Homily - Feast of the Epiphany - Bishop McKeown

6 January 2021 

We have reached the end of the Christmas season. In Western Christianity, the visit of the Magi from the East marks the revelation of Jesus to the world, for the strange visitors represent the whole world. In Eastern Christianity, the revelation of Jesus is celebrated next Sunday as we mark Jesus' baptism and the beginning of his public life, after the hidden years in Nazareth. Thus the focal point of today's feast is not the Wise Men but Jesus. What does this story tell us?

Firstly, the Gospel tells us that 'wise men' came from the East. There are no names given and no number is mentioned. For a Jewish audience there were echoes of the first reading from the prophet Isaiah. Jesus was the one who fulfilled the promises of the Old Testament. They come with gifts fit for a king. So they must have been very surprised to find a very unspectacular family, not in the royal city of Jerusalem but in a village. The divine promises are fulfilled in a most unexpected way. The Messiah will not come as people expect him, for his kingdom is not of this world.

Jesus comes to shatter our one-dimensional dreams and to gives us eyes to see the world differently.

This sets a pattern for the rest of Jesus' life and how his disciples have to live. There is always the temptation to create a God who fits into our lifestyle. But the Gospel message is a very strange one. Our comfort will often clash with what Jesus demands and our faith will not sit easily with what secular society would like us to believe. But God is concerned about remaking us in the divine image and likeness - and not with us worshipping a God made in our image and likeness. Jesus comes to shatter our one-dimensional dreams and to gives us eyes to see the world differently. St Paul will later write that the wisdom of God is an obstacle to the Jews and madness to the gentiles (Cf 1 Cor 1: 18-25). But that wisdom helps us to face the crosses of life and to see Jesus in the least of his brothers and sisters. It enables us to glimpse God in the silent mystery of the Eucharist and the other sacraments. It challenges us to believe in the possibility of mercy, forgiveness and hope. We will never find the right thing by looking in the wrong places. 

Secondly, the Magi go first to King Herod. He is shown as cruel, manipulative and centred only on his own power. Herod's son – also called Herod – will be involved in the deaths of John the Baptist and Jesus. The powerful often want to hold onto power, without realising that power has a hold on them. We see that around the world. Because it is so deeply rooted in human nature, we see that in some areas of church life as well. That is a sad reality, but it should not cause surprise. Thus, I worry about those, whether in politics, society in general or church, who insist on the primacy of their rights, whatever the cost or discomfort to others.By contrast, Jesus is portrayed as the helpless one who will insist on the rights of the poor and marginalised. But that wisdom is stronger than power. As St Paul writes, God's foolishness is wiser than human wisdom. For those who want power or insist on their rights, nothing is enough. Those who follow the baby of Bethlehem are grateful for little joys and revelations. They have eyes for beauty in strange places. A sacramental heart can recognise divine grace gently borne by bread, wine, oil and word. Today's feast calls us to recognise how only purified hearts can sense the presence of the Word made flesh, dwelling among us. Angry, demanding hearts are blinkered by self-inflicted blindness

Thirdly, the Magi go home by a different way. Their search for the truth meant them following a small light that they had glimpsed and it brought them to Bethlehem. There they have bowed down before a baby. That adoring encounter gave them new eyes. Faith means accepting that Christ's message will be seen as strange by some. We will be told to wise up, not to be too idealistic, to be sensible and not to clash with dominant ideology. Thus, not only do we have to journey in hope, we have to be prepared to be changed by the journey. The truth will be found only by those who are prepared to search for it. We will never find the full truth on this side of the grave. But the disciple is formed by that dogged search for what alone is true and real. And when we have glimpsed the divine in prayer, love or a sacred place, then we will all return home by a different route. Disciples of Jesus are prepared to journey in hope and to be open to God's grace which never leaves us the same.

Today, we are invited to bow down and worship, giving our best to Jesus. He will give his all for us and he invites us to model that generosity. He is revealed here as the saviour of all peoples and all people, and not just the Lord of a frightened introverted clique. Through seeing the actions of Herod, the Gospel invites us to follow Christ's path and never to espouse a political ideology with a thin theological veneer. On Christmas night, we sang, 'Come let us adore him'. Today on the feast of the Epiphany, that is still our song.

+ Donal McKeown

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