…people are funny…

People are funny.  There’s no other word that I can think of at the moment that would be as charitable.  Where circumstances seek or demand that ( at the very least out of respect for another) we are attentive to a situation or inconvenience ourselves for a few minutes, increasingly people seem to be either woefully or wilfully ignorant.

Among the ministries I am blessed to be able to participate in, I am sometimes called upon to lead funeral vigils, according to the Rite of Christian Burial. These take place at the funeral homes, most often the evening before a funeral. The vigil is generally at the beginning or near the end of the period of ‘visitation’ when people come to pay their respects and share their condolences with those grieving the loss of the deceased.

While it doesn’t always happen, it has occured often enough that I have come to almost expect this: when there are people lined up to pay their respects, and the room where the visitation is ocurring is quite full, there is a noticeable ‘exodus’ as soon as the ‘guy with the collar’ shows up, or when someone announces, ‘we will be offering prayers shortly’.

It’s as if this is a signal to get out ‘while the getting is good’. I’ve seen parents rush through the visitation line, dragging pre-adolescent kids along, to get out before prayers begin. I’ve taken note of people in the lineup (one or two by some distinguishing fashion or hairstyle), only to notice their absence during prayers, but to see them sitting in their cars in the funeral home parking lot when I exit after the vigil is done (and when they see me get in my car, they exit theirs and return to the funeral home).

Sometimes these group ‘disappearances’ occur with the majority of people at the visitation leaving during prayers, and coming back in when the prayers are over. Seriously.

As I recounted several of these episodes recently with a friend, I suggested that in my previous employment as a police officer, had I known it was that easy to clear a room, then I could have saved a whole lot of effort when walking into a barfight or domestic disturbance I simply shouted, ‘we will be praying shortly’ and everyone would have just left. Problem solved!

Now don’t get me wrong. I understand how everyone grieves differently. I understand how some might even be ‘uncomfortable’ praying in public.

But at the very least, out of respect for the dead or to offer comfort to the grieving, would it really be too much to ask folks to just spend just 10 minutes out of their day in prayer (or thought, or silence) out of respect or sympathy? They are already at the funeral home presumably out of some sense of necessity or support for the deceased or their families.

It is one of these things that we should feel strongly about, as part of our humanity, that those around us who experience loss need the support and love of a caring community of friends, relatives and acquaintances.  Those who claim to be people of faith are doubly responsible to provide that support and love. This is indeed part of the two great commandments, of loving God and loving neighbour.  Something as simple as remaining present while a grieving family prays for their dearly departed loved one and themselves, is a strong witness to the depth of feeling a person has for the deceased, their survivors, or both.  It is also a powerful witness to hope – a hope that says I know that my Redeemer lives and I shall see Him on the last day – a hope that says this world is not all there is. Staying and praying with others will most certainly not take you away from something more important – besides, you’re there already.

And who knows – talking to God with a group on behalf of someone else, just might do you some good too. It certainly can’t hurt.

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Praised be Jesus Christ, now and forever!

Third Sunday Ordinary Time

One of the greatest shortcomings of the human race, is that we have a very short attention span when it comes to extraordinary events: whether it be something wonderful or something tragic; our society’s attention generally to specific events or needs is somewhat fleeting.

Three years ago this month, Haiti experienced a massive earthquake with a death toll of over 200,000 people. Within days it went from the top story in most news casts, dropping down in ‘priority’ behind the economy, politics and celebrity news.  It is all but forgotten on the main world stage again.

But the troubles and struggles and grief and tragedy in that poor little country have been continuing for generations, and will continue for generations without the ongoing help and support of a caring world community.

There are dozens of examples of under-developed and developing countries all over the world, where this is the case; that the struggles and poverty; the conflicts and starvation; the complete neglect and abuse of the poor have been going on for years; and only when an extraordinary event occurs on a massive scale, does the entire world community sit up and take notice and offer to help.  The poverty in Africa, Asia, and Central America continues; persecutions of Christians are still occurring in parts of Africa and India and Pakistan; the children of North Korea are still hungry; suffering and want on a massive scale has become ‘ordinary’ in our world.

