02 January 2021

Homilies - The Solemnity of the Epiphany of the Lord 2021

The Solemnity of the Epiphany of the Lord 

Dear brothers and sisters,

For some years now, I have noticed – and repeatedly cautioned against – a fast encroaching secularization of the celebration of Christmas. What is supposed to be a celebration of the Birth of the Son of God has become – if we are honest – a little more than a bland celebration of winter and of fantasy. A quick look at “Christmas” decorations sees more penguins and snowmen than images of the Holy Infant.

As a very recent example of what I mean, consider a wooden sign I saw in a store this past December 15th. The sign is effectively divided into two sections. The top portion contains the words, “Star of wonder / Star of night.” Those of us who have not yet completely given in to the secularization of the Nativity of the Lord will recognize these words as the opening line of the refrain of that great carol, “We Three Kings”: 

O, Star of Wonder, Star of Night,

Star with Royal Beauty bright,

Westward leading, Still proceeding,

Guide us to Thy perfect Light. 

Whoever designed the sign I saw was apparently completely ignorant of the origin of those words – Star of Wonder, Star of Night – and of the basic elements of what we might call the Christmas story. Beneath them was a painting of the Magi from the East following the star to the Christ Child, but rather a painting of Santa Claus, with his arms full of presents. The sign left me deeply sorrowful because it demonstrated in a clear fashion how far away from the true meaning of Christmas we, as a society, have drifted.

How is it that we have largely turned what is supposed to be the celebration of Love-made-flesh into a commercialistic and individualistic celebration that centers around presents? The answer is simple: we have largely stopped looking for the Savior; rather than looking for the one who is our King, as those Magi did, we, like Herod, look only for ourselves.

Most of us are very much unaware of the stars overhead and which constellations are visible at which times of the year. Even of the few constellations and planets we might recognize at sight, we are often unaware of their movements and only occasionally take notice of them. We suddenly notice one day, for example, that the Orion has ascended without noticing Betelgeuse or Rigel rise before him, yet somehow the Magi noticed this heavenly wonder at the first moment of its rising. What can this mean?

Of their motivation for scouring the heavens we can only surmise, yet we are not without direction. Have we not all, at one time or another, looked to the stars for the answer or explanation to some great question of life? When King David looked to the stars he was moved to sing: 

When I see your heavens, the work of your fingers,

the moon and the stars that you set in place –

What is man that you are mindful of him,

and a son of man that you care for him?

Yet you have made him little less than a god,

Crowned him with glory and honor (Psalm 8:4-6). 

Seeing the beauty of the cosmos, David was led to contemplate his own smallness in the vast expanse of creation. In this, he recognizes God’s love: small as he is, he is not forgotten. And in this, he prophesies the coming of the Son of God who, though great, made himself small for us.

The Magi were, as Saint Pope John Paul II called them, “passionate seekers after the truth.”[1] Could it not be that they watched the heavens not simply for the announcements of royal births, but for the very meaning and purpose of life itself? With this great question, common to every man, woman, and child, the Magi watched the heavens, looking for something so intently and earnestly that at the moment the star began to ascend, they saw it and immediately followed it.

In the light of this cosmic herald, the Magi recognized a sign of the glory of the One of whom it was sung: “Justice shall flower in his days, and profound peace, till the moon be no more” (cf. Isaiah 60:2; Psalm 72:7). Through this star, they somehow knew that “the Lord, the Mighty One, has come,” and so they set out at once to find him, to find the fulfillment of every longing and desire of their hearts.[2]

With their faces bowed before that holy Child, the Magi somehow recognized a great truth, namely: “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] This is what our society – and many of us, as well – have sadly forgotten.

If you and I are to follow that “star of wonder” to find the only satisfaction of our deepest longings, we must take our eyes off ourselves. Unlike Herod, who looked only to this present life, we must follow the example of the Magi, who looked for deeper and higher realities. Even if only subconsciously, the Magi were focused on finding Christ, on finding Truth; consciously, Herod was not because he was focused on preventing change.

When the Magi returned to the East, they “departed for their country by another way” (Matthew 2:12). Why is that detail important? They returned by another way because they could not return the same way they had come; in their encounter with the Christ Child, they were inwardly changed and nothing would be the same for them again. Is this the case with us? Have we allowed ourselves to bow so low before the Child of Bethlehem, to be so enraptured by Love-made-flesh, to be so overcome by the Way, the Truth, and Life, that everything changed for us, as well? May we never be afraid or embarrassed or ashamed to fall down in worship before the Son of God and Son of Mary and to be conquered by the beauty of so great a gift. Amen.

[1] Saint Pope John Paul II, Message for World Youth Day 2005, 7.

[2] Cf. Roman Missal, The Epiphany of the Lord, Entrance Antiphon.

[3] Pope Benedict XVI, Celebration Welcoming the Young People, 18 August 2005.

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