This spiritual light, the spiritual energy that comes from Jesus, shines into us, and awakens us to experience God’s mercy, love and forgiveness. That is what happens when we allow Jesus Himself to be our guiding star, the light that enlightens our lives.
Like the star of Bethlehem, Jesus guides us to bring Him gifts to the Church and the world. The three traditional gifts people make to the Church are treasure, talent, and time, all of which have parallels to the gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh the Magi gave Jesus.
Let’s first consider treasure. Many people at a Church are uncomfortable talking about money. The Magi did not think that way. They anticipated – correctly – that, among other things, Jesus needed money to help carry out His mission. The honest truth is that a Church, like any organization, needs money to pay its bills to survive. The Magi knew Jesus would have bills to pay so they brought Jesus gold. The Church belongs to God, acting through all the people of God. The financial challenge of a Church communicates God’s message to God’s people to step up and do what needs to be done, whether that be reducing expenses, enhancing the pledge drive, or initiating a capital campaign. I realize not everyone can give huge sums of money to the Church. How much you give is a between you and God as a matter of your conscience. The Magi could afford to give gold, and they did so. Even if you are not a wealthy person, you can help church finances through fund raising activities like rummage or bake sales, car washes, initiating crowd-funding at Internet sites like “Go Fund Me,” buying lottery tickets and putting them in the collection plate along with your money, making arrangements with various merchants that have programs to rebate part of their sales to non-profit organizations, and tithing a tenth of your earthly wealth to the Church in your estate plans.
Frankincense symbolizes the Church’s unique talent in comparison to other human services institutions. Frankincense sanctifies. It makes holy. It honors what it encounters. When you wave a thurible at someone or something, you are honoring that person or thing. When you sanctify someone or something, you are telling everyone that you love that person or thing so much you want her, him or it to be considered holy in God’s sight. That is why we cense the altar, cense the gospel book, and cense all the ministers in the Church, not only the clergy, but the laity as well, who are ministers by virtue of their baptism.
Perhaps the best example of where sanctification makes a difference is marriage. The County Clerk can marry you, and that’s it. The County Clerk’s ceremony does not include a nuptial blessing in the name of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. But when you marry in the Church, the Church blesses your relationship in exactly that way. Marriage is a sacrament, embracing not only the outward and visible sign through the physical aspects of being married, but the inward and spiritual grace of a relationship blessed by God. And here, we bless all marriage relationships, including same sex couples.
Frankincense is also about skills. To make frankincense from the sap of the Boswellia tree is a rare skill possessed by few people. A skilled thurifer is an asset to any Church that worships in the catholic tradition. Think about what particular skills you have that might help the Church. Some of us know hardware, software and web-page building. Others of us are writers and can produce brochures and other material. Still others of us are musicians, that is, singers, keyboardists, composers and instrumentalists. And there those among us who are knowledgeable in areas related to church, like scripture, theology, and liturgy. Finally, many of you have the simple gift of your presence, to simple “be there” for someone in distress, to be the presence of Christ in that person’s hour of need. Your simple presence, all by itself, might arouse interest in why you do what you do and attract people to Church.
Finally, there is the gift of your time. Myrrh symbolizes time as its use in ancient time was to preserve bodies after death. Myrrh reminds us of the limited lifespan we have to make a difference in the church and the world. As we get older, we develop an increasing awareness of this idea, particularly when we go to the doctor and learn things about us we would rather not be true.
The traditional standard for giving of ourselves to the Church has been the tithe, or tenth. Every week has one hundred sixty-eight hours, that’s twenty-four times seven. Of these hours, we spend fifty-six sleeping, assuming you sleep eight hours a night. That leaves one hundred twelve waking hours. Of those remaining hours, let’s assume you work forty hours a week. Now we have seventy-two waking hours. What if you give Jesus seven point two hours a week, that is, ten percent of your free seventy-two hours a week? Figure about two to three hours for traveling to and attending Mass and getting home. So what can you do with those other five hours that would make Jesus happy? Many things. Talk about your faith with others; maybe you can get them to church. Get together with other people from inside and outside your parish community to pray and study scripture. Do research and write about ideas related to your faith. You don’t need a theological degree, just a curious and open mind, a warm heart, and the ability and motivation to communicate. Or volunteer at homeless shelters, soup kitchens, or hospitals. The point is, stop wasting your life watching mindless TV shows, playing video games, and aimlessly surfing the Internet, and instead give a large chunk of that spare time to Jesus.
Most important of all, we can bring Jesus the gift of a heart that loves Jesus. We can bring our bodies to love Jesus by doing kind things for others. Despite the storms that batter the boats which are our lives, Jesus promises to be a calming presence resulting from our faith and trust in Him as both the guiding star and destination of our life journey. Jesus Himself tells us in Revelations that He is the brightest and best morning star, a star that both lights the night sky and prophesizes the coming sunrise. AMEN.