08 January 2017

Homily - 8 January 2016 - The Solemnity of the Epiphany of the Lord

The Solemnity of the Epiphany of the Lord

Dear brothers and sisters,       

These learned men from the East are much like the shepherds who adored the newborn King only a few days ago. The shepherds, we are told, were “keeping watch over their flocks by night” (Luke 2:8). The Magi were likewise keeping watch, not over flocks, but over the heavens, which is why they could say, “We have seen his star at its rising,” the Magi told King Herod (Matthew 2:2). Both groups, shepherds and magi, waited something for – or, rather, for someone – who would radically change their lives.

Why should the Magi have spent so much of their time and energy looking for some sign in the heavens? They must have been intentionally looking for the star to see it at its rising and then to follow it. These Magi were perhaps not very different from you and me. They were weary, restless, uncertain and ill at ease. They sought meaning, purpose and direction for their lives. There was, I suspect, within their hearts an intimation of the profound insight of Saint Augustine: “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.”[1]

The shepherds learned of the birth of Christ through the announcement given them by the angels; the Magi through the announcement of the star shining in the heavens. The shepherds set out “with haste, and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in a manger” (Luke 2:16). The Magi, too, having seen the sign they awaited, also set out with some haste to worship the newborn King of the Jews. They left everything behind and went in search of him who was the fulfillment of the deepest desires of their hearts, though they knew him not. Looking at the courageous faith of these Magi, the question rightly comes to us: What must I leave behind in order to go in search of Christ?

Their journey was no easy venture. Coming from the East, they arrived at the goal of their pilgrimage, Bethlehem, through Jerusalem. 
Like the Magi, all believers – and young people in particular – have been called to set out on the journey of life in search of truth, justice and love. We must seek this star, we must follow it. The ultimate goal of the journey can be found only through an encounter with Christ, an encounter which cannot take place without faith.[2] 
If we set out like the shepherds, like the Magi – with haste – we, too, will realize that the answer to our deepest yearning is not a thing, but a person. “The happiness you are seeking, the happiness you have a right to enjoy has a name and a face: it is Jesus of Nazareth, hidden in the Eucharist. Only he gives the fullness of life to humanity!”[3]

Codex Aureus of Echternach, 11th cent.
The Magi further told Herod, we “have come to do him homage” (Matthew 2:2). In Greek, they used a form of the word proskynesis, which is better translated as “we have come to adore him.” This is why, when they entered the house of the Holy Family, “they prostrated themselves;” they lowered themselves before the Holy Infant (Matthew 2:11).

Do we not imitate these Magi each time we enter the church? Do we not also fall down in worship whenever we genuflect before the Lord present in the Holy Eucharist? Yes, we, too, have entered the Lord’s house and have fallen down before him. When we fall down before him, when we bend our knee to him, is it merely an external action, or is it also an external sign of an internal sentiment? For the Magi, it was both. So should it be with us.

This act of adoration is no simple gesture, but one packed with meaning. "To adore refers  to the gesture of submission, the recognition of God as our true measure, supplying the norm that we choose to follow. It means that freedom is not simply about enjoying life in total autonomy, but rather about living the measure of truth and goodness, so that we ourselves become true and good. This gesture is necessary even if initially our yearning for freedom makes us inclined to resist it."[4]

It is only by adoring this King that will we find true freedom. We must, then, learn to recognize the Real Presence of the Lord Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament of the Altar and so adore him with the Magi.

Detail, Hours of Jeanne de Navarre, 14th cent.
When they fell down before him, the Magi “opened their treasures” to the Christ Child (Matthew 2:11). We, too, want to open our treasures to him, but what treasure have we to give so noble, so beautiful, so holy a Child? Most of us have no gold, or frankincense, or myrrh to offer. Or have we?
To the born King we bring gold, if we are shining in his sight with the brightness of heavenly wisdom. Incense we bring him, if we set fire to our thoughts on the altar of our heart with the eagerness of holy prayers, so that through heavenly desire we may give forth something of a sweet smell. Myrrh we offer him if we quell the lusts of the flesh by self-restraint.[5] 
When combined together, these three gifts are an expression of the treasure of our heart, the treasure of our lives. Let us open it to him, and he will in turn open the treasure of his heart to us! “The Latin word for this adoration is adoratio, meaning mouth to mouth contact. It is a kiss, an embrace, and hence, ultimately love. Submission becomes union, because he to whom we submit is Love. In this way submission acquires a new meaning, because it does not impose anything on us from the outside, but liberates us deep within.”[6] This Herod failed to see.

Both Herod and the Magi said they wanted to adore the Child Jesus. The Magi wanted to do so internally in their hearts and externally with their posture to express the sentiment of their hearts. Herod, on the other hand, wanted to perform merely an external show. He refused to submit himself to the Newborn King and, hence, Herod refused open his heart and be conquered by Love. The Magi, on the other hand, opened their hearts to him and allowed their encounter with Christ to transform their lives. This is why they “departed for their country by another way” (Matthew 2:12). They could not have returned the way they had come because everything now was changed.

This is what happens to us when we prostrate ourselves before the Lord and open our hearts to Child of Bethlehem, when we adore the Lord of heaven and earth and submit our lives to him: we are conquered by his love, we are changed, and we become one with him, one with Love.

Here at this Holy Mass, we can adore with the Lord with the Magi, for “present on the altar is the One whom the Magi saw lying in the manger: Christ, the living Bread who came down from heaven to give life to the world, the true Lamb who gives his own life for the salvation of the mankind.”[7] Today, then, let us seek to offer him the gift of gold, of our lives shining with wisdom. Let us seek to offer him the gift of frankincense, of our hearts set afire with love of him. And let us seek to offer him the gift of myrrh, of quelling our passions in his service. Let us seek to open the treasure of our hearts to him. Let us yield to the power of his love and adore him, not as Herod did, but as the Magi, with hearts filled with faith and a desire for salvation.  Amen.

[1] Saint Augustine of Hippo, Confessions 1.1.
[2] Pope Benedict XVI, Address at the Welcoming Ceremony at the Cologne Airport, 18 August 2005.
[3] Ibid., Address at the Celebration Welcoming the Young People, 18 August 2005.
[4] Ibid., Homily, 21 August 2005.
[5] Aelfric of Eynsham, Sermon for the Epiphany of the Lord. In Benjamin Thorpe, trans., Homilies of the Anglo-Saxon Church (1844).
[6] Pope Benedict XVI, 21 August 2005.
[7] Ibid., Celebration Welcoming the Young People, 18 August 2005.

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