The extraordinary becomes ordinary, and loses our attention: but this is nothing new or modern.  This trend goes back to the earliest periods of human history:  we have an example from the period almost 500 years before Jesus was born, to the time of our first reading from the book of Nehemiah:

The Jewish people have returned from the exile in Babylon; returned to rebuild Jerusalem. Once the walls are rebuilt they gather to hear the Word of God.

Prior to the exile in Babylon, the children of Israel had God’s Word, God’s Law…it was a gift to them, given by God through Moses and the prophets…but over time, it became ‘taken for granted’. Iit became ‘ordinary’ and eventually became ignored.

Yet after the disaster of the conquering of Israel and destruction of their country – their enslavement in Babylon – their release and return to their homeland generations later:  God’s Word is again ‘Extraordinary’.  We hear, from daybreak to midday it is read – proclaimed to them.

If we read the complete passage in the book of Nehemiah it shows the people’s reactions to hearing the Word of God proclaimed: they stand in respect – they bow in reverence – the lie prostrate on the ground in adoration – they weep for joy, listening for hours on end.

And yet, as history shows, over time in their lives the Word would become something ordinary again.  This ‘ordinariness’ of the Word to the nation becomes evident as later prophets try to bring Israel back to the heart of the Word of God: a Law of ‘mercy and compassion’; a call which seems to fall on deaf ears, right up to the time of Jesus: and this brings us to today’s Gospel passage from St. Luke.

Jesus teaches in the synagogues around the region – the gospel of Luke says, ‘he was praised by everyone”; His teaching inspired people – His teaching impressed them. He was extraordinary to these other synagogues in the region. But when He returns to his home town and goes to the synagogue ‘as was his custom’ – to his local community, His presence is something ordinary: He regularly and continually practices his faith and customs; and yet, the most extraordinary thing of all is often overlooked in this passage: Here we have God the Son, the Living WORD of God – the Word made flesh – proclaiming and teaching the Word.  Who better to teach and explain God’s Word, than the living Word of God Himself?

In quoting this particular passage from Isaiah, Jesus is not just speaking to the people of the synagogue in Nazareth at a specific historical point in time; He is speaking to all people of all times; yes, he is identifying Himself to those hearing Him in the synagogue as the Messiah, prophesied by Isaiah; but He is saying much, much more.

‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because He has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free”

This, Jesus is saying, is the hallmark of His Kingdom – of his Messiah-ship; the good news proclaimed to the poor, the good news of salvation, of mercy, of healing; and as we explore and read further in St. Luke’s gospel during this year, we will hear Jesus tell us that the hallmark of His true disciples – His followers – is that they will imitate the Master;

That this concern for the poor; this living out of a Gospel of mercy and compassion is not a ‘one off’ exercise reserved for ‘extraordinary’ events;

This, rather, is to be the constant attitude of all who identify themselves as Christians, as followers of Christ.

That our life and lifestyle is to be marked by our treatment of those around us all the time; the poor in our midst – yes of course those in places around the world or our own country devastated by disaster and poverty – but those much nearer too; the neglected in our own communities, our own workplaces; our own schools; our own parish or even our own homes and families.

It is not about a single social program; it is more about a social attitude; and this ‘attitude’ is motivated and marked by a love for God and a desire to be His instrument in everything we do and with everyone we meet.

Jesus came into the midst of those in the synagogue at Nazareth as one of their community; someone apparently very ordinary – and yet, here was the living proof of the most Extraordinary event in the history of the human race; the Incarnation of God – the entering of God into our humanity as one of us in the person of Jesus –

Have we become so used to this extraordinary truth that it is now ordinary to us?  If so, there is something wonderful for us to consider.

