02 January 2022

Homily - The Solemnity of the Epiphany of the Lord - 2 January 2022

The Solemnity of the Epiphany of the Lord

Dear brothers and sisters,

There are certain figures we expect to find in a Nativity set. Some of the obvious figures include Mary and Joseph and the Baby Joseph, an ox and an ass, shepherds and sheep, and of course the Magi. For the Germans, their Nativity sets almost always include a dog with the shepherds, an inclusion dear to my heart. Sadly, none of my own Nativity sets are of German origin, and so do not include a dog, but they do each include the key figures. There is, however, one figure my Nativity sets do not have that I often expect to find in a Nativity set. The missing figure is one we almost always find in Nativity sets inside churches: a camel. You have surely noticed that our own Nativity set here at St. Augustine’s has a camel.

Adoration of the Magi by Giotto
It is no secret that the account of the visit of the Magi to the Christ Child given to us by Saint Matthew does not mention camels. If this is the case, why is it that larger Nativity sets include these desert creatures? It may be because they are mentioned by the Prophet Isaiah, as we heard a few moments ago: “Caravans of camels shall fill you, dromedaries from Midian and Ephah; all from Sheba shall come bearing gold and frankincense, and proclaiming the praises of the Lord” (Isaiah 60:6).

Since we know the Magi brought with them “gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh,” it seems reasonable to connect this passage from Isaiah with that concerning the Magi (Matthew 2:11). And since they came from the east, it seems practical for them to have travelled with camels. But is there something more behind the inclusion of the camel?

As I pondered the presence of the camel, I decided to consult a medieval Bestiary. The closest comparison we have to a Bestiary in our day would be a zoological textbook. Bestiaries, though, were something more than zoological texts, for they include in them what moral lessons might be learned from particular animals. In consulting the Bestiary I have, a reproduction of the thirteenth century English text known as MS Bodley 764, I stumbled on something rather profound.

In this Bestiary, the anonymous author says the name “camel” has its origin in the Greek word cami, meaning “low” or “short.”[1] They have this name “because the animal lies down to be loaded.”[2] Because of this gesture of bending low to take on a burden, we are told that the camel “signifies the humility of Christ, who bears all our sins.”[3] Christ Jesus “was willing to assume the part of the camel, in taking on Himself the burdens of our weakness which he did out of humility.”[4]

In this we see that “God’s criteria differ from human criteria. God does not manifest himself in the power of this world but in the humility of his love, the love that asks our freedom to be welcomed in order to transform us and to enable us to reach the One who is Love.”[5] We see this humility of the only begotten Son of God displayed unmistakably in his Incarnation, when he not only took on our weakness, but even our own flesh when he was born of the Virgin Mary, not in a royal palace, but in a stable and set, not on a throne, but in a feeding trough.

The moral lesson we are to learn from the camel, then, is that of humility, a lesson which the Magi certainly learned. When they arrived before the Child of Bethlehem, they did not simply genuflect before him; rather, “they prostrated themselves,” they threw themselves down, “and did him homage” (Matthew 2:11).

This was most fitting, as the word “humility” comes the Latin humilis, meaning “on the ground;” they cast themselves on the ground before “the newborn king of the Jews” because they knew his kingship was not limited to the Kingdom of Judea, but to the entire earth and indeed to the entire cosmos (Matthew 2:2). “Their humble courage was what enabled them to bend down before the child of poor people and to recognize in him the promised King, the one they had set out, on both their outward and their inward journey, to seek and to know.[6]

When you and I are neither resistant nor afraid to cast ourselves down before the Lord, if we, like the Magi, prostrate ourselves before him, it does not pertain to us to offer him some kingly gift. Rather, it simply pertains to us to humbly offer him the treasure that is our hearts. Thinking perhaps too little of ourselves, we may be tempted to think such a gift is not worthy of so great a King, but what other gift does a Child ever want but the gift of love, of presence, of a heart?

When Jesus assumed the part of the camel, he received the burden of our sins. When the Magi assumed the part of the camel, they received the burden of being heralds of the newborn king, of proclaiming his Gospel when “they departed for their country by another way” (Matthew 2:12). When we assume the part of the camel, when we bend low, we not only receive the burden of announcing the Gospel, but also of taking up the Cross as it comes to us, of becoming his disciples (cf. Luke 9:23).

Today, brothers and sisters, let us imitate the devotion of the Magi. Let us bow down before the Holy Infant, not seeking to be great lords and ladies, but merely desiring to be his servants. Let us imitate the humble courage of the Magi who, “upon their return home … would certainly have told others of this amazing encounter with the Messiah, thus initiating the spread of the Gospel among the nations.”[7] Let us, with them, tell others of our own encounters with the Lord and proclaim the praises. Amen.

[1] Richard Barber, Bestiary: Being an English Version of the Bodleian Library, Oxford M.S. Bodley 764 with All the Original Miniatures Reproduced in Facsimile. (Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 1999), 95.

[2] Christian Heck and Rémy Cordonnier, The Grand Medieval Bestiary: Animals in Illuminated Manuscripts (New York: Abbeville Press Publishers, 2012), 198.

[3] Richard Barber, Bestiary, 96.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Pope Benedict XVI, Homily, 6 January 2011.

[6] Ibid., 6 January 2012.

[7] Pope Francis, Admirabile Signum, 9.

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