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Epiphany 2018

St. Joseph Basilica, Edmonton

January 7, 2018

Recently I have been holding a number of "listening sessions" with different groups of people to discuss issues pertaining to family life. I am learning many things from these encounters. One conversation in particular has stayed with me and kept me thinking.

It occurred on an evening when I asked for some insights as to why many people today stay away from the Church. I expected the group to begin speaking about the hostility some people feel toward the Church, especially as regards aspects of her moral doctrine.

One, man, though, responded by saying that, while such anger may apply to some people, for many others “the Church isn't even on the radar.”

That is a very sobering statement, because it is accurate. As unfathomable as it is to me, the question of God, faith and discipleship has become so eclipsed from the consciousness of many people that, for them, “the Church isn't even on the radar.”

For insight, we can turn profitably to the account in Matthew's Gospel of a celestial radar and a star that appears upon it. The first thing to notice is that the star is visible to some and not to others. The ones who see it are "wise men from the East." Those who don't are King Herod and the religious authorities in Jerusalem. The difference between these two groups is instructive.

The wise men, upon seeing the star's rising, undertake a journey. The path they begin to follow is one that takes them out of the familiar and across geographical, political and cultural boundaries.

On this journey, they are led by a reality outside of themselves, well beyond the limits of their customary human calculations. In this willingness to move out of and beyond themselves, the wise men show that they are people open to the transcendent. To them the star appears.

They set out in search of the birthplace of the King of the Jews, and their journey takes them to Jerusalem. It is only natural for them to stop there, because the religious authorities found in that city could rightly be expected to know where to locate the birthplace of their King. Yet, here in Jerusalem the star is no longer visible. We are told that it is only after the wise men leave Jerusalem that the star reappears before them. So, what is happening in Jerusalem?

The news brought by the wise men is met with hostility from Herod and indifference from the chief priests and scribes. This is extraordinary and difficult to fathom. After all, the wise men, in their own way, were echoing to the Jerusalem of their day the announcement foretold by Isaiah centuries before: "Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you!"

One might reasonably expect that such news would have been greeted with joy. But, no. Herod begins to plot a hostile and violent destruction of the child.

As to the religious authorities, they could, indeed, point to the place where the king was to be born, yet, astonishingly, they made no effort to go and see for themselves. Over this city, the star is not visible. The actions of the wise men manifested their openness to the transcendent; for them the light shone. In complete contrast, the reactions of Herod and the religious authorities showed that they were locked in upon themselves, entirely self-referential. To them the light was not visible, because they were closed to any truth beyond the reality they had constructed for themselves.

So, we can see that the reactions we encounter today to the Church's proclamation of God's light shining in Christ, reactions of hostility and indifference, are nothing new. Yet, their consequences remain tragic, so we have to understand their cause.

Further reflection upon today's narrative shows clearly what that cause is. The story of the Epiphany of Christ teaches us that the self-enclosure that obscures Christ's light, the rigid self-reference manifested in hostility and indifference, is the result of fear, which is itself engendered by an awareness that what the Church proclaims is, in fact, true.

How can we know this? Well, Epiphany means revelation. It is the specific revelation that the offer of salvation, carried through the centuries by the Jewish people, is universal in its scope, as St. Paul teaches.

In the Catholic understanding, divine revelation is directed to human reason. Since reason is itself God's creation, it is naturally disposed to apprehend as true what God reveals. This apprehension of truth necessarily embraces the consequence that the acceptance of truth entails, namely, a change of life.

Indeed, this is precisely what the wise men went through. Having encountered and accepted God's truth in Christ, "they left for their country by another road," i.e. their lives changed direction. The thought of change to whatever view or practice of life I have constructed for myself often engenders fear, which in turn closes me in on myself and gives rise to resistance expressed in hostility or indifference.

Which brings us back to the original question: what is to be done?

Well, if the reactions to the Gospel are, at root, a recognition of its truth, then our call is to demonstrate that the truth of the Gospel need not be feared; on the contrary it should be joyfully embraced. The wise men show us that this demonstration is given by the witness of worship and joy. Once they found Christ, we are told, they offered gifts and prostrated themselves in worship and adoration.

Here we see that worship, the act of self-surrender to Christ as God and King, is an act of surrender to the fullness of truth; it is thus an act which casts away any barriers of self-enclosure so as to turn toward the whole of reality. As such, worship gives birth to joy. Even as they were approaching Bethlehem, the wise men, we are told, "were overwhelmed with joy."

What is to be done? Worship Christ with the whole gift of self, allow his joy to arise in our hearts, and make that joy visible to others. Then, by God's grace, the star that appeared on the celestial radar of the wise men will begin to appear also on the earthly radar of those who do not yet know Christ and his Church, to lead them out of fearful self-reference toward the joyful embrace of God's truth revealed in his Son.

✠ Richard W. Smith
Archbishop of Edmonton

Jan. 7, 2018