Even if the Word has become ‘ordinary’ to us in the casual sense, it can indeed become Extraordinary to us again; it is simply a matter of being open to receive God’s Word –proclaimed for us at Mass – and opening our hearts and minds to The Spirit’s gift of understanding when we read Sacred Scripture; to understand where in our own lives we have been already been witnesses of The Word to others, and to build on that action with the help of God;

So that we too can once again become extraordinary for Christ.

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Praised be Jesus Christ, now and forever!

…change and hope and prayer

I’m not sure about where you live, but the weather in my locale has been anything but consistent!  Why, just over a week ago, in mid-January, we were basking in weather that was more springlike, with a temperature of plus 15 celsius (that’s about 55 F.), a couple of days of rain after that, then temperatures and windchills that hit minus 26 C (or – 15 F), and as I look out my window now, snowsqualls. 

This brings with it the expected comments regarding climate change, and what we are doing to stop it (or at least minimize it).  There seems to be a train of thought amongst some folks, that if we were to change everything that humans do, right now, everywhere on the planet, then we could stop or reverse the changes immediately.

This is not meant to be morose, but the expectation, that we could get everyone, everywhere to change their behaviours for the good of the planet, and subsequently the good of all, while perhaps noble, might seem sadly unrealistic.  Whether for cultural, economic, social reasons, there doesn’t seem to be a complete desire on the part of all nations and all peoples to resolve this issue, one way or the other.  And even if we could, the changes in weather patterns and the resulting influence on the planet will not just ‘go away’ overnight. It will take time to return to ‘normal’ (whatever normal really is!) We may never see the benefit of such a return in our lifetimes, or even our children’s lifetimes, if at all.

Yet, we hope.

We hope that world leaders will cooperate with each other, for the good of all people. That they will seek ways to share the earth’s resources equally, so that there is enough fairly distributed for all; that poverty, war and disease become long distant memories of the past. We hope that nations will change.

But if there is to be any change in the attitudes of nations, the hearts of the people who make up those nations must change first; authentically, sincerely, genuinely.

This sense of change, of conversion is so often reflected in the Sacred Scriptures.  The point of the creation stories in Genesis is that we were given the planet (and each other) to care for, to nurture, to share.  That point is made over and over throughout the Old and New Testaments.  Everything and everyone is a gift from God, given freely to us.  Perhaps if we had more of a sense of gratitude rather than entitlement, we might find within our own hearts reasons to change our lifestyles, our habits, our routines – not only in terms of the environment, but  in terms of how we treat each other, locally, nationally and internationally.

What will occur in terms of our world climate, God only knows.  But I do believe there is a lesson in all of this.

We can hope.

Regardless of current conditions, we can hope.  We can hope for something better – not just for ourselves, but for all of our brothers and sisters; that we can share the best of what we have and what we are with each other to work towards that goal; that the hearts of people will be touched to change so that there is genuine compassion and charity for all.

But before we can act, we have to have hope.

That hope is the result of prayer.

Prayer is born from love. 

Love of God, love of all of God’s creation, and love of neighbour. 

So as I sit and watch the snowfall become heavier, I will offer up a prayer of hope, for you , for our children, and for our planet. 

And if you have a moment, you could do the same.

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Praised be Jesus Christ, now and forever!

