Tag Archives: Epiphany

The Hudson’s Blessed

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An interesting homily on the Epiphany by St. Proclus of Constantinople of the Eastern Church.

“Today’s feast of the Epiphany manifests even more wonders than the feast of Christmas…At Christmas the King puts on the royal robe of his body; at Epiphany the very source unfolds and, as it were, clothes the river.

On the feast of the Savior’s birth, the earth rejoiced because it bore the Lord in a manger;  but on today’s feast the sea is glad because it receives the blessing of holiness in the river Jordan.”

When Jesus went into the water of the Jordan, he blessed not only that river, but the waters of the Nile, the rivers of Babylon, the seas far and wide.

The United States Geological Survey (many of its offices now closed in the government shutdown) has a wonderful site on water. Water is everywhere, not only in the seas and rivers, but in the air, the foods we eat, even our bodies.71% of the earth’s surface is water.  60% of our bodies is water. It’s a precious gift.

In the Sacrament of Baptism water’s a powerful sign that the Word of God, Jesus Christ, comes into creation to bring us life.

Usually around this time one of the local New York papers carries the story of  the Greek Archbishop of New York throwing a cross into the Hudson River, which is then retrieved by some hardy Greek divers. ( I watched for it, but didn’t see it this year)

The bitter cold, hardly clean waters of the Hudson are blessed with the cross, the sign of Jesus Christ, and the sea itself and the whole world is blessed.

A rite of optimism. The waters of the Hudson are grim and cold this time of year, like the world itself, but they are clothed with Christ’s blessing, however they seem.

The Epiphany Feast Isn’t Over!

Kings Point, New York

Like the Christmas feast, we can pass over the Feast of the Epiphany too easily. It can become a quaint story of no significance.

I spoke about the meaning of the Epiphany on Sunday at the Maritime Academy in Kings Point, New York, where young men and women are being trained for service on the ships that sail our seas and waterways. This feast should mean something to them.

The only gospel that records this story is the Gospel of Matthew, so why is it there?

Matthew’s gospel was written for Jewish Christians in Galilee and Syria some time after the temple in Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans in the year 70. We can’t imagine how shocked they were by the complete destruction of the temple and the city itself. These were places where God’s promises would be fulfilled, they thought. The Messiah would appear there. This was where Jesus would come again. All nations would stream to Jerusalem, prophets like Isaiah foretold. Now they were gone.

Matthew’s gospel reminds his hearers–and us too–that Jesus must be known by all nations before he comes again. “Go and make disciples of all nations,” Jesus says in his final words in Matthew’s gospel, “baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age.” (Matthew 28, 18-20)

Matthew’s story of the Magi is a reminder that even as Jesus is born, messengers, strangers, wise men from afar, want to know and acknowledge him as their king and God.

Jesus Christ came, our gospel says, not for only one people or nation, but for all. Though his ministry was first to the Jews, Jesus wishes to make the world one. God doesn’t wish to save a few. He wants to save all– all the world.

The Magi came, our story says, from the east. Could that be from Iran or Yemen; two places we hardly view positively today in our country? More and more, as we look at the world only through the lens of politics and economics; we fear the stranger, we reject the immigrant, we create enemies, we reject people not like us. We’re becoming tribal instead of global. We’re falling into individualism. As the old song said, we’re looking for “perfect peace, where joys never cease, and let the rest of the world go by.”

But we can’t let the rest of the world go by and we won’t be safe behind walls. We’re living in a big world that God wants to be one. That’s what the story of the magi tells us. We’re all commissioned on this Feast of the Epiphany, which is followed next Sunday by the Feast of the Baptism of Jesus, to go out into the whole world, “ baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,” teaching them to observe all that Jesus commands. And he will be with us, even to the end of time.

I told the young men and women at Kings Point on Sunday that they’re commissioned as people of the sea. The oceans and waterways are highways uniting this world of ours. They shouldn’t be looked at only through the eyes of economics or politics. They’re meant to connect peoples, they’re bridges that make us one.

As I left the chapel, I met some people who are “furloughed” by the current government shut-down. We don’t have to look far to see how dangerous it is to see the world only through the eyes of politics and economics. We need a brighter star.

The Epiphany

We’re into the New Year and automatically we wonder about the future. We can’t avoid it. We’re wondering what this year is going to bring. What’s coming?

