Epiphany of the Lord – January 3, 2016

About a month ago I went in search of a replacement component for the lighting system we have in this church building. After several telephone calls to the company which manufactured the system I was able to find the component I wanted. However, when I asked to order the item, the manufacturer told me that they don’t sell to the public; instead of purchasing it directly from them I would have to find a local electrical contractor who is an approved installer for this component.

I found an approved electrical contractor, but was told the item would take several weeks to be delivered. The contractor said I would have to go to the distributor’s warehouse to pick up the component, and bring with me some paperwork from the contractor in order to complete the transaction. After a lengthy explanation of what was required to obtain the item, the contractor apologized by saying that all of these procedural complications were the result of the manufacturer’s bureaucracy. I explained that no apology was necessary. I am a Catholic priest. On a daily basis I deal with one of the most inefficient bureaucracies in the world: the Catholic Church.

All bureaucracies are self-serving. This is true whether the bureaucracy is a business, a government or a church. The self-serving nature of bureaucracies is both a blessing and a burden. The value of the self-serving nature of bureaucracies is that the institution is maintained, governed and organized – all of which are basic requirements in order that the institution might fulfill its institutional goals. The burden of the self-serving nature of bureaucracies is that the institution can become so focused on itself that it begins to neglect its institutional goals.

If you were at any of the Christmas Masses I celebrated you might recall that I explained that Christmas was a rather late addition to the Church’s liturgical calendar. Christmas was invented as a means to explain the Gospel to several different groups of pagans who worshiped the sun; it was an easy translation for Christian evangelists to make: to shift attention from the sun in the sky to the Son of God. Long before Christmas was celebrated, however, today’s feast of the Epiphany was a significant celebration on the Church’s calendar. This feast was a prominent one from the very early days of the Church’s history because it is a celebration of the appearance of the Savior and the revelation of God’s will to save all people.

The feast of the Epiphany shows the intimate connection (in God’s will), between the Jewish faith of the first disciples of Jesus and the adopted faith of gentile converts. When the first generations of believers read “nations shall walk by your light” (Isaiah 60:3), they knew those words were spoken in reference to them. Those first generations of believers had an acute awareness of the great blessing they enjoyed because of their faith in Jesus, and the great responsibility they had to be witnesses to that faith. Along with the author of the Letter to the Ephesians they knew that the fullness of God’s will “was not made known in other generations as it has now been revealed by God’s power to his holy apostles and prophets, namely, that the gentiles are coheirs, members of the same body, sharing in the same promise in Christ Jesus.” (Ephesians 3:5-6) They saw in the feast of the Epiphany a representation of their own individual congregations; they were people of all backgrounds who now lived in the One Light revealed by God.

Today, the proclamation of the Faith and the Good News is the institutional goal of the Church. As with any bureaucracy, however, the bureaucracy itself can become an obstacle to achieving the institution’s goals. One of the chief obstacles to the goal of proclaiming faith in Jesus as Savior is the fact that the message of transformation has become too much a message of consolation.

The first generations of believers recognized themselves in Isaiah’s prophecy; they knew themselves to be a light for the nations. (Isaiah 60:3) They were very aware of the radical transformation that had taken place in their lives. The Catholic Faith offered them reassurance about their newfound saving relationship with God, but the Faith was also a strong motivation for them to lead others into a relationship with God. The primary reason that Church membership numbers are shrinking today, rather than growing, is that we tend to enjoy the consolation of the Faith and ignore the responsibility that comes with faith.

Catholics today are very quick to take Communion at Mass, but rather slow to invite others to the Lord’s banquet. We are very quick to take pride in our Pope, but slow to make our lives a witness to the universality of the Christian Faith. We are quick to enjoy God’s Grace, but slow to demonstrate how that Divine Grace has transformed our lives for the better.

The Church today has lost some of the focus it had in its youth; it is a little too satisfied with its past accomplishments, and not sufficiently motivated to be the Light and share the Light of Christ with others. We have become a people who walk in our own light, rather than the people who are light for others. It might appear to be a monumental task to transform our current situation, but there is an easy place to start: rather than rest in comfort, let’s look for ways to bring a comforting message to others. Rather than merely take pride in our Church, let’s give others reasons see God’s Light in our congregation. Rather than be satisfied with our past accomplishments as a Church, let’s take some responsibility for the future of our world.