Second Sunday Ordinary Time

In this Sunday’s Gospel reading, we hear St. John’s account of Jesus’ first recorded public miracle, the changing of the water into wine at the wedding feast at Cana. We’ve heard and read so much about this particular miracle and the significance of all of the aspects of this occasion that can teach us so much. We can learn about the importance of marriage in the eyes of God – so important that Jesus performs His first public miracle in relation to it. We can learn how Jesus shows us that participating in joyful religious and secular celebrations is part of being fully human. We can learn the axiom, ‘saving the best for last.’
But, at the heart of this Gospel passage is this message;
“Do whatever He tells you.”
These are the words Mary uses when she speaks with the servants at the feast, indicating that Jesus knows what He is doing and to simply listen, and trust what He instructs them to do.
“Do whatever He tells you.”
How often have we heard people say, ‘if only God would just clearly show me what to do’; how often have we said ourselves, ‘Jesus, just tell me what you want!’ Have we really been open to hearing the answer to that demand?
If we think that God has never told us how to respond in any given situation, then we haven’t spent much time reading Sacred Scripture. All of the law and the prophets of the Old Testament, all of salvation history recorded in the Old and New Testaments, point to God’s desire to have all of us in right relationship with Him. To do that, we also have to be in right relationship with each other. Jesus explains this quite clearly when, later in his ministry, he will tell a scribe that the two greatest commandments are total love of God and loving one’s neighbour as one’s self. Throughout His public ministry of teaching, healing, and miracles, Jesus will give concrete examples of what this love really is, what it really means, and how we can grow in it.
He tells us all the time, if only we take the time to listen and then follow.
‘Do whatever He tells you.’
He tells us how to respond when we are faced with difficult choices in life. He tells us how to treat each other. He tells us how to act as people of God. He tells us how to live out our relationships with God and others. He tells us how to gain eternal life. All we need to do is prayerfully read Scripture, perhaps asking for assistance in understanding fully its meaning, We need to pray, and we need to see how the Gospel is reflected in our daily circumstances. Then, we need to act according to what we have been told by Christ. That’s what we mean when we talk about discernment; coming to an understanding of what God wants us to do in life. The truth is, if we have seriously spent any time in reading Sacred Scripture, in authentic prayer, and in reflecting on how the Gospel fits into our daily lives, then on some level, we already know what God wants us to do or how Jesus wants us to respond.
We might be afraid or worry that what He tells us is not comfortable for us to hear; maybe He is asking us to do something that won’t be popular, or that demands we put our own wants aside for the benefit of someone else.
The real difficulty, it seems for us, is being willing to do whatever He tells us, and actually carrying though.
For that, we need to rely on His Spirit, and gifts like courage, wisdom, and understanding, gifts that we can receive in trust if we are open to receiving them – and this being open is also something that He ’tells’ us.
It’s not terribly clear in this gospel passage whether or not Jesus was known personally by the servants at the feast. Regardless, they simply followed His instructions. His directions weren’t complicated; they were very straightforward. The work wasn’t particularly heavy, nor did it appear to be terribly time-consuming. The servants simply did what He told them to do.
Here is a key insight for us into their discernment; they knew it was Jesus that was telling them what to do. His mother, Mary, had pointed their attention to her son, and left everything in His hands. She went to Him on behalf of others, asked Him for a favour, and left it at that. The words of Mary to these servants should be the same words we hear from those leading us along our own faith journeys.
In His Word; in His Teaching handed down to us; in His Sacraments; in prayer; He is always telling us what we need to do. He points to our love of God, and our relationship to each other, particularly those around us who need the love of God the most – the poor, the neglected, the suffering – those who are around us everywhere, every day, all the time.
These should be the words we recall every moment of every day; words we should share with each other, as we all journey together toward that ultimate heavenly feast.
“Do whatever He tells you.”

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Praised be Jesus Christ, now and forever!

…as morning breaks I look to you O Lord…

There are those times in our daily lives when things just seem to fall into place; times when the world around us gives us examples that reinforce something that we have read or heard; times when we see or hear something that gives us one of those, ‘Aha’ moments – enabling us to experience in our hearts what we have learned with our intellect. Moments, when we become aware of God’s presence and in His glory reflected in the world around us.

Those moments happen, I think, more often and more frequently than most of us would imagine or expect. Certainly there are those major revelatory moments, when a deep theological truth almost hits us between the eyes! However, I think those moments happen daily, perhaps many times each day, in small and simple and seemingly quite ordinary things. We might tend to discount them, because (we might think) these are ‘ordinary’ things of no consequence or importance to anyone else. The truth is, though, that any moment that thoughts of God move from our minds to our hearts, that is something of consequence and importance.