Living in a secular age as we do, we see things mainly with eyes for the here and now, which often boils down to politics and economics. What’s the country going to be like under President Trump? What’s the economy going to be like? Unfortunately when we look at things only like that, we can end up being small minded. We can think that what we see and hear and touch now is all there is. We lose a larger vision of life.

We need the spark, the light, of revelation.

Can we see that light in the mystery of the Epiphany we celebrate today? It begins with a star, guiding some travelers on their way. Can this mystery lift up our secular minds and point out something more? Is our world being guided by a Star?

To start, let’s not see the story of the Magi as a cute story of some people riding on camels coming to see Jesus. More than that, it’s a revelation of God’ divine plan which carries news for us and our world, and it’s as important now as it was then.

The Magi story is only found in the Gospel of Matthew, who was writing for Jewish Christians in Galilee and the Syria about the end of the first century. The temple of Jerusalem was recently destroyed and Jewish Christians like other Jews were facing an unknown, disturbing future. When Jesus came to them, he began his mission saying to the Canaanite woman, who pleaded for a cure for her daughter, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” (Mt 15;24)  “Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel,” Jesus first told the twelve whom he sent out to preach. (Mt 10, 5) It looked as though the promises of God were for the Jews and them alone.

But that made the promises of God too small.

Matthew’s story of the Magi was a reminder that the gospel was meant for others besides. Jesus came for all, though his ministry was first to the Jews. God wants the world to be one family and he wishes his gifts and graces be given to many peoples and places. God doesn’t save a few.

The Magi may have come from present day Iran or Yemen; two places we hardly view positively today. We tend to see ourselves a privileged people and our own country a promised land. God is on our side. Better to leave the rest of the world to its wars, its earthquakes, its immigrants, its divisions, its problems. As the old song once said, let’s find “perfect peace, where joys never cease, and let the rest of the world go by.”

We can’t let the rest of the world go by. The story of the Magi reminds us we live in a big world that God means to be one. The story of the Magi is not a sweet story about people on camels who looked and dressed and spoke differently than us. They’re symbols of the world beyond ours that’s called by God to share in his promises.

And the newcomers come with gifts.

Noah’s ark, the Magi, the Slaughter of the Innocents

Noah’s ark, the Magi, the Slaughter of the Innocents. “They’re just myths,” you hear it said. I don’t like those stories dismissed that way, because it easily leads to a further dismissal: ”Is any of it true? Probably not.”

We think straight reporting is the only thing true. “Just the facts, Mam.” Everything else is fake news. But are these stories fake?

“The Secrets of Noah’s Ark” a recent Nova program on PBS examining the biblical story makes good sense to me. In early times, floods were common in the “Fertile Crescent” the area in Mesopotamia {modern Iraq} where the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers and the ancient city of Babylon were located. So you had to keep boats handy– you never know.

You had to be ready for a great flood too, but people have short memories and people then, as now, tend to forget “the big ones.” “As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. In those days before the flood, they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, up to the day that Noah entered the ark. They did not know until the flood came and carried them all away.” (Matthew 24, 37-38)

I suspect some Babylonian priests– meteorologists and story tellers of their time– came up with a flood story thousands of years before the Noah story to keep the people of their day on their toes – and maybe challenge some early climate change deniers too. It reinforced important advice: “ Keep your boats in good shape and make sure there’s also a big boat around for ‘the big one.’”

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Exile of Jews  to Babylon

In 587 BC, thousands of Jews were driven from Jerusalem, destroyed by Babylonian armies, and were forced to make the thousand mile journey in Babylon. It was their Exile. When they heard the story of the great flood they saw it as a symbol of their own tragic circumstances. “By the rivers of Babylon, we sat and wept, remembering Zion.” (Psalm137)

Returning from exile, the Jews incorporated their version of the flood story into the Torah. It became a reminder to keep the covenant God made with them and beware of living unfaithfully as “in the days of Noah.”

Does real history underlie the story of the Magi and the Slaughter of the Innocents? Begin with Herod the Great, ruler of Palestine then, whom secular sources and many archeological monuments from the time describe quite well. Herod was a micro-manager who built fortified palaces in Jerusalem, the Herodium outside Bethlehem and other places to keep watch over his kingdom.

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Citadel, Herod’s Palace Fortress, Jerusalem

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Herodium, Mountain Fortress of Herod the Great

He promoted trade with the outside world; he built the seaport of Caesarea Maritima on the Mediterranean Sea and cultivated the trade routes from Yemen and other eastern parts that led all the way to Rome. He would have kept tabs on those arriving with spices and luxury goods of all kinds. He knew who came and went.

