Homily for the Solemnity of the Epiphany


“But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you will come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.”

This consoling prophecy was made by Micah approximately 700 years before the birth of Jesus. The people of Israel were in a terrible state – the kingdom was divided, foreign nations warred against the people of God and the prophets lamented the people’s breaking of the Covenant with the Lord, especially when it came to idolatry and a lack of love for God and neighbour.

The prophet Isaiah lived and taught roughly at the same time as Micah. Today’s first reading was written after the destruction of Jerusalem and the deportation of the people of Israel to the land of Babylon as slaves. Into this situation of chaos, selfishness and disobedience God speaks of a future time when He will raise up a ruler from the house of Judah who will shepherd his people, Israel. This promised messiah would bring unity and peace, between peoples and between humanity and God – he would bring light into the darkness of the human condition:

In the fullness of time the multitude of Old Testament prophesies about the messiah are fulfilled in the person of Jesus. Lead by a mysterious natural phenomena – a moving star – the wise men are guided to meet the Light of all Humanity, Jesus Christ himself. Notice the unity and peace that God has brought about in and through these Wise Men. They were Pagan philosophical sages, priests, and astronomers – through their study of nature and their cultural/religious knowledge they make a profound geographical and spiritual journey that culminates in them recognising the baby Jesus as the Son of God and worshipping him. Here in the humble stable of Bethlehem, Israel is united to foreign nations, humble shepherds worship alongside educated, wealthy Wise Men, and pagan religion is lead to the true faith by worshiping Him who is the Way, the Truth and the Life.

This phenomenal journey made by the Wise Men and celebrated again in this Solemnity of Epiphany can guide you and me in our quest for unity and truth too. So many voices in the modern world try to undermine people’s faith, faith in God in general, faith in Jesus Christ as the only name under heaven and earth that we can be saved and faith in the Church that Jesus founded on Peter.

This last week the world paused as Pope Francis buried Pope Benedict. In a real way, Pope Benedict was a modern John the Baptist, a voice crying in the wilderness of unbelief, seeking that people prepare the way for the Lord to their hearts. Let us take a few moments to dwell on the wisdom of Pope Benedict with regards to the Wise Men. In times where many claim that Jesus was not real or was portrayed dishonestly by the gospel writers, Benedict reminds us that the Wise Men anchor Jesus in the human drama, in a real time and place, by putting these exotic pilgrims in contact with Herod the Great, about whose brutal reign we know a lot; the reference to Caesar Augustus in Luke 2:1 performs the same “anchoring” function. At the very beginning of the Jesus story, Matthew and Luke tell their readers that Jesus of Nazareth is not a figment of someone’s fevered religious imagination. Jesus is a real historical person – as real as real gets.

Secondly, Benedict wrote that the magi are authentic models of people who seek the truth and are willing to go beyond what their human or cultural knowledge tells them. Benedict stated that the Magi were men of a profound openness to the divine, and are “successors of Abraham, who set off on a journey in response to God’s call.”

What guided the magi on their journey? God enlightened them via their study of nature, for indeed they were ancient astronomers, ancient scientists. Their scientific studies guided them to Bethlehem. Furthermore, they were also philosophers, studying human knowledge and through their pagan religion God leads them to worship at the feet of His son. By God’s grace a profound synergy is effected whereby their faith and science combine to bring them to the knowledge of the true God.

How does this faith journey of the Magi apply to you and me today? We do not grapple in darkness to know the truth about God – we have the fullness of revelation in Scripture and Tradition. Indeed, we believe that Jesus is the messiah, the promised Son of God who died for our sins on the Cross, and that the Catholic Church was founded by God through Christ and that the Church, a pilgrim now on earth, is necessary for salvation. As I am sure the magi had doubts and faith struggles, so too can we. The Magi teach the importance of perseverance – I am sure they would have been bitterly disappointed and perhaps confused when they did not find Jesus where they expected to find him – in the palace. They return to God’s guidance in faith and they are lead to Bethlehem. Sometimes we can doubt when the Catholic Faith seems to conflict with human philosophies or scientific discoveries. The New Testament writes that “For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.” We must allow God to guide and teach us through nature but we must never make of nature or the study of nature a false god – the magi followed the star but worshipped Jesus, the light of the nations.

We must recognise that God is at work outside the visible boundaries of the Church. The magi were informed and assisted by their cultural and religious knowledge, albeit that knowledge was limited – God lead them through what they had to the fullness of truth. The Catholic Church recognizes in other religions that search in faith, among shadows and images, for the God who is unknown yet near since he gives life and breath and all things and wants all people to be saved” (ccc 843). To say it another way, as the document on the Church in the Second Vatican Council points out, “the Church considers all goodness and truth found in these religions as a preparation for the Gospel” (Lumen Gentium 16). We must treat persons of other faiths with great love, while holding firm to our belief that God “the Father willed to call the whole of humanity together into his Son’s Church. The Church is the place where humanity must rediscover its unity and salvation… She is that vessel, that barque which in the full sail of the Lord’s cross, by the breath of the Holy Spirit, navigates safely [from] this world” to the next (ccc 845). Our task is to engage in “respectful dialogue with those who do not yet accept the Gospel” (ccc 856) so as to assist them too to come to know, love and worship our Lord Jesus Christ, the son of God, the shepherd of God’s flock who wishes all humanity to share in the love, peace and joy of the one Triune God, Father Son and Holy Spirit.