Search This Blog

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Epiphany's choice: From navel-gazing to star-gazing, to a new world

Nations shall walk by your light,
and kings by your shining radiance. (Is. 60:3, first reading)
All kings shall pay him homage,
all nations shall serve him.
R/ Lord, every nation on earth will adore you. (Psalm 72, responsorial)
...it has now been revealed
to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit: 
that the Gentiles are coheirs, members of the same body,
and copartners in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel. (Eph. 3:5-6, second reading)
...behold, 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.” (Mt. 2: 1-2, gospel)


Here's an epiphany for all of us: God is for everybody. Think you're being really, really good? God is for everybody. Think you're beyond hope and made so many false starts there's no starting over? God is for everybody. Run out of love, run away from love, ruled by love? God is for everybody. All that stuff about being nice, loving your family, supporting your friends, going to church, loving your kids, loving your parents, all of that is understood. Everybody is supposed to do that. Even the pagans do that. What is just too much for the good guys is that God is for everybody. What we think makes God happy about the way we act is just too narrowly imagined. This amazing God, who doesn't think heaven is any place for a lover to be and throws it all aside to become a child of generous peasant parents in an occupied country, is for everybody. It's a new idea about who God is, what power is like, what fuels the cosmos, what relationships should be like, who's inside and who's outside. And who likes the idea? Mostly the outside ones. The other kings, the kings of the status quo, want  him dead, and don't really give it a rest until they succeed in accomplishing another murder.

When I complain to some of my friends in the parish about my struggles listening to homilies, they tell me to tune it out, that I’m the only one who’s listening anyway. Has it really come to that? Because I can’t do it. Sadly, I guess, I think that what we do at Mass matters, not because God is happy or angry about it, but because as ritual it shapes who we are. It ought to be pointed toward a different world while its feet are planted in the reality we experience day after day. It ought to be guided by Scripture and tradition while completely convinced that the word of God is “alive and effective” in this world, now. And it ought to be, I think, oriented toward the world, the cosmos, and not an exercise in self-help, self-promotion, Dr.-Phil-think, or avuncular musings of the priests' childhood or ethnic family life.

Look at the readings for the feast of Epiphany. The first reading, from trito-Isaiah, is addressed to Jerusalem, a ruined city dragged ignominiously into exile, and tells a bedraggled and desperate people to “rise up in splendor, your light has come.” The gospel, the familiar story of the Magi’s journey, the treachery of Herod, the Magi’s worship and their circumventing of Herod’s plan, is Matthew’s foreshadowing of the division that Jesus’s life would cause for believers and non-believers alike, the violence that would erupt because of it, and the revelation that the gospel of the Messiah would be for all nations. Both readings play out on international stages with great political consequences. Great questions arise out of them as well, including the massacre of the innocents and just what it means to be a “chosen people” when you’re kicked around by every empire that rises or falls for one or two or three thousand years.

Even if we don't, the word of God takes itself seriously. The gospel, even this Christmas gospel, is framed in stories of life and death. This gospel is important: people move across national boundaries and death is visited upon the homes of all the male babies in the region. Modern scholarship posits that the feasts of Epiphany and Christmas were not created to counteract pagan solstice festivals, however much those festivals might have contributed to the accouterments of the nativity cycle. These feasts apparently originated from the dating of the crucifixion, thought to be April 6 by Eastern scholars, and March 25 in the west (which also became the feast of the Annunciation). There was a tradition that the Messiah would enter and leave the world on the same day, so the date of the crucifixion became the date of the Messiah's conception, making Christmas nine months later. So even the dates of these great feasts are blood-soaked and wrapped in the controversy that has divided the church, sometimes violently, for centuries.

Our worship and our mission at worship's end ought to be to proclaim "LIGHT!" to the ruined hearts of people who have been carried off into the Babylon of commerce and power, and help them sing. We, the church, ought to proclaim to them to “rise up in splendor, your light has come. The glory of the LORD shines upon you.” Don’t we sense the fear of people whose leaders in church and state have whispered their suspicion about anything that might change the status quo to benefit the hungry, powerless, stateless people in this and other countries? How are "the kingdoms of this world" working out for you? Anyone tell you about a God who doesn't cling even to heaven or godliness, but who throws self into the stench and blood and fleshy wonder of human love? Let's sing and proclaim about who lives in that house in Nazareth, and how divine light showed the truth to open-hearted outsiders, and how they found another way home. There seems to be plenty in which to rejoice and of which to repent in this feast. We may not hear it in church today, but there’s always next week. It’s a matter of life and death.
..were we lead all that way for

Birth or Death?
There was a Birth, certainly,

We had evidence and no doubt.
I have seen birth and death,

But had thought they were different; this Birth was

Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.

We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,

But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,

With an alien people clutching their gods.

I should be glad of another death. 
(T.S.Eliot, “Journey of the Magi”)