Were the Magi wealthy eastern traders, quite knowledgeable about the religious world of the people with whom they traded? Did they hear of the Child in Bethlehem? Herod’s advisors and everyone else knew Bethlehem was associated with the legendary King David and there were prophecies about an heir to his throne coming from there. Did the foreigners visit the Child, bring their gifts, gold, frankincense and myrrh, the prizes of their trade, and then quickly leave, well aware of Herod’s paranoia, quick temper and brutality.

Given Herod’s jealous hold on power, the story of the slaughter of the Innocents in Matthew’s Gospel doesn’t seem unlikely, True, it’s not mentioned in any secular source, but neither are many other tragic stories of the time. Bethlehem, after all, was a small town, off the beaten track. The death of perhaps 20 or so infants might go unnoticed and be quickly forgotten.

Matthew’s story is hardly a myth. Rather, it sees things through God’s eyes. The star points to the real power guiding human history; the magi represent the rest of the world coming to adore the Child. Angelic powers are always at our side. The slaughtered infants are like so many tragic deaths that seem to question God’s promise of life, but God doesn’t forget, the story says, even if human history doesn’t remember. “The souls of the just are in the hands of God and no torment shall touch them.”

If you ever visit Bethlehem, go to see the Herodium, Herod’s massive fortified palace looking down on the nearby town. Joseph wouldn’t need much urging to take the Child and his mother from this place,would he? Go to the Citadel in Jerusalem built on the highest spot in the city. You can walk where Herod once walked and imagine him looking down on his kingdom. But it was not his kingdom, after all, it was God’s. Go to Caesaria Martima, the splendid port city created by Herod. Did the Magi’s caravans reach here?

Then ask yourself if the stories of Jesus’ birth and infancy are myths.

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Caesaria Maritima

The Mass Readings after Epiphany

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It may not seem that the gospel readings at Mass for the week after the Feast of the Epiphany are closely connected to that great feast, but they are.

The Magi who come to find the King of the Jews represent the nations, the gentiles, to whom Jesus will come as their Savior.  In our readings for Monday Jesus, grown in wisdom and age and grace, begins his public ministry after his baptism by John, going into Galilee, “the Galilee of the Gentiles,” Matthew’s gospel calls it. Jesus brings  light “to a people who sit in darkness.” Galilee is where he first fulfills the promise made to the Magi.

Baptized by John, Jesus continues his mission, repeating the very words John used to define his ministry: “Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand.” But Jesus goes beyond John, who acknowledges “I am not the Messiah; I am sent before him.(Saturday, John 3,22-3)  Jesus calls a gentile world as well as a Jewish world to turn to God; he is the kingdom of God at hand.

Humanly speaking, it wasn’t a good time for Jesus to begin such a mission. It’s “after John was arrested,” a dangerous time. Galilee, when Jesus began his mission, was ruled by Herod Antipas, who imprisoned John and then beheaded him. (Matthew 4, 12-25)

But God’s time is not our time. It probably wasn’t a good time either for the Magi to come to Bethlehem, in the days of Herod the Great. But God’s ways are not our ways. It’s important to remember that. We can easily miss the time of grace and its opportunities when we think of our time in too human a way.

God could not possibly act now? Why not?

Accounts of the miracle of the loaves and the  crossing of the Sea of Galilee from Mark’s gospel  are read on Tuesday and Wednesday of this week. Commentators note that Mark uses the Sea of Galilee as a stormy path Jesus takes to reach the gentile world of his day, where he will also give them the same banquet of Bread that he provided for the children of Israel.

It’s to “all of Galilee” that Jesus goes and “as a consequence of this his reputation traveled the length of Syria, They carried to him all those afflicted with various diseases and racked with pain: the possessed, the lunatics, the paralyzed. He cured them all.” (Matthew 4, 23-25)

 

The Epiphany

Audio version of homily here:

 

Today, the Feast of the Epiphany, we remember the mysterious visitors from afar who came seeking the new-born King of the Jews. (Matthew 2,1-12)

Years ago, I remember wandering through the catacombs of Rome where early Roman Christians buried their dead. On the burial places of their loved ones they scratched the name of the deceased, little symbols and prayers, sometimes a picture from the bible.

 

In the catacombs of Priscilla there’s a 3rd century grave that belongs to a Roman woman named Severa. Her simple profile appears with an inscription that reads, “Severa, may you live with God.”

