In heaven one year it was decided that on the Feast of the Epiphany they would have a liturgy that recreated the visit of the three stargazers from the East. The job of the stargazers was given to the founders of three great religious orders in the Church.
So, everyone gathered to see St. Francis of Assisi come forward at the appropriate time and lay clay doves before the crib of Jesus. As one, as if on cue, the entire heavenly choir went, “Aaahhh!”
St. Benedict was next and he processed slowly to the crib holding a magnificent bejeweled Bible. On the front of it were the words, “This is Your Life.” Everyone in heaven called out, “Oohhh!”
Finally, St. Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Jesuits, limped forward without a gift. He walked straight past the crib, passing up Mary. Everyone in heaven was aghast and thought this is so typical of the Jesuits – he doesn’t know where he’s going in the liturgy and turns up empty-handed. They all watched as he went over to Jesus’ foster father, Joseph. He puts his arm around Joseph’s shoulder and says, “So tell me, Joe, where are you going to send your boy to school? I have connections with Division 1 Colleges and Universities in America and can get you a special rate!”
When we go to the movies, we have to suspend our critical sensibilities in order to enter into the full power of the story. When it comes to the story of the Epiphany, a similar concession is necessary in order to embrace the narrative.
Why, after following a star all the way from the East to Jerusalem, did they have to stop and ask directions from Herod? Why didn’t Herod follow the wise men, or send a spy to learn of their destination instead of slaughtering all those babies in Bethlehem? Whatever happened to these “wise” men? They were the first to recognize who Jesus was and then they vanish from his life as quickly as they entered it.
Like Martin Scorsese or Cecil B. DeMille, Matthew plays with history for another purpose and we sit back and enjoy the picture that’s being painted for us. In his gospel, Matthew is at pains to show how the Jews missed out on Jesus because they were locked in their fears. Pilate is just as fearful as Herod, and the consequence of being threatened by Jesus, results in Pilate’s sentence of crucifixion for Jesus, just like the slaughter of the Innocents in Bethlehem ordered by Herod.
So often our reactions to Jesus can be like Herod’s. We can be threatened and frightened. We want to eliminate the voices that remind us to live out the gospel truth because we’re reminded, at times, of the costs involved. Matthew tells us that the enemy of the Christian life is fear. It entraps and infects those around us. It is most effective when we risk losing power, so we lie, are deceitful, we’ll do almost anything to maintain our position. And like we see in Pilate and Herod, it all ends in death. But when we face down our fears, and name the real threats in our lives, we know the truth of the Scripture for today that says, “Morning star who came back from the dead and shed his peaceful light on all humanity.”
So, this annual story is more than a travelogue of exotic Persian royalty or peculiar, nerdy wizards. It’s a story of the choices that lie before all Christians everywhere: Do we want to live out of wonder or fear?
To follow Jesus’ rule is to keep our eye on the star that lights the path to having the courage to live the gospel message, embrace the cross, see Christ in the neglected and marginalized, all the while trusting that God will remain faithful to us through death to eternal life, where fear will be no more!
Blessed Epiphany! Fr. Glenn
“A light of revelation to the Gentiles, the glory of your people Israel.”
Most of us like to keep things simple. In life we draw up a plan and then step-by-step try to put it into action. Get an education, get a job, start a family, build up savings, then retire. It sounds easy and straightforward, doesn’t it? Our plans generally don’t include unforeseen contingencies. Maybe you train for a career that doesn’t even exist in ten years. Maybe the family you create unhappily comes apart. Maybe you build up savings that are wiped out due to investment difficulties. Maybe you don’t live long enough to retire.
Despite the uncertainty of our plans, we continue to make them. How many still keep a to-do list? WE make a plan every day when we rise and hope to carry it out, item by item; hour by hour. Among the most frustrating episode we face is the encounter with a person who thwarts those plans: swerving into our lane unannounced, or calling with news that changes everything.
Like most couples Abraham and Sarah had counted on having children. After long years of disappointment, they faced old age without heirs. Then God made a promise to miraculously change their fate. Abraham committed his faith to the bargain, and the child arrived who would make his descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky. Parenthood in the senior years is not the usual destination, but the word impossible isn’t in God’s dictionary. A simple plan it wasn’t. But it fulfilled the divine purposes just fine.
The circumstances around the birth of Jesus were far from simple as well. Conception before marriage isn’t the usual plan. Nor is accepting paternity for a child not your own. But the most atypical part of this situation was the conception of the virgin and the adoption of a divine Son. Mary and Joseph were stepping way out of the normal scheme of things to embrace this unique family plan – this Holy Family blueprint. Simeon, a man who’d spent his life waiting for God’s atypical activity, and Anna, a prophetess used to spotting divine markings whenever she saw them, both blessed and announced the revelation of this child. As far as they were concerned, their life plan was achieved with the arrival of Jesus. But then, they were the sort of folks who didn’t mind when God swerved into view without warning, or called in news that changes everything.
Simeon was clear that the great news contained its own share of pain: for Mary and Joseph, for the child’s bitter enemies, and also for his devoted friends. AS old Abraham might remind us, you have to commit your faith to the bargain. Impossible is just not a word God recognizes.
Still writing 2023??? Fr. Glenn
Why should I (King David) live in a house of cedar while God dwells in a tent?”
David wanted to build a new house for God because the king had a more impressive house and address than God’s linen tent. David meant well. His heart was in the right place. But his understanding of God was seriously flawed if he thought the Lord of the universe lived under a tent in his courtyard. But before we judge David for his simple-mindedness, we ought to examine our own understanding of God. Into what little compartment of our lives have we been willing to confine the God of all that is?
