Sunday, January 02, 2011

Solemnity of the Epiphany of the Lord

The Catholic Church today celebrate the Solemnity of the Epiphany of the Lord, the day on which we remember Jesus' being revealed as the light of all nations.

In keeping with the theme of the "Year of the Stranger," consider these verses from today's Gospel written by the evangelist Matthew:

...magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem, saying, 
“Where is the newborn king of the Jews?
We saw his star at its rising
and have come to do him homage.”
When King Herod heard this,
he was greatly troubled, 
and all Jerusalem with him.
Strangers come to the city bearing a message that is disconcerting to those who hear it: the king of the Jews is newly born and they have traveled a great distance to pay him homage. The light of this start has caught the attention of these foreigners, these non-Jews, and they have embarked upon a journey to see with their own eyes the one to whom this sign attests.

Hell, I can't say I blame Herod. If I were something of the puppet king installed by the occupying Roman authorities and knew that my position of power was guaranteed only by my keeping these same occupiers happy, I'd not want anyone proclaiming the birth of the new king. So I totally sympathize with Herod. I can totally get why he's unnerved because if the new king is born then the old king, by extension, probably doesn't have a long reign ahead of him.

It is, though, the next lines I find most fascinating:

Assembling all the chief priests and the scribes of the people, 
He inquired of them where the Christ was to be born.
They said to him, “In Bethlehem of Judea, 
for thus it has been written through the prophet:
And you, Bethlehem, land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
since from you shall come a ruler,
who is to shepherd my people Israel.
Then Herod called the magi secretly 
and ascertained from them the time of the star’s appearance.
Herod assembles a group of religious leaders - a theological cabinet - and presses them for information. The prophecy they recount only galvanizes his fear: a new ruler has been born and, in Herod's world, there is room enough for but one ruler. Interesting, isn't it, that there is no account of the religious authorities offering a different picture of what this ruler might be, what this new-born shepherd might be like? These men - let us assume that they were all men - demonstrate a spiritual and imaginative blindness that only reinforces Herod's suspicions and fears. These religious authorities, these men of God, do what we see too often happening today: they hitch their wagons to party in power and refuse to challenge the leader, choosing instead to reaffirm him rather than question him.

So without a challenge from his religious counselors, Herod approaches and deputizes the Magi, the three strangers visiting his land, to signal to Herod where the child is so that he might pay him homage. It is the strangers, the interlopers, the non-Jews who know better where to find the Christ than those who, supposedly, have been waiting for their Messiah for so long.

You, of course, know the rest of the story. Yet today's Gospel ends one verse too early for my liking, because after the Magi are warned in a dream to depart by another route, Joseph is warned of impending doom as well. Matthew writes:

When they had departed, behold, the angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, "Rise, take the child and his mother, flee to Egypt, and stay there until I tell you. Herod is going to search for the child to destroy him."
Joseph rose and took the child and his mother by night and departed for Egypt.
In the still of the night, the child is bundled up as Joseph and Mary set out for Egypt. The Holy Family leaves the land of their fathers and goes into a foreign land - a land that once enslaved their people - to secure their son's safety. It is a dream that instructs Joseph later to bring the child not to Jerusalem - the center of the Jewish world - but to Galilee, to Nazareth, a backwater town that accounted for little in the world.

Today's Solemnity plays on a double theme of the Stranger in our midst. First, it is the Strangers who know better than those who ought - the religious authorities - how to read the 'signs of the times' and follow those signs to encounter the Messiah. How often is it that we upright Christians misinterpret the sign of Christ's arrival in our own lives? How easy is it to think that we meet Christ in the Eucharist each week and then forget that Christ comes also under the guise of the widow, the orphan, and the alien?

Isn't it ironic that so-called good Catholics can with the same mouth assent "Amen" that what they consume is the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ and later call mightily for greater border patrols to keep out the "illegals," the aliens in our midst? Isn't it strange to think that so-called good Catholics will pray fervently for an end to abortion (a prayer I join) while decrying any social-welfare program that would intend to help the unwed mothers and their children, thereby condemning them to a system of structural inequality and oppression? Isn't it funny to think that people will pray the Rosary outside of abortion clinics yet become enraged that people protest the School of the Americas? Isn't it a bit inconsistent that we want laws that would prohibit the murder of innocent babies and laws against euthanasia in a country that, not so long ago, made it a part of its military practice to spray Napalm on citizens, effectively searing the flesh off of innocent men, women, children, and babies during a time of warfare?

It's easy to misinterpret the signs, to miss the arrival of Christ. Yet look at the cost of this misinterpretation: an inconsistent approach to the value of human life. It is this myopia, this blindness, that would enable Herod's religious counselors to remain silent in interpreting the prophecy of the savior's birth, the same counselors who remained silent during the Slaughter of the Innocents.

The theme of the Stranger appears a second time in the verse not read at Mass today. Here we hear of Jesus being called into Egypt, into the unwelcoming land of his forefathers' captivity and enslavement. From here is he returned to his people, leaving his ancestral captors and joining his soon-to-be killers. Jesus was, throughout his life, and is today the consummate Stranger: one whose likeness to us in his humanity yields how unlike we are to him in his divinity: the Word was made Flesh and pitched his tent among us....and we killed him because he made us really uncomfortable.

Jesus was a strange duck. He made no sense to religious authorities, political authorities, family, and friends. It was hard to peg him, to situate him on some coordinate plane that made clear all of his actions. His ways were not....indeed, are still not....our ways. Perhaps this is what we need to take most from today's Solemnity: the very strangeness of Jesus. The next time I feel the temptation to become Christ-complacent, so certain of my own rectitude and uprightness, it will do me well to remember how "Jesus thrown everything off balance" (Flannery O'Connor) and that I must not ever lose sight that for as much as I love Him, he will always be to me: Strange.
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