Beside the inscription are figures of the three Magi coming with their gifts to the little Child sitting on Mary’s lap. Over the Child is a star and the figure of a man, probably Balaam, the prophet who predicted a star would announce a new king in Judea. (Numbers 24,15-19)

What did this mean to her, you wonder? Surely Severa believed the Child brought eternal life to her and others like her. Perhaps she was baptized on the feast of the Epiphany, the oldest of the Christmas feasts, the most important day after Easter for baptisms in Rome and other western churches.

 

 

Her faith, which she would have expressed in the Apostles’ Creed, is the same as ours today. God made this world and guides it to its destiny. Jesus Christ is God’s Son, born of Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and was buried. On the third day he rose from the dead.

Severa believed in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body and life everlasting.

The Roman woman knew, too, the story of the Magi and Herod, the powerful king, who threatened the life of the new born Child. The power emperors who ruled Rome then were so much like the ruthless king, but Severa knew the Child was more powerful than them all. He would bring her to another world, God’s world.

“Severa, may we live with you in God.”

 

Reflections on the Epiphany

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In the week following the Epiphany, the daily gospel readings at Mass, from all four evangelists, are reflections on the mystery of the Incarnation of our Lord, who welcomed the Magi at his birth. Jesus Christ, the Word made Flesh, reveals himself to all the nations; he is Savior of all.

The mystery of the Epiphany, unfortunately, can suffer from the same saccharine interpretation as the mystery of Christmas. Our gospel readings this week remind us how hard and challenging the mission to the gentiles will be. When we follow Jesus we meet a world we do not know or understand.

Monday: Matthew, 4, 12-17, 23-25. Jesus never left the land of his birth during his lifetime, yet Matthew’s gospel suggests that his entrance into Galilee after John the Baptist’s arrest fulfilled the promise of salvation for gentiles as well as Jews. He enters “heathen Galilee,” Matthew says. “A land in darkness has seen a great light.”

In Jesus’ time Galilee was settled by a mixed population of Jews and gentiles and so it was indeed a land Jesus wanted to reach. Gentiles were among the “ great crowds from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, and Judea, and from beyond the Jordan that followed him.”

Tuesday, Mark 6,34-44; (cf. Mark 8, 1-10) Mark’s gospel records two miracles of the loaves, one on each side of the Sea of Galilee. In Mark’s gospel the Sea of Galilee symbolically divides the two peoples, Jews from Gentiles, and so Jesus by crossing that body of water brings his message to another people. Some commentators ask: Is the miracle of the loaves on the eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee a sign that the Bread of Life is also to be shared by the gentile world?

Wednesday: Mark 6, 45-52   The story of the storm at sea immediately follows the miracle of the bread. Is it a sign of the challenge disciples face as they follow Jesus into an unknown future? Human understanding fails before the wisdom and power of God, which can be like a storm at sea, leaving disciples afraid and doubtful. Even signs given by God can lose their meaning. “They were completely astounded. They had not understood the incident of the loaves. On the contrary, their hearts were hardened.” (Mark 6, 52)

Thursday: Luke 4,14-22. Luke reports that Jesus returned to Nazareth in the course of ministry and in the synagogue they “were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth.” But “his own” turn from amazement to rejection, Luke reports. Jesus must face the scandal of those close to him who do not believe.

Friday:   Luke 5, 12-16. The leper who is cleansed is one of Luke’s classic examples of the power of God’s mercy. Not only does he experience healing for himself, but then proclaims God’s unfailing mercy in Jesus to others. “ The report about him spreads all the more and great crowds assembled to listen to him and be cured of their ailments.” Jesus will be known as we experience his mercy.

Saturday: John 3, 22-30 John the Baptist defers to Jesus before his disciples. “He must increase and I must decrease.” John’s humility is an example for all the disciples of Jesus. “I am not the Christ,” just a voice, John says of himself.

The reading prepares us for the Feast of the Baptism of Jesus which concludes the Christmas season. In the waters of baptism we share in all the mysteries of Jesus. They nourish us with eternal life.

The First Letter of John is also read each day this week, reminding us that Jesus came in the flesh and is truly human and truly divine. In his humanity he loved humanity; like him  we must love each other as human beings, frail and weak as we are.

I’m leading a retreat for seminarians this week at Daylesford Abbey, outside Philadelphia. Pray for us. We will be reflecting on these readings and the prayers of the liturgy. We remember two important saints in the American church this week: St Elizabeth Seton and St. John Neumann. Wonderful examples of holiness. John Neumann, of course, is a good example for young men hoping to become priests.