O God, who on this day
revealed your Only Begotten Son to the nations
by guidance of a star,
grant in your mercy
that we, who know your already by faith,
may be brought to behold the beauty
of your sublime glory.
(Collect of Solemnity)
It seems somewhat a disadvantage at funeral services that we often highlight the many accomplishments and virtues of the deceased rather than be likewise complimentary during that person’s life. A parishioner once said to me, “Let’s have my funeral before I die so I can hear all the great things said about me.” (Tongue in cheek) I’d rather hear them regardless of a funeral or not.
In some cases we nearly canonize a person and would never mention any disparaging faults or scandal. If we do, it is often put into a larger context: “Grandpa could often be opinionated and somewhat of a curmudgeon but for the most part, he had a heart of gold.” We tend to shine the best light we can for it would be really tasteless to speak ill of the dead. No one is perfect, not even the Saints among us. While there are certainly exceptions to this, such as in the case of notorious criminals who have done great harm, the vast majority of folks will hear good things about their loved one.
In the case of Jesus, however, we are dealing with the perfect human being. In our case, death is the end as we move on to eternity and we are remembered by family and friends. We are born, we hopefully live well and do what is right then we die. But, it is the end of Jesus’ earthly life that overshadows his birth. In the case of our Lord, his death was only the beginning of a far greater reality – the salvation of humankind.
Post-Resurrection and Ascension, then, we look back and shine that light on his earthly ministry. The details of the Christmas story are one example. Like all in the scriptures it is a story of faith. The coming of the Magi to Bethlehem, an ancient and beloved image at this time of year, likely is seen as a foreshadow of the future mission of this child born of Mary.
Isaiah in our first reading speaks poetically: “Rise up in splendor, Jerusalem! Your light has come . . . upon you the Lord shines, and over you appears his glory . . . Nations shall walk by you light, and kings by your shining radiance.” We are nearly blinded by the references to this new shining light! The Magi, from the Gentile world, follow a shining star in the heavens which leads them to the greater light himself. The imagery is quite beautiful and the full reading from Isaiah continues with images that clearly can reference this part of the Christmas story. Like Jesus’ command before his Ascension into heaven, to “Go and make disciples of all nations,” (Mt. 28: 19) the Magi come to symbolize the larger world that will come to recognize Jesus as the light of the world. This is a great feast of light and faith. It all symbolizes the end of Jesus life which points to the resurrection and beyond.
It may also beg the question of our own personal journey through life. The Second Vatican Council spoke of the Church as a “Pilgrim People” and titled one of the great Documents from that Council “Lumen Gentium,” where it begins: “Christ is the Light of the nations.”
Mary and Joseph journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem; the shepherds are told by the angels to go to the city and find the child; the Magi set out from far away in search of the newborn king then return to their homeland by another route. All roads lead to and from Christ Jesus and his discovery is so compelling that the shepherds return and tell all what they have “seen and heard.” What the Magi finally said of their discovery is lost in legend but we can safely assume they were not quiet about it. How could they be since their determination to find the new king is legendary? We can be the magi of today. So we are pilgrims, on a journey, in search of a homeland and a person to lead us there.
On the other hand, that journey is not always filled with such joy of discovery. The magi were confronted by Herod whose intention to find the new born king was anything but to honor him. Mary and Joseph flee Bethlehem quickly to Egypt after a dark warning by the angel. That journey was not exactly in an air conditioned Lexus and you can imagine their fear. The point of this is that along our way of discovery, our growth in faith, we will encounter difficulty and be challenged to trust more deeply in the one we are searching for.
So, as we wind down the Christmas season with today’s beautiful and symbolic feast of light it might be good for us to reflect for a moment on the journey of my life. We spend a lot of time in the busy pursuit of many things – some of them right and good but others may be just empty gratification. Often that which is good for us, such as exercise, a balanced diet and regular prayer and Sunday worship, we may avoid at all costs. We may fill our day with empty pursuits and shallow things like our laser beam focus on material possessions or competition with our neighbors or occasional prayer only when I need something or are desperate. Like the shepherds and magi who were clearly changed deeply by who they found, so too can this year ahead be a year of growth and change for any of us.
There is no doubt that the Epiphany story has a big picture view about the future mission of the Church in light of Jesus’ death and resurrection. All we need do is look around our local parish assembly and see the diversity of cultures represented to know that people of “all nations” have come to believe. We are in a sense spiritual immigrants as we search for the star to lead us to a higher purpose and person but do we really stay on the road? We have all been entrusted with a mission to carry out that of the Church given by Jesus to his Apostles.
This week we mark one of our American Saints: St. John Neumann, the first Bishop of Philadelphia, PA. His pastoral concern for a growing Catholic Church in America in the 18th century is admirable. He wrote these words which strike me as appropriate for our Feast today: “Everyone, who breathes, high and low, educated and ignorant, young and old, man and woman, has a mission, has a work. We are not sent into the world for nothing. We are not born at random . . . He creates every soul for a purpose . . . He has an end for each of us.”
That gives me a lot of hope. Let’s together follow the Star who is Light of this world.