This morning I had one of those moments.  I was in my car, driving into the parish office along my daily route which runs from a rural area, along a country road past farms and woodlots. The sky was an intense blue, without a single cloud, and I was listening to a version of Psalm 63 adapted and written by John Michael Talbot (it’s from his CD ‘Come to the Quiet’…but I digress)

This particular version adds an antiphon, ‘As morning breaks I look to you O Lord to be my strength this day’, and is taken from the Liturgy of the Hours.Through the cycle of the Liturgy of the Hours, psalms and particular scriptural texts are read, and re-read as the cycle repeats.  On the first Sunday of the four week cycle, during morning prayer, Psalm 63 is prayed with this antiphon.

As I drove along, and noticed the brightness of the sun, and the clear skies, I was struck by the beauty of this route I travel each day. At the same time, I was mindful of the words in the psalm,

‘so I gaze on you in the sanctuary to see your strength and your glory’

I’m not saying that God is ‘in’ His creations in nature, but that His glory is reflected in His creation. The simple, daily beauty that was before me as I travelled on this road became an apparent and clear reminder to me of the beauty and goodness and glory of God.

And that led me further along the psalm;

‘my soul shall be filled as with a banquet, my mouth shall praise you with joy.’

Needless to say, that set the tone for the rest of the morning.

I certainly am not holding myself up as any kind of ‘guru’, or suggesting that there is any kind of magical ‘formula’ for bringing about an awareness of the presence of God each day.  I am suggesting though, that when we spend time sincerely praying and reflecting on the psalms, scripture, and sound spiritual reading, God will make Himself known to us in the most surprising of ways – perhaps surprising in their ‘ordinariness’; or in our daily routines where we have failed to notice His many gifts and blessings.  One way to express that openness is to take the time and make the effort, no matter how small, to pray and read and reflect; the reward for that effort can only lead to those ‘aha’ moments – even if it is only during a morning drive to the office. 

Because any morning where we feel that God has filled our souls, ‘…as with a banquet’, well, that just has to be a great start to the day!

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Praised be Jesus Christ, now and forever!

Baptism of Our Lord

There is something that has pretty much become a tradition this time of year for me; it’s a time when I can pay a bit closer attention to things around my own home, and put some effort into fixing up parts of the house or renovating.  There’s something about stripping a room down to its bare walls, and considering how it doesn’t look particularly special, or how it doesn’t reflect the image or taste of the occupants of that room.  It looks very plain, very ordinary.  But even in the plain and ordinary, it has potential. When we start to apply our own ideas to that room –paint colours or fixtures- it starts to reflect its occupant’s personality. It becomes much more than it appeared to be when it was plain and bland, and just like every other room in the house.  It becomes distinct, unique; special.

Today’s Gospel passage is all about potential.  As we celebrate the Feast of the Baptism of Our Lord, this  year we read St. Luke’s account of this very public meeting between St. John the Baptist and Jesus.  St. John at this point in his ministry has followers; but he has already stated he is not the Messiah.  And then Jesus enters into this scene, mingling with the rest of the crowd at the Jordan – apparently un-noticed, blending in amongst the rest of the people, very ordinary, very plain.

But after this baptism, to those who read and hear and believe, it becomes very clear who Jesus is; He is not someone very ordinary, very plain – He is the Son of God, the Beloved; and this is one of those rare scenes in the Gospels, where we have all Three Persons of the Holy Trinity, apparent and visible as three distinct persons; the voice of the Father, the physical presence of the Son, and the movement of the Holy Spirit. The incredible, unlimited potential of what appeared to be something very ordinary is opened up and unlocked for those who are open to seeing and hearing and believing.

It is important that we look for a moment at something that sometimes causes confusion when we consider Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan by his cousin John.

We understand in the Sacrament of Baptism we receive the gift of the Holy Spirit and original sin is wiped away; but the question is often asked, “why would Jesus need Baptism to wipe away original sin?”

It’s important to realize the baptism by John was not the same as the Sacrament of Baptism the Church received from Jesus- where we become adopted children of God; John’s baptism of people was symbolic, not sacramental; as he said himself, he baptized with water, not with the Holy Spirit.

