Homily for the Solemnity of the Epiphany
Deacon D. McManaman
This gospel reading for this celebration of the Epiphany is the fulfillment of what we heard in the first reading, from Isaiah, 60: “Jerusalem, …Nations shall walk by your light, and kings by your shining radiance”. In the gospel, we read that the Magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem and said to Herod: “We saw his star at its rising and we have come to do him homage.”
On the basis of these readings, I’d like to make two main points: 1) about the cosmos, and 2) about man’s original vocation
The first point on this solemnity of the Epiphany is that the world that God created, the cosmos in its entirety, is an epiphany. The word ‘epiphany’ means manifestation. The created world manifests the divine presence; it speaks of God, of his divine generosity, his benevolence. It praises the beauty and intelligence of God. Scripture makes this very clear. For example, in Psalm 19, we read:
The heavens proclaim the glory of God
and the firmament shows forth the work of his hands.
Day unto day takes up the story
and night unto night makes known the message.
And so, creation announces, proclaims, speaks of God’s glory.
Or consider Psalm 148:
Praise him, sun and moon;
praise him, all shining stars.
Praise him, highest heavens,
you waters above the heavens.
Let them all praise the Lord’s name;
for he commanded and they were created,
Assigned them their station forever,
set an order that will never change.
Just as a work of art is in many ways an epiphany of the artist, revealing so much about the artist, creation in all its diversity manifests and praises God.
But there is more. In the first story of Creation in the book of Genesis, God says to man:
Have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth. I have given you every plant yielding seed which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food.
In other words, God created the world as a banquet for us, to feed us. For the Jews, a meal has much more significance than simply a means of sustaining biological life; a meal is a source of communion with all those at table, and so creation, which is given to man for food, is a source of communion with God.
My next point is that a priest is one who offers sacrifice, in particular the sacrifice of thanksgiving. The word Eucharist means ‘thanksgiving’. Man’s task is to receive the food that is creation and give thanks for them, and we give thanks by offering something in return. In other words, man was created to be a priest of creation–he was created to offer, to thank, to praise, to adore. He is to take what is given and lift it up to God, that it may become what God intended for it to become–namely, a means of communion with him.
This pattern is visible at every level of creation. The lowest level of the hierarchy of being in the physical universe is the mineral level, the level of non-living matter. Above that are living things, i.e., plants, but plant life takes non-living matter and consumes it, that is, raises it up through the power of nutrition and transforms it into living matter (this is what happens when we water plants). Non-living matter is food for living matter, and life lifts it up, so to speak. But brute animals eat plants, and through the process of metabolism change plant life into living animal tissue, a higher mode of life. It does this, however, by killing it first and then raising it up. Plants must be sacrificed first in order to be lifted up to serve something higher. But man exercises dominion over the animal kingdom, raising it up to serve human needs, in a number of ways, not always for food. Man, who contains within himself the entire hierarchy of being within himself, is to take all that he is and has become, and all that he possesses, and offer it to God, in the service of God, in a spirit of thanksgiving or Eucharist. Man is a priest of creation.
But the fall of man was a rejection of this priesthood. He chose to make himself his own god. As a result, he gradually became deaf to the praises sung by creation, he no longer possessed the eyes and ears to understand the universe as an epiphany. He no longer had the mind to see the entire cosmos as gift, as food given to him by God out of his superabundant generosity, for the sake of communion with him. And so, he no longer gave thanks. His life ceased to be Eucharistic.
However, God made a covenant with Abraham, the father of Israel, in order to make her a holy nation, a priestly kingdom (Ex 19, 6). And so, Israel is a light to the nations, a holy people, set apart from all others, a priestly people, and the first reading says:
Rise up in splendor, Jerusalem! Your light has come,
the glory of the Lord shines upon you.
See, darkness covers the earth,
and thick clouds cover the peoples;
but upon you the LORD shines,
and over you appears his glory.
Nations shall walk by your light,
and kings by your shining radiance.
And the Magi walk by the light of Jerusalem, and that light is a star. In other words, the Magi, these ancient non-Israelite priests of Persia, had eyes for this cosmological epiphany; their priestly existence made them able to discover the Christ child. The Lord was preparing the nations for something new. The Magi follow a star that leads them to Christ, who is the Epiphany of epiphanies, who is God in the flesh. And they have come to worship, to do him homage, to offer him gifts. They do not walk in darkness, they walk by the light of Israel.
What this announces is that the New Covenant will be an international covenant–it will extend beyond the borders of Israel to embrace the whole world. That is why Christ sent his disciples out to all nations. Christ came to restore the world to its status as God’s kingdom (house, palace, covenanted family). Christ, who is God, is everything that man hungers for, his kingdom is everything that man searches for, everything that the great religions of the world are searching for–God become man. And what man was and is called to be is right there in the image of the Magi, who do homage to Christ. We were created “through him and for him”, for Christ’s priesthood; we were created to worship, to adore, to offer. We were created to become Christ, which is what happens in an ordinary Mass. That’s our completion. That was our original vocation, that our entire life, every day, be a sacrifice of thanksgiving, a constant lifting up all we have and are to God, to receive what the Lord gives us and to offer it to him in thanksgiving, whether that be our work, our children, every moment of time in our lives. We are priests. In baptism, we were anointed priest, prophet and king; we are members of the Royal Priesthood of the Faithful. What the ordained ministerial priest does is he takes what we offer, namely bread and wine, which represent the fruit of our labor, our sacrifices, our daily stresses and frustrations, our efforts and the love behind that labor, we offer it here, at the altar, and he takes it and lifts it up on our behalf, and Christ, who is the priest at the altar, receives that bread and wine that we have offered to him and changes it into himself, his own body and blood, which in turn is the sacrifice that Christ offers to the Father. And that is returned to us as food, but it is no longer bread and wine, but the actual food of his body and blood: “for my body is real food”, he says, and “my blood real drink”. Through this exchange, we are deified, united to his sacrificial and Eucharistic offering. Like food that is metabolized, we are raised up to a higher life, a divine-human life. And now, our entire life is subordinated to God; for we are his servants, and servants follow orders. We live under his commands. That’s our fulfillment, and that’s what we were created for.
In this gospel, Herod represents all those who refuse this priesthood. To preserve his power, he sacrifices the innocents, those children called to be priests of his creation, whom he sees as a threat to his status and power, because among them is a king. He is his own god; he does not worship. He is a liar and a murderer for the sake of making his own life more convenient.
And this world is still divided accordingly. I was watching a debate on abortion recently, which was 2 hours and 20 minutes. This is unusual, because abortion is no longer debated; people won’t talk about that. But it was very interesting because the debate was very civil. And both sides were very intelligent and articulate. A young female medical student was arguing for abortion rights, while a young man was arguing against abortion, for the rights of the unborn child. But what I found interesting is that despite the brilliant arguments and points made by the young man arguing for the rights of the unborn child not to be murdered, he was not making any progress; it was like sound waves bouncing off a wall. And there was a wall that divided them, the same wall that divides the world, which Christ came to erect: “Do not think I have come to bring peace; I have come not to bring peace, but a sword of division.” (Mt 10, 34). For the young woman, the issue is all about my consent, my will, my rights, my body, my decision. In other words, my life does not belong to the Lord, it belongs to me. But for the young man, the issue was about obeying, submitting to a higher law, that is, not my will, my rights, my consent, but “Thy will be done”. Although she was very civil, not to mention bright and persistent, she was in some ways a daughter of Herod. His attitude, on the other hand, represented the priesthood of the faithful, our original vocation that was restored in Christ.