January 8, 2018
Paulist Fr. Rich Andre preached this homily on the Feast of the Epiphany on January 5, 2014, at then-Blessed John XXIII Parish in Knoxville, TN. The homily is based on the day’s readings: Isaiah 60:1-6; Psalm 72; Ephesians 3:2-3, 5-6; Matthew 2:1-12.
Merry Christmas! Oh yes, by golly, it’s still Christmas! In fact, this is the biggest feast of the Christmas season in many parts of the world. This is a day of parades, family gatherings, and gift-giving. Why? Well, the main point of the Feast of Epiphany is NOT about a humble family receiving expensive gifts from foreigners. The main point of Epiphany is that our God is a God for all people.
Remarkably, it is Matthew – by far the most Jewish of the four evangelists – who tells us the story of the magi. What do you think the magi did after they returned home? Do you think they became Jews? Do you think they gave up their Persian culture? I don’t think so. I think they continued to discern how the Holy Spirit was calling them to serve God. We can only speculate how the Spirit directed them.
On the first day of Advent, Isaiah called us to walk in the light of the LORD. On Christmas Eve, Isaiah said that the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light. Today, Isaiah proclaims that the glory of the LORD shines upon us!
Epiphany is a day of bright light. It celebrates that God’s message of salvation and mercy is a message for all people. Let’s take a moment to celebrate how God has gifted each of us with mercy.
In literature, we speak of “epiphany moments” – moments when a character suddenly sees something in a new way, or with new clarity. Our feast today is definitely an epiphany of the first degree – it’s the first instance of people outside the Jewish faith recognizing Jesus as the Christ, God’s anointed one.
Last week, we heard of the many unintended consequences of the magi’s epiphany. No matter how well-intentioned the magi were, their conversation with Herod led to the slaughter of the Holy Innocents. The magi’s actions also forced Joseph to take his family to a foreign land.
Was this all part of God’s plan? Somehow, I doubt it. I don’t believe that God intended for the magi to pay a visit to Herod along the way to Bethlehem. But it was natural for the magi to seek the king in a palace… or at least to visit the local monarch as they passed through the area. In the first days of Christianity, then, we have a tale that rings true two thousand years later: when different cultures interact with one another, there is the possibility of both cultures being enriched by one another, but there is also the potential for terrible misunderstandings.
One of our deceased Paulists, Michael Hunt, said that Church history could be understood as a series of twenty conflicts within Christianity. According to Michael, whenever the Church embraced both sides of a debate, the Church blossomed. Whenever it resorted to making a choice, the Church suffered.
It’s always been a challenge to be a “both-and” Church. There were debates whether both Jews and Greeks could be Christians. The Corinthians struggled to include both rich and poor in a single community. But we are diminished when we take the easy way out and become an “either-or” Church. It’s tragic that we are either Eastern or Western Christians, that we are either Catholic or Protestant. And the challenge to embrace “both-and” continues. Today, we continue to struggle to incorporate both science and belief, both ritual and innovation, both orthodoxy and social justice. But the Holy Spirit keeps inviting us to make room for greater diversity within Christianity, while still being true to the precepts of the faith. When we suddenly recognize our common bonds with people who are different from us, that is also an epiphany of the first degree.
The U. S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has declared this coming week “National Migration Week,” and I’m guessing that one of the reasons is because today is the Feast of the Epiphany. Now, when we mention the word “migrant” or “immigration,” alarm bells go off in some people’s heads – that sounds like a political issue, and we live in a world where politics is “either-or” not “both-and.”
But no matter where any of us sit on the political spectrum, we know that we are called to treat people with compassion. In Syria alone, there are millions of people, who feel – like Joseph – compelled to flee their homeland. And even if some of us disagree with some of the specifics about immigration reform, almost all of us prefer people to enter this country through the legal process.
But the more I learn about the immigration process today, the more I doubt my own grandparents would have been able to negotiate it. They didn’t speak English, and they had very little money or education. Today’s immigration process is complicated and expensive. Some unscrupulous people advertise that they will guide immigrants through the process, only to scam them of their life savings. In East Tennessee, there are only two full-time people and one part-time person licensed by the federal government to assist immigrants who cannot afford a lawyer. These people all work for Catholic Charities. That simply is not enough people to help all the immigrants trying to use legal channels. (And those two and half people are half the total workforce in the state helping immigrants – there’s even less help for immigrants in Central and West Tennessee!)
The challenge to all of us today is two-fold:
First, let us support Catholic Charities in any way we can. If we can raise enough money, Catholic Charities may be able to hire additional people to assist immigrants who want to enter the country legally. If you speak Spanish and can volunteer at least 8 hours a week for six months, please contact the Office of Immigrant Services to assist with receptionist and clerical duties. [Editor’s note: back in 2014, a bilingual student at the University of Tennessee was inspired by this homily to make the call. Her efforts helped the Office of Immigrant Services to serve more people in need.]
Second, no matter where we sit on the political spectrum, we can pray for migrants. Here is the prayer for the 2014 National Migration Week:
Merciful and loving Father,
you provided for your people Israel in their exodus from slavery
a promised land that you established for them,
and in Jesus Christ you provide welcome refuge for all in need.
We ask for your divine protection for all migrants who have left their homes
in search of new opportunity in another land.
For refugees, who are forced from their homes due to threats of violence,
we beseech you to provide them a safe haven.
For migrants trafficked into slavery,
grant them rescue, healing, and the strength to start again.
For immigrants, who so often leave their family and friends behind,
grant them a better life and greater opportunity elsewhere.
We pray in particular for your protection over migrant children
who are vulnerable to exploitation and abuse at the hands of others.
We implore you to grant all migrants your protection
and lead them to a place of safety.
Be with all those in need with your power to save.
[We ask this] through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, forever and ever. Amen.
The people who have walked in darkness have seen a great light. The theme of this year’s National Migration Week is “Out of the Darkness.” May we all have an “epiphany” about the needs of our migrant brothers and sisters.