The people who came to John were accepting a baptism of repentance; repentance really means desiring to come closer to God, recognizing that as human beings, we are separated from God.  This was a public statement.  Those attending had water poured over their heads as a public sign of that desire to wash away their earthly attachments (whether that be harmful relationships, material wealth, power, or sin) and to dedicate themselves to growing closer to God.

In this passage from St. Luke, it says “when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying,” it was then that the Holy Spirit descended upon Him!  St. Luke is identifying Jesus with the rest of the crowd up to this moment.  Jesus is ‘one of us’, unrecognizable by anyone else as something special, until in prayer, when the Spirit descends upon Him and the Father’s voice singles Him out ‘the Beloved’ .

In accepting this baptism from John, Jesus is telling us that he has fully entered into our humanity- our physical separation from God; that in his humanity, He is just like us – he desires to be closer to the Father; and in his humanity, he will set the example of emptying Himself for others; taking all our sin, through His divinity, upon himself; carrying it all the way to the Cross; to bridge that divide for us; a divide that separates us from God- a divide that we made. God does all the work, in the person of Jesus – and we receive the rewards.

How could we not respond in love to that?  How could we not want to desire to move more deeply into relationship with God, who goes to that extent for us?  How could we not be open to seeing that same gift is offered to every person in our parish, our community, our planet?

Today’s Gospel reminds us of the tremendous potential that each one of us possesses; that as Jesus identified with us in our humanity, we can now begin to identify with Him in His divinity, becoming adopted children of God through our own Baptism; and because of this, God says to each one of us; “you are my son…you are my daughter…you are my child, my beloved – with whom I am well pleased”  It’s an invitation; to live out that potential ourselves, and to recognize that potential in each other.

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Praised be Jesus Christ, now and forever!

…the mystery of grief…

A change in the month; leaving one year behind for a new one; the movement of the liturgical calendar as we move through the last days of the Christmas season into Ordinary Time; each change, while bringing with it a sense of newness, or potential, also brings with it a sense of grieving as well.

Grief is one of those strange and mysterious things in our human existence.  Yes, I say mysterious, because – as anyone who has dealt with the immediacy of grief will be able to relate – our responses to any loss are as varied and unique as the person experiencing the loss.  Those losses can be anything really – something as tragic as the loss of a young woman in our community recently, or something as trivial as a change in our office or living space. 

Whenever anything in our life changes, we go through those oft-mentioned ‘stages’ of grief (depending on the psychology text you read, there could be anywhere from 4 to 40 stages of grief), but they all involve some similarites; we disbelieve, we withdraw, we become numb or angry, we try to ‘negotiate’ – and perhaps, at some point, we come to make a sort of peace with the loss that we grieve.  But each person’s reactions and journey is a bit of a mystery to those around them; we never know exactly how someone will react to news of loss or exactly how they are progressing afterwards.

I know there is no perfect analogy, and this one is not by any means accurate, but the whole grief process we go through can be compared to a medicinal ointment or treatment or bandage.  It stings at first, but properly tended, promotes circumstances that lead to healing. Grief – the ointment – didn’t cause the injury, but it is one of the results of the injury needed for us to become well again.

That, to me, is the mystery of grief; it can, in time, even strengthen us to the point that when we encounter others who are grieving, we can become a source of support for them.  There is no stronger advocate for others than one who has suffered through and overcome a particular loss or trauma.

God often is blamed for the circumstances that result in our losses – ‘why didn’t God stop that’ or ‘why did God allow such-and-such to happen’ are common enough questions or responses.  This type of response in tragedy is often married to the suggestion that God is not there, present, or that God doesn’t care.

I once heard a rabbi remark that for him, the surest proof of God’s existence (with apologies to St. Thomas Aquinas) was that in the darkest of times, or the saddest of circumstances, people are put in our paths at just the right time, with just the right actions or words that help us along the path to healing.  