The first generations of believers recognized that they had been transformed, brought from darkness into light, by the Gospel. Our institutional goal as the Catholic Church is to be living reminders of the transformation that is possible for those who welcome God’s Grace with generosity. Rather than merely admire the Sacraments, the Church and the Incarnate Word of God, we are obliged to be transformed. Having experienced the transformative power of God’s Grace, we are then obliged to bring that Light to the world.

A note on the Scriptures:

There are several commentaries I use when I prepare a homily. Some of those commentaries are of a type that can be called “historical,” that is, they interpret the Scriptures from the point of view of the history of the narrative contained in a particular passage. Occasionally, one of those commentaries takes a theological perspective on a passage of Scripture. There is another set of commentaries that might be called “social”; they interpret the Scriptures from the point of view of the culture in which Jesus lived.

Not all of those commentaries are useful to me on every Sunday. Most often, one or two are very helpful while the others are less so. Occasionally, I come across a Sunday like today, the Epiphany of the Lord, on which none of the commentaries seem to have anything worthwhile to say. All of the commentators I read in preparing this homily had nothing to offer but a re-hash of conventional moralizing. They talked about various distinct Scriptural and historical elements that were combined in order to craft the narrative about the Magi. They talked about the hard-heartedness of Herod and the Davidic lineage of Jesus. Some spoke in very sentimental terms about the cuteness of children (the infant Jesus, the holy Innocents, children at Christmas time). There was nothing in them that one couldn’t find in a mediocre news report about holiday celebrations.

When I come across this kind of universal shallowness among commentators, it makes me suspect that there is some great truth hiding in plain sight – something that everyone sees, but no one wants to acknowledge. It is particularly ironic that this should happen with regard to the feast of the Epiphany, as the word “epiphany” means “the unveiling of truth.” What could be such a terrible truth that so many people who see it would prefer to live in denial of it?

Catholic theology uses the word “Revelation” quite frequently. Revelation, in a theological sense, is the unveiling or uncovering of truth that was always present, but not previously seen. Revelation is not the creation of a new truth, nor the discovery of some new power or advantage or privilege. Today’s Scriptures describe Revelation as a light shining in the darkness. Revelation does not add something that was absent in the dark. Rather, it makes visible what was previously concealed by darkness.

One important implication of this understanding of the way God speaks to us is that we are, by our nature, both capable of hearing God speak and obliged to listen when God speaks. In fact, it can be said that because we are capable of hearing God’s Word of Revelation we have an absolute obligation to listen to God’s Word of Revelation. By “absolute obligation,” I mean an obligation that is so sacred and so much a part of our existence that nothing else can be allowed to take precedence over it.

The terrible truth that everyone sees and wishes to deny is, I think, the fact that we allow ourselves too much liberty to reinterpret God’s Revelation into a message that is safe, palatable, non-threatening and affirming. God’s truth is always life-giving but not always comforting. The Revelation of God’s Saving Grace is always transformative, and therefore, not always non-threatening. God’s Incarnate Word speaks to us the truth we need to hear, not always the truth we wish to hear. God’s revealed truth is not for the purpose of calming our fears of the dark. Rather, it is given to us that we might walk in the Light, and reflect that Light to others.

The message of God’s revealed truth is (necessarily), repeated so often that it can become a little too familiar, a little too comforting, a little too affirming and too much of a cause of complacency. If you’ve grown complacent about the startling revelation of Divine Truth that became Incarnate in Jesus, it might be necessary for you to look beyond the merely conventional. The story of the Magi is an engaging tale of men who allowed themselves to be disturbed by what they perceived in the heavens. They left the comfort of their homes, and journeyed to a distant, insignificant town. They had a harrowing experience of a brutal, jealous King. They gave a great treasure to an unlikely future King. At the end of all this, they were forced to find a new route home. Because the Magi were willing to be led, they encountered more than they could have imagined possible. Until, and unless, we are similarly willing to be led on a path we cannot foresee, we will remain in fear, not of the darkness but of the Light.