Saturday, January 05, 2008

Homily for the Solemnity of the Epiphany

The painting above is the Adoration of the Magi (1505) by the German painter Albrecht Durer (1471-1528).

The word Epiphany is a Greek word which means “manifestation” or "showing forth". On this day we celebrate the fact that Jesus took on our human nature to be the savior not only for the Jews, but for all the nations. This idea is presented in St. Paul's Letter to the Ephesians that "through Christ the Gentiles are now co-heirs with the Jews, members of the same body and sharers of the promise through the preaching of the Gospel." (3, 5-6)

The prophet Isaiah, 700 years before Christ has said about him: “Nations shall walk by your light” and “your sons come from afar.” And Psalm 72 says “all nations shall pay him homage, all nations serve him for the lives of the poor he will save.”

In Jewish circles at the time of Jesus, there was a widespread hope that the coming of the Messiah would take place soon. The Jews had made this hope known throughout the Mideast region and into Asia. The wise men knew about this expected Messiah- the King of the Jews. The Magi believed that a star was associated with the birth of great leaders. But the light of the Star would not have helped them find Christ if he had not first placed in their hearts the light of faith, which was to lead these representatives of the Gentiles to leave their own country and begin a weary journey which would bring them step by step to more perfect knowledge. They came to him, not as to a simple man, but as to God and to their source of blessing.

The Church, according to very ancient traditions, sees the gifts of the Magi as symbolic of Christ’s mission and character. Gold, was the most precious metal of the day. It was offered to kings and was also symbolic of wisdom. The Magi honored the infant Jesus as a King by offering him this precious and valuable gift. Frankincense was used in worship. It was a sign that as God he is worthy of worship and also as a priest offering himself in sacrifice, he would give perfect worship to his Father in heaven. Myrrh was used to embalm bodies in preparation for burial. It symbolized how Jesus would give worship to his Father by sacrifice - the offering of his life as a victim for our sins.

The magi do not return by the same way that they came. St. Gregory the Great says this is symbolic of the two ways we can follow. First, going back to Herod symbolizes the way of the world that leads to destruction and the other way, the way of Christ leads to the everlasting Kingdom of God, our true home.

St. Gregory says “It is paradise that is our true country, to which, having come to know Jesus, we are forbidden to return by the way we came. For we left our land by the way of pride and disobedience, by following after the things of this world, by tasting forbidden food; and so we must return to it by the way of tears, by obedience, by contempt of the world, and by restraining the desires of the flesh. Let us return then to our own country by another way, and since we cut ourselves off from the joys of heaven because of earthly delights, let us recover them again through penance.”
What connections can we make between the Epiphany and respect for human life?
First, the Gospel that Christ came to proclaim is the Gospel of Life. Pope John Paul II said “The Gospel of God’s love for man, the Gospel of dignity of the human person and the Gospel of Life are one single indivisible Gospel.” To be pro-life is not something optional for a Christian. It’s at the heart of the Gospel. To reject the pro-life message is to reject the Gospel.

Second, Jesus by his Incarnation has given new value to each and every human life created in the image and likeness of God, including life in the womb. Jesus can identify with the unborn child because he was one of them. He was an embryo, a fetus, and infant and an adult. By taking on our human nature in the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary Christ sanctified all human life from the moment of conception to the moment of natural death. He taught that whatever we do to the least of our brothers and sisters we do to him.

Third, the call of Christ is universal. It includes men and women of every nation, race, religion, born or unborn. St. Ambrose asks “But what was it that moved the Magi to adore Him? For the Virgin bore upon her no distinguishing mark, and the abode was not one of splendor;… For of the things that fell upon their outward senses there was nothing striking: there was only a manger, a mud hut, a poor mother.” Just so every human being is made in the image and likeness of God and must be treated with dignity and respect in spite of appearances, size, stage of development in or outside the womb.

Fourth, Pope John Paul II says that human life is “a manifestation of God in the world, a sign of his presence, a trace of his glory (cf. Gen 1:26-27; Ps 8:6). This is what Saint Irenaeus of Lyons wanted to emphasize in his celebrated definition: ‘Man, living man, is the glory of God’. Man has been given a sublime dignity, based on the intimate bond which unites him to his Creator: in man there shines forth a reflection of God himself” (The Gospel of Life, n. 34).
Fifth, God has given us gifts. We must give back in return. St. Ambrose says that when we hear about the Magi bringing gifts for Jesus we should consider what we have to give to God. He says “ ….let us, Brethren, offer similar gifts, from our treasures. For we have treasures, in earthen vessels (2 Cor 4:7). If you consider that which you are as being, not from thee, but from Christ: how much more ought you not to consider that which you own as being, not yours, but Christ’s?”
God gave us life so we must defend the lives of others. Pope Benedict XVI has been tremendously strong in his defense of human life and the family. In November of 2007, Pope Benedict XVI visited Kenya and instructed the bishops that “[w]hen you preach the Gospel of Life, remind your people that the right to life of every innocent human being, born or unborn, is absolute and applies equally to all people with no exception whatsoever."

At the same time he said that the Catholic community “must offer support to those women who may find it difficult to accept a child, above all when they are isolated from their family and friends.” Catholics should also “be open to welcome back all who repent of having participated in the grave sin of abortion, and should guide them with pastoral charity to accept the grace of forgiveness, the need for penance, and the joy of entering once more into the new life of Christ."

Both Pope Benedict XVI and Pope John Paul II emphasized that being personally opposed to abortion is not enough. Like us, the unborn deserve the protection of law. Pope John Paul II told the American Bishops “Laws which legitimize the direct killing of innocent human beings...are in complete opposition to the inviolable right to life proper to every individual; they thus deny the equality of everyone before the law” (Evangelium Vitae, 72). What is at stake here is nothing less than the indivisible truth about the human person on which the Founding Fathers staked your nation’s claim to independence. The life of a country is much more than its material development and its power in the world. A nation needs a “soul”.

Thus it is very important who we choose to lead our nation as President, who picks the next Supreme Court Justices; who we choose as Senators - those who vote to confirm these judges, who we send to Congress and who we choose for every level of government when we cast our vote. The Bishops have said that voting is not only our right, but a duty and also an opportunity to build a culture of life. We have the duty to use our vote "to defend human life, especially those of God's children who are unborn, disabled or are otherwise vulnerable. " (LGL #33)

Just as each individual has gifts to give to God so does each nation. Hopefully, one day soon we will restore the principles upon which America was founded, restore the right to life of the unborn and respect each life made in the image and likeness of God from the moment of conception to the moment of natural death. The gift of living up to the principles expressed in our Declaration of Independence and respecting life as an inalienable right from our Creator can be America’s gift to God and the world.

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