Sunday, January 5, 2014

The Lord's Epiphany

The Epiphany, the Darmstadt Altarpiece (c. 1440), by Unknown German Master

A few weeks ago my mom sent my siblings and me a text. It said, “Dad and I met 40 years ago today, and life has never been the same since!” In their case, they met when they were 19, and while they didn’t get married for another 9 years – my dad took a little convincing! – my mom still remembers that very day. Somehow, she knew her life would not be the same.

That got me to thinking – what events in life change us so dramatically that life is never the same afterward? Certainly, we could list many – both joyous and tragic – but in my experience, if people had to identify just one, most people would say it is the birth of their child. That’s not something I’ve experienced, of course, but from the way you mothers and fathers describe it, the moment you first hold that child, the meaning and purpose of your life is forever changed.

Today is the Feast of the Epiphany, when we celebrate that the Christ child, born in Bethlehem to Mary, is in fact a child born for all of us. The child Jesus is God made visible, God who has now entered into our time and history, and so through him, the meaning and purpose of all of our lives has forever changed. Not only is Jesus the true heir to the throne of David, the Messiah, but the salvation he brings is not just for the Jewish people but for all of us. As St. Paul says in the second reading, “the Gentiles (that’s us) are coheirs, members of the same body, and copartners” in God’s promise of salvation in Jesus. In Jesus, the entire history of God and humanity is fulfilled.

So if Jesus has been born for us, for all of us, how do we respond? How are we called to change? In the Gospel today, St. Matthew presents us with a right way and a wrong way to respond to the arrival of the Christ child:

1) The wrong way is represented by Herod. A pretender king, in league with the Romans and not even Jewish, Herod had used murder and incest to grab and then hold on to power. Yet remember, Jesus has come for all of us, because all of us need salvation. So Herod too could have responded with repentance at the coming of the true King. Yet, as we see from the story, Herod responds with fear. He’s so occupied with his own comfort and self-interest, that he will go to any means necessary to resist the revelation of God.

2) The right way is represented by the Magi. Not Jews themselves, they nonetheless had been anticipating the coming of this Messiah, and when they saw the sign of his arrival, they left the comforts of their homes and homeland and journeyed to find him. They endured hardship and difficulty, gave gifts of prized possessions to him when they found him, and even were attentive to the danger of giving up the child’s location to Herod.

For both the Magi and for Herod, the arrival of the Christ child meant that their life would never be the same. For the Magi, they journeyed back to their homeland having glimpsed God become man, having understood perhaps God’s great plan of bringing all peoples together through this child, hoping to share one day in that final, eternal salvation. For Herod, as we know, he began a campaign of destruction that led to the slaughter of innocent children, and still failing to find the Christ child, as we know from history, he became depressed and paranoid, and died shortly thereafter.

Jesus, the newborn king, has come for all of us, but his arrival demands that we choose to seek him or to reject him. Because God has become one of us, because he’s entered human history, our lives can never be the same. If we seek to live as we did before, if we remain mired in our own self-interest and comfort, if we are fearful of letting God’s love touch our hearts, then the coming of Christ will mean nothing for us. Indeed, out of fear, we may even pull back, into further loneliness and despair and sorrow.

But if, like the Magi, we raise our eyes to the light of faith that guides us closer to God, not always sure perhaps where we’re being led, enduring at times difficulty and hardship along the journey, having to make the sacrifices of our gifts and treasures, and understanding that our wishes and plans may sometimes have to be changed in order to accommodate those of God, then we will indeed be changed for the better by this encounter with Christ. We will certainly be able to live out our days full of the joy and the hope that comes from knowing the one who is our Savior.

The birth of a child is a wonderful thing. It’s something that changes our lives, which gives us new purpose and meaning. And if that child is Jesus, the child in whom God has fulfilled every promise, the child who is God himself? Then all the more reason to hand everything over to him – our purposes, our desires, our very lives themselves. Let us, with the Magi, come again before the Christ child today – the same Jesus whom we will receive from this altar, in adoration, bringing our gifts of love and faith and sacrifice, so that through him, our lives may never be the same.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

The Mother of God

The Virgin, Jesus, and Saint John the Baptist (1881), William-Adolphe Bouguereau.

Christmas was a week ago. If you look around town, it seems like we’ve moved on. The lights are coming down, trees are being pitched to the side of the road, the stores are already moving on to sell their wares for the next holiday season, which I guess is Valentine’s Day.

But, as often seems to be the case, the Church is not so quick. Indeed, for us Christmas has just started. Only today do we end the Octave of Christmas, the special eight-day feast when each day is like a new Christmas all over again. And not for two more weeks does the liturgical season of Christmas finally end.

Why does the Church seem to linger on so? Well, for one reason, God’s ways are not our ways, and so too, the Church’s calendar is not always the same as the world’s. But for another, perhaps we take our time, because it’s only by doing so – me taking time to ponder, to reflect, to contemplate – that the depth of the mysteries of this season, or any other, become clear.

Today we celebrate the Solemnity of Mary, the Mother of God. In many ways, the theme of today’s feast is the same as that of Christmas – that the almighty God has become one of us – but now with one additional note – that he did so through one of us, by being born of a woman. Consider the following, not just about Jesus but about Mary too:

- The Infinite, Eternal, Almighty One now becomes an infant, held in his mother’s arms.

- He whom the very heavens cannot contain, who holds all creation together in himself, the Alpha and the Omega, now was carried in a mother’s womb and cradled in her lap.

- He who looks down upon all creation now looks up into his mother’s eyes.

- The hand from which formed the universe, the hand which guides the stars and the heavens in their courses, now stretches out to grasp his mother’s finger.

- The mighty Word, the very utterance of the Father, who was with God and was God from the beginning, is now expressed in the cooing and crying of an infant.

- He who is our food, the Bread of Life, who gives us his own Body to eat, is himself fed by the body of his mother.

My friends, there would have been no Christmas without Mary; we would not have Jesus without her. As we begin this new year, let us reflect again upon the wondrous love by which God chose one of us to be his own mother and our mother by his grace. Each of us has some area of our life – some pain, some fear, some weakness – that needs her love, her renewal, her intercession. Let us turn again to she who is our Lord’s mother, and our mother by grace, that through her we might encounter again, cradled in her lap, the newborn Lord.

O Mary, loving Mother of the Redeemer, pray for us.