Early in life, we give ourselves over to wonder. The world is so big and marvelous, never more so than at this time of year when lights, music and spectacle fill us with expectation.
We approach our first manger scene with awe that is the closest thing to reverence we’ll ever know. We see the baby who is God and we believe the whole story…star, shepherds, kings, drummer boy, littlest angel…it all fits. Whatever miracle you want to assign to this scene the story is magnificent enough to accommodate it all.
But it gets more complicated when we grow older. Our capacity for wonder diminishes. We stop expecting God to arrive, nor do we expect the arrival of God in our lives and the season of Advent shrinks down to the size of a shopping season. The Incarnation is just a story; Christmas is simply a religious obligation. We might as well just put God in a tent in the yard.
One thing David DID understand was that God should never be marginal in our lives. He wanted to bring God back to the center, which was part of the plan in his mind for a Temple but Nathan, speaking for God, had another plan. “I will dwell in you and with your heirs for all time,” he said in response to David’s plan. God would be known in people, not in places; in flesh and not in stone.
Mary was simply a young girl who had never seen a city as splendid as Jerusalem and centuries after David, it had become the place where God dwelt. As a girl/woman, there were places in the Temple she could never walk. But God was willing to come to her and to knit the divine Spirit into her very person. Can you imagine that? This is the very definition of wonder – that God found a home in a teenage girl. We don’t expect God there. That’s the wrong address.
We won’t be knocking on that door. We’d much rather visit God in a building and keep the divine presence in a vessel or a locked box covered in gold. It’s much more convenient to have a God so small that we’ll always know where he is or what he’s up to. That sort of God won’t interfere too much in the ways we live our lives.
When David heard Nathan utter God’s words, David half-believed that God would be within him and his people. But he still went ahead and dreamed up the temple. Mary on the other hand, gave herself up utterly and confidently to God’s words. If she started to make anything, it was baby clothes.
We may have lost sight of wonder in our old age; we may have found a nice sized box to put God in so he won’t cause us any trouble. But the only place God consistently asks to dwell is in us. God seeks a home in us as a dynamic presence. If God lived in us, we would know it, and so would everyone around us. We would be the embodiment of peace. We would be shelter for the poor. We would be joy and compassion and love. We would be like Mary, the willing servant of her Lord, who opened her life to God so intimately.
that God shared her heartbeat and passed into this world through her.
May there be willing volunteers among us, as well, so that God’s will may be done some more!
May you and your family be blest with peace! Fr. Glenn
Who died and made you the Messiah?
Even on my best days I humbly admit, “I am not the Christ.” Even on that occasion in sixth grade when I won the Religion Bee contest at Holy Family School (I knew what the Immaculate Conception was), I was not quite on the verge of saving the world, although I felt capable at the time. In the most powerful moments of my life, I was not powerful enough to salvage human history. In my wisest hour I couldn’t solve the problem of sin or explain why people suffer. In my kindest hour I couldn’t mend a broken heart much less a torn ACL. So don’t look to me for miracles, healings, sermons on mountaintops or the reconciliation of heaven and earth. Heck, I was recently called “woke”, whatever that means. I have been able to forgive the occasional trespass but I can’t take credit for the forgiveness of sin on any grander scale.
Only God can do these things. Only through the life, ministry and teaching of the Divine Son can they be revealed to us. I can dearly wish for miracles, for the healing of a friend or the happiness of a family member or peace in the Middle East. I can pray for those outcomes, and should, and do. But I can’t bring so much as a gnat into being on my own. I know who I am, which includes knowing who I’m not.
Yet it is easy for any of us to get confused on this score. John the Baptist wasn’t. Whether he claimed to be the Christ or the local dog catcher probably didn’t matter at this point in his career – he was toast either way! Still he refused to exalt his position in the scheme of things. He wouldn’t describe himself as so much as a prophet. He simply designated himself as the voice. He cried out. That was the most he was willing to claim.
And being a voice isn’t bad. All of us who call ourselves Christian share this fundamental vocation. We cry out. We speak against injustice, stand with those who suffer, tell the truth in a season of easy lies. Most of all we bring glad tidings to the poor, like Isaiah writes. We also make sure the poor have a reason to rejoice always, as Paul writes.
Most of us won’t lose our heads for embracing this vocation, but it may cost us a fraction of our income, a bit of social influence, the backslapping approval of some neighbors, or a few hours of our time. Occasionally someone loses a job or lifestyle for crying out – but reaps everlasting benefits, which you have to admit is a pretty cool retirement package. Without being the Christ, we remain “in Christ,” a state in which all things are possible.
Another way of saying that…
“Who are you, Michael? That will be the defining question of your life, and I think you already know the answer, and that’s why we’re all here.”
That’s the question sports marketing legend Sonny Vaccaro asks basketball legend Michael Jordan in the movie Air, as Vaccaro is trying to get Jordan to sign a shoe deal with Nike.
“A shoe is just a shoe until somebody steps into it,” says Sonny, or as Jordan’s mother explains it even more precisely, “A shoe is just a shoe until my son steps into it.”
Jordan personified greatness. Vaccaro knew it, Jordan’s mother knew it, and Jordan himself knew it. “The rest of us just want a chance to touch greatness,” says Vaccaro. “ We need you in these shoes not so you have meaning in your life, but so that we have meaning in ours. Everyone at this table will be forgotten as soon as our time here is up – except for you. You’re going to be remembered forever, because some things are eternal. You’re Michael Jordan, and your story is going to make us want to fly.”
In a similar way, John the Baptist recognized Jesus’ greatness early on. He saw who Jesus was and would become. And John knew his role was to point the way to perfection. Follow John’s lead.
Who do you point toward? Fr. Glenn