That makes sense to me; especially when I consider a God who (as we just celebrated) was willing to empty Himself of His divinity to become one just like us; one who experienced all of the trials and struggles, the joys and sorrows, the gifts and the losses that are part and parcel of what makes us human.  In his gospel, St. John uses the expression, ‘in the fullness of time’ describing when God entered our existence in the person of Jesus, as one of us.  It was the right time, and the right place.

That opportunity is held out to us each day, in all of our own struggles, losses and sorrows; that God is entering into our reality when we need Him the most, in those around us who are there to help us grieve, to heal, and eventually to hope and celebrate life again. 

On our part, we need to be present to those around us, so that grief doesn’t become so overwhelming that they lose sight of the light, the hope and the love that they experienced and remain part of, before they suffered loss. 

And I suppose, that’s the key; to be truly present to each other –  not ready with some personal wisdom or suggestions – but present; to watch and wait and heal with each other, with compassionate and caring hearts.

A compassion and caring that often is not discovered in our own hearts until we ourselves grieve. And that, to me, is the mystery of the ‘giftedness’ of grief.

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Praised be Jesus Christ, now and forever!

Epiphany

Quite often we don’t see or stop recognizing great things in our own midst; it happens time and again in our Church; but it also happens in our communities or workplaces, even in our own homes and families….we expect that greatness comes from somewhere outside, and that which is within while, a ‘good effort’ is not something that we see as ‘great’ or ‘earth shaking’ because perhaps we’re too close to it to recognize the effect it has on others.

Today we celebrate the feast of the Epiphany; the occasion recorded for us in the Gospel of St. Matthew, when magi, or wise men, from foreign lands, traveled to Bethlehem – they were following a star which had appeared, and which, to their science and learning and wisdom of the time, would indicate something of tremendous importance to the entire world – most likely the birth of a great King, or someone even greater.  The Magi, scholars tell us, most likely traveled from Persia, which is modern day Iraq, and were learned men.  They were possibly of great importance, as the Gospel records they had a private audience with King Herod; not something ordinary ‘scientists’ would have been invited to.  In their culture and time they were well educated, and were drawn by their knowledge and obvious dedication to their studies to travel to see the outcome or result of this wonder in the heavens.  Here we have an early example that science and religion are not polar opposites…God created all things, and in the natural world, uses it to draw those with open minds who seek the real Truth, closer to Himself.  He draws the Magi from their own lands and brings them to Bethlehem, where He reveals Himself to them through the Sacred Scriptures in prophecy, and in the person of Jesus Christ.  And despite what their science and studies have taught them, despite what their religious practices were prior to that moment, the Gospel says, ‘they knelt down and paid him homage…”They worshipped Him.  These Gentiles who were not from among God’s ‘chosen people’ were in awe of the work of God; of God entering into our humanity.  These ‘outsiders’ recognized the wonder of God, while the ‘insiders’ did not.

 This theme of foreigners, of non-Jews, of Gentiles being drawn into relationship with God is spoken of in prophecy by Isaiah in our first reading, “nations shall come to Your light and kings to the brightness of your dawn…”. More than 700 years before the birth of Christ, Isaiah writes of how all nations will be coming to God through His Messiah – that it will not be salvation for Israel alone, but for the whole human race.  St. Paul too picks up this theme, writing for the Ephesians, when he says, ‘the Gentiles have become heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus.’

Here was the promised Messiah, the promise God had made through His prophets and Sacred Scripture, and he was largely unrecognized, unappreciated, and rejected by those in His own country and culture, who should have been the ones to recognize who He was in their midst.  St. Matthew almost screams this out in his writing of his Gospel, particularly from the beginning – he backs up each mention of a circumstance of Jesus conception, birth, the visits of the magi, all of it , with references to what the prophets said in scripture earlier….in this particular Gospel passage for example, speaking of his birthplace, St. Matthew quotes the prophet Micah, ‘and you, Bethlehem in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.”….time and again, in His gospel, written for a Jewish audience, St. Matthew is saying ‘See…we should have know right from the beginning that Jesus was the one promised by God – the prophets all pointed to him, his life bore out what the prophets said about him…right from the beginning; and because he was humble and in our midst, we never saw who he truly was….it was those from outside, from foreigners, from Gentiles that those who worshipped Him first came from.”

