(A homily written for publication in The Preacher, Issue 178)
They offered him gifts
Monday 6 January/Sunday 7th 2020
Isaiah 60:1-6, Psalm 71, Ephesians 3:1-12, Matthew 2:1-12
By Duncan Macpherson
Features Editor, Roman Catholic Permanent Deacon, Retired Lecturer in Theology at Saint Mary’s University, Twickenham
Context: A Sunday Eucharist in a parish in a mixed faith area with a congregation from a variety of ethnic and cultural backgrounds.
Aim: To stress that there are no outsiders to God’s love
The gifts have all been received. Some have already found their way into the charity shops! And most of those of us who have been away for Christmas have already got back home after, in some cases long & difficult journeys, maybe hanging about in airports, waiting for cancelled trains or being held up in traffic jams --the greater the distance the worse the journey! The ‘wise men’, probably not ‘kings,’ thought worth their journey worthwhile, retracing the steps of the exiles in Babylon reassured by the promise of Isaiah that Jerusalem and its temple would be rebuilt and foreign nations would bring their treasures to a place full of the bright glory of the Lord: ‘Lift up your eyes and look round: all are assembling and coming towards you, your sons from far away and your daughters being tenderly carried.’
And this is good news for us too, because we all experience some darkness in our lives. We were outsiders, descended from gentiles, pagans. Maybe we feel like outsiders still. Like the shepherds, we are poor before God but, yet if we hurry to the manger, we are filled with great joy and, like the wise men, the sight of his star fills us with delight. All of us who seek can find. And when we do, it doesn’t seem like that at all. It was Christ who came seeking us and it was we who were found. And because we are welcomed without deserving such a welcome, we are set free to welcome others & to help to work for a world in which no one is excluded from God's gifts. It was worth the journey!
A long journey
The poet TS Eliot wrote a well-known poem, called “The Journey of the Magi. In it he imagines the Wise Men describing the rigours of the journey:
'A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.'’
The wise men would certainly have had a long journey, probably from what is modern Iran. Going in a straight line, that would be about 970 miles--quite a distance! Today, their route would probably be via war torn areas of Iraq and Syria and when they got to Jerusalem, they would have found a 25-foot wall preventing them getting through to Bethlehem without going through a check point. But the wise men had come a long way in another sense. They were almost certainly not Jews and therefore did not belong to the revealed Faith. But they followed the light they had, and it brought them to Christ. And, as Eliot says, it was:
‘not a moment too soon.
Finding the place; it was (you may say) satisfactory...'
Only Matthew’s Gospel tells us about Wise men but in Luke’s Gospel the Christ child is visited by shepherds. They would have had only come a couple of miles to travel, but in another way, it was a long journey for them too. Shepherds at that time were poor and were looked down upon them as outsiders. So, the good news for Matthew's wise men and Luke's shepherds is the same. Being an outsider, either a foreigner with the wrong religion or someone from the wrong social class doesn't disqualify from finding Jesus Christ.
The feast we celebrate today is good news for those outside the revealed faiths of the Jewish or Christian faiths for all who, in the words of Eucharistic Prayer Four, ‘seek God with a sincere heart.’ The second Vatican Council teaches us to esteem followers of other religions and the Feast of the Epiphany, the manifestation of the glory of Christ to the gentiles, teaches us that those who sincerely follow the light will find Christ. That is good news for all outsiders and strangers: all are welcome. Pope Francis wants us to become a church for the poor--both the materially poor & the morally & spiritually poor. There are so many outsiders in our world.
We heard in the first reading that ‘The glory of the Lord is rising on you, though night still covers the earth and darkness the peoples.’ These words from one of the later parts of the book of Isaiah were spoken to people in captivity in Babylon. At the time of the birth of Jesus, the people were enduring Roman occupation and a king capable of killing innocents if he felt his power threatened. Today we would go a long way in order to find the answers to the world’s problems. ‘Night still covers the earth and darkness the peoples.’ But the good news is that there are no outsiders where Christ is concerned.