Homily outline for the Feast of the Epiphany
Delivered at Most Pure Heart of Mary Parish
For the last week, the Church has been lingering in Bethlehem, absorbed in the sight of the Child. Infinite greatness is here “dwindled to infancy”. We seek the eyes and heart of Joseph to witness this unfathomable mystery of divine love and condescension: to come into the world as a poor, vulnerable little baby.
But there is one facet in particular of this scene that the Church is drawing our attention to here. We are still in the Christmas season—today being the eighth day of Christmas—because there is so much more to take in than can be done in just one day. That is what we mean by “mystery”—something that so far exceeds our comprehension that we can keep coming back to it again and again and still get more.
So what is it that’s being held out to us today? It might be helpful to start with a review of what we might already know. Epiphany is a Greek word meaning “manifestation” or “striking appearance”. It’s associated in the liturgical year with today’s feast, along with the Nativity and the Baptism of the Lord—but this is the only one that we refer to exclusively as “Epiphany”. So we’re to understand that something important is being revealed to us today, something so crucial that the church names it the Epiphany.
We’re all familiar with the scene: the wise men come to present gifts and to adore the Christ child. Their decision to read the signs of the times and follow them wherever they led brought them to the most unimaginable place—the newborn king was not born in a palace but a cave used to shelter animals. The fact that the Magi were not of the Chosen people but from a faraway, Gentile country has traditionally been interpreted to mean that in this event, what is manifested is God’s intention to finally extend the offer of salvation fully to the Gentiles. God is the God of all, not just of Israel. That process of grafting onto God’s precious olive true the wild olive branches of the nations is what made possible our even being here in the first place. This gives us great reason to give thanks for the manifestation, the “epiphany” that took place so long ago.
But there’s something else important about the visit of the Magi. It’s easy for us to miss this more fundamental “manifestation” because it’s based not so much on who did come to pay adoration to the baby Jesus, but who didn't.
Here’s what I mean.
Scripture teaches us that the Child, God’s Holy Word, and therefore the very Person of God, can only be approached in an attitude of adoration.
There is no other way for it to happen. That is what it means to call out to God with a “pure heart”—a prayer that is untainted by self-interest or self pity. The pure heart prays for no other reason than that God is worthy of honor and thanks: "He’s worth it."
This is exactly what we mean when we call what we do at Mass or in the privacy of our prayer “worship”. That word, “worship”, comes from an old Germanic word that is something like what we would pronounce as “worth-ship”—the state of being worthy to receive honor.
What the magi have in common with every other person in the scene is this attitude of adoration and worship. The wise men seek nothing more than to offer gifts and present themselves as servants of the newborn King. Everyone else is excluded—the religious authorities, novelty-seekers interested only in a spectacle, and especially Herod who sees in Jesus only a threat to his own power. None of them have a pure heart, a worshipping heart. Their hearts are hardened.
Now, this idea of praising and worshipping God is something we Catholics can see as something abstract or just to be read out of a book, but we engage in this practice all the time, naturally, spontaneously, in our everyday circumstances. We love to praise what we enjoy or admire: whether they’re athletic feats, or a great performance by a classic band, or a great leader, or just someone who inspires or motivates us by their everyday excellence. We love to praise good things and good people because they’re worth it—they’re praiseworthy. And we feel the need to communicate to others the “worth-ship” of what we enjoy and admire.
But it’s also interesting to notice that in the act of praising things, we also enjoy them—not as a past memory, but a present experience. Praising and adoring makes present what we love, and in a way, manifests it.
That, I think, is the deeper truth of our feast of the “Epiphany” today: God is made present, God is manifested, in our adoration of Him.
If that is the case, then that puts what we are doing here, in this church today and every Sunday, in a whole new light, doesn’t it? Are the words we pray along with in the Mass just empty phrases that we’re repeating thoughtlessly, or words of praise that well up out of our hearts, which "throb and overflow" with love for the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (Is 60:4, from today's first reading)?
If you find yourself in the second category, thank God, and keep it up. You already know better than I could ever tell you how the Spirit of God is active and bearing fruit in your life. Let Him continue to captivate and fascinate you, and draw you deeper into communion with Him--keeping in mind that we can’t hold to the ideal all the time, and that our life in the Spirit is constantly rising and falling. Don’t ever get discouraged.
But if we find ourselves are in the first category, asking ourselves what it is that we're supposed to be "getting out of this," let’s take some time today, on the first of the year, to set aside 15-20 minutes (or however long it takes) to do some soul-searching. What is it that’s holding me back from approaching the crib along with the Magi? Is this experience of emptiness when I worship at Mass God’s doing, or mine? How have I excluded myself from the stable by imitating the novelty-seekers? or the religious professionals who ruled out Jesus as the Messiah before ever setting eyes on him? or even Herod? They all refused to adore the Word made flesh on HIS terms. Have I deceived myself by acting as the Lord of the Truth rather than approaching the one Lord of Truth in an attitude of reverence?
Above all, let’s make our prayer together today count as if God’s manifestation to one another and to the world depended on it—which, in fact, it does. Let’s shed some of that self-consciousness that holds us back from putting some feeling into our words or by letting even our posture and our movements convey the reverence, joy, and love we want to offer to God.
Let’s respond to the Church’s call to Come and Adore Him.