There was someone though, in Israel, who was open to the possibility that the child born in Bethlehem was truly of great importance.  And this is where we have one of the greatest contrasts in the Scriptures; of the opposing choices that everyone faces with the possibility the Christ has entered into our world and into our lives; in contrast to the homage paid to the new-born King of kings by the magi, we have the reaction of King Herod, the great.

Unlike the rest of the nation at the time of Jesus’ birth, who largely ignored Him, and unlike the Gentiles, the non-Jews who are the first in Matthew’s Gospel to honour Christ, King Herod seeks to destroy Jesus.

 A bit of a historical context can even help us to more fully appreciate this episode from the Gospels.

Herod’s family ruled in Palestine from about 40 BC until the late 50’s AD.  They were Arabs who had converted to Judaism, and ruled the territory with the permission of Rome. Through political maneuvering, Herod had achieved the power he had, and was a close ally of the Emperor Augustus.  Historians of the time, among them Josephus, and Tacitus, as well as other writers, provide us with an image of Herod; he was paranoid, power-hungry and absolutely ruthless; although he was Jewish by conversion, whenever he acted contrarily to the laws of their religion, if the religious leaders were bold enough to point this out, Herod would simply execute them by the dozens.  He would go to lengths to prove to the Romans that he could be just as merciless as they were, crucifying scores of people on the outside walls of his palace.  Herod even had one of his wives executed, along with some of his young sons on separate occasions; and their crime? He feared they were more popular than he was.  Herod sought permission from Rome at one point in writing, to execute two of his sons, which caused the Emperor Augustus himself to comment, “I would rather be Herod’s pig than one of his sons…”

But Herod was a builder too, constructing a great fortress at Masada, and of course, rebuilding the great Temple in Jerusalem, a project which would take 46 years to complete.  But we have to look at his motives; Herod, the convert, raising a great edifice that people would marvel at, come to and no doubt, recognize him for building; it was a way for him, so he thought, to control God too – to use God and worship of Him to keep his own subjects happy and to place his own people in the religious leadership to solidify his influence.   Trying to bend God to his will, rather than surrendering his will to God’s.

The trouble was, now the prophecies pointed to this unknown child in Bethlehem coming as God’s promised Messiah who would lead, not only Israel, but all people.  The problem was that Herod, like the rest of the leadership of Israel, didn’t understand that the Messiah was not to be a political ruler, but something far greater.  And because he didn’t understand that, that he feared his grasp on power and his personal ambitions would be lost, rather than try to be open to what God’s will was for him, Herod sought to destroy the child, through what we have come to call the massacre of the innocents, all of the boys in Bethlehem two years and under. 

The irony is that while Herod is in the middle of His tremendous project of rebuilding the Temple in Jerusalem – a temple of bricks and mortar where the inner Holy of Holies was where the glory of God was believed to dwell – here he was plotting and attempting to destroy the living Temple of God in the person of Jesus, the Son, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity…..because the call to holiness for all people, to return to God, did not fit in with Herod’s personal  plans , ambitions and insecurities.

For all of us, it really comes down to these choices; we can ignore Christ among us as most of Palestine did at His birth- and as our consumerist society tells us to do today;  we can reject and seek to destroy any influence He has in our lives as Herod did –as our modern relativist and secular societies do; or we can seek Him out in faith and reason – as the magi did- and worship and pay homage to Him when we discover Him in our midst.  When we have the opportunity to recognize, to approach, to worship Him, particularly in His Church and His Sacraments, we can do so with joy and the awe of that Epiphany – of that discovery that we know with our minds and can feel in the depths of our hearts…that we can approach and place ourselves before Christ at any time; and that His Church and His Sacraments are wonders and miracles and glories that we are given, to approach each and every day of our lives.

 magi

Praised be Jesus Christ, now and forever!