Homily for the Feast of Epiphany 2021
Balaam was a Canaanite soothsayer at the time Israel was coming into the land after its forty years of desert wandering. He figures in stories recounted in the Book of Numbers, and, interestingly, there is some evidence of his historical existence from beyond the biblical record. He apparently was admired for his ability to predict the future during his prophetic trances. The king of Moab tried to enlist him to employ his oracular powers to curse Israel and so destroy their progressive entry into the land. Balaam tried to resist, but when the king insisted, Balaam warned him that he would not necessarily be able to curse Israel but could only say what God would prompt him to say. The king took his gamble, and – too bad for him – what Balaam uttered were two beautiful and mysterious blessings on Israel. (The Church reads these blessings in her Advent liturgy on Monday of the third week.) Looking out over the encampment of Israel in great numbers – the very reason the Moabite king had called for the curse – Balaam was compelled to utter, “How goodly are your tents, O Jacob; your encampments, O Israel… he shall have the sea within reach, his king shall rise higher and his royalty shall be exalted.”
The king was furious at these words and screeched at Balaam that it was a curse he had asked for, not a blessing. He told him to try again. Balaam attempted to warn him off, but in the end yet another blessing emerged out of the soothsayer’s mouth. The Church has always understood that, unknowingly, it was of Jesus, Son of David, that he spoke. In his trance these words flowed from his mouth, “I see him, though not now; I behold, though not near: a star shall advance from Jacob, and a staff shall rise from Israel.”
I remind you today of these intriguing biblical stories because, although Balaam later finished badly, we nonetheless hear in his pagan mouth genuine religious prophecy and truth. As such he represents for us the pattern of the Magi in today’s gospel story. The world’s history is full of such figures: religious searchers with elements of genuine true wisdom achieved in their search and arriving, however gropingly, at last to what is the true goal of every religion, every philosophical query, every scientific probing of the skies or the depths, every prophecy. That goal is, to quote the text of the gospel telling us what the Magi found, “the child with Mary his mother.” Epiphany celebrates the Magi arriving here, who represent in their persons all Gentiles coming to Israel to find in Israel’s Messiah their Savior and Lord as well.
How did the Magi get there? Who were they? They are said to come from the East. Were they Persian astronomers? Possibly. There is much to admire in how much those priest scientists of the era were able to say and predict about the movement of planets and stars. They stared into the starry night at what appeared to them a dance of the glorious array, where all the stars managed to move through the course of the night and yet hold their same position in reference to all the countless others, while some few others, brighter ones, wandered in different but also predictable directions. These they called “wanderers,” or in Greek, planets. Living under such glorious, complex predictability in their clear night skies, and without the advantage of Israel’s revealed knowledge of the origin of the created world, how could these people not wonder if perhaps this movement of the stars contained some clues for them about the meaning of existence itself, which every human heart cannot help but wonder about, often with a sense of anguish. And so, the Persian sages accumulated and passed on over time wisdom and wonder and hope. Such searching still goes on in peoples.
Occasionally something extraordinary will develop in the night skies. The wandering planets may draw close to one another and create a single brightness, awesome to behold. Or a comet or supernova may streak through the sky for nights on end, eventually finishing who knows where. We cannot know with precision what may have been happening in the night skies to move the Magi to set out for Jerusalem in search there of what might be a savior for them as well. But there was something in their open hearts and minds that moved them to set out in hopes of finding. No star moves like the one the story tells, shining, guiding, disappearing, shining again, and stopping over a precise location. If it was their staring in the skies that enabled the Magi to first set out, as they draw closer to their goal, we realize that the stars are in no way controlling the story, are controlling destiny, as many of the ancients believed. The child for whom they search is controlling the stars, for he made them. The whole cosmos speaks of him and points to him when discerned aright. The stars move at his command. No ordinary star and no ordinary and predictable moving. “What star is this that shines so bright, more beauteous than the noon day light!”
After the Magi had received the indication from the Jewish scribes that Bethlehem was the predicted location of the Messiah’s birth, the star appears again and leads them on. We read, “They were exceedingly overjoyed at seeing the star.” But in the end, they find something greater and more awesome than this wondrous star. “They enter the house and find the child and Mary his mother.” They have an immediate reaction that we should pause to let sink in. They throw themselves to the ground in adoration of the child, plainly recognizing him as their Lord and Savior too. By the three different gifts they offer in homage, they express their faith: gold for a king, incense for a god, myrrh as a cryptic prophesy of the death by which he would save the world. After this we are simply told that they departed for their own country again. We might think that they would want to hang around, now that they had found the world’s Lord and Savior. But here as well a higher and interior providence guides them from within. They are content to know that the Savior is here and to let the destiny of the child unfold in God’s own good time.
When these Magi arrived in Jerusalem, the question they asked was “Where is the newborn king of the Jews?” This is a Gentile way of asking the question. Jews themselves throughout their history and in their scriptures spoke of “the king of Israel.” The only other place that we will see this title for Jesus again is in the inscription that Pilate, another Gentile, has affixed to the Lord’s cross, an inscription written in Hebrew, Latin, and Greek so that Gentiles too could read this sign. “Jesus of Nazareth,” it read, “King of the Jews.” The very language of the Magi’s question becomes, without their knowing it, a prophesy of the cross.
When Herod heard this question posed, we read that “he was greatly troubled and all Jerusalem with him.” This too, obscure at this point, is also a prophesy of the cross, for when Jesus enters the holy city as a grown man to face his passion in a triumphant procession with palms, again we will read that the city and its rulers were “greatly troubled.”
You know how the story continues. An angel warns Joseph that “Herod is searching for the child to destroy him.” To destroy Jesus – once again, in this detail too the pattern of the passion is already unfolding. The murder of all the infant boys in Bethlehem also foretells the blood that will be shed by many martyrs associated with Jesus, first in John the Baptist, then in his apostles, then in his disciples still even into our own day. But the destiny of the child whom Herod tries to destroy is secure in the hands of his heavenly Father – at his birth, throughout his ministry, and even in his passion and death. Joseph flees Herod by taking the child and his mother into Egypt. But this only happens so that in the end the prophet’s word might be fulfilled, the word that says, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.” This phrase is a summary of Israel’s entire history, of that history recapitulated in the life of Jesus, and finally a prophesy of the resurrection of the crucified. Yes, indeed, “ ’out of Egypt I have called my Son’ and raised him from the dead,” declares Jesus’ Father.
Dear confreres, dear friends, we have come here today like the Magi. We can say with them, “We have come with gifts to adore the Lord.” He in turn will hand himself over to us in his eucharistic body and blood. Now of us the sacred text speaks which proclaims, “The Word became flesh and pitched his tent among us.” I look at us, nourished by his flesh in us, and I see that the ancient words of the pagan prophet are still ringing true: “How goodly are your tents, O Jacob, your encampments, O Israel.”
Homily of Christmas Midnight Mass 2020
It is the silent night. His arrival goes all unnoticed. But something absolutely momentous has happened – inconceivable, really. Yet it has happened. Beautiful how all this was pointed out in prophecy in the book of Wisdom, where it says, addressing God, “For when peaceful stillness encompassed everything and the night in its swift course was half spent, your all-powerful Word from heaven’s royal throne bounded into the doomed land.” (Wisdom 18:14-15) “Doomed” should be understood in two senses in this text. The Lord comes because the land is doomed, and so he arrives to help. But his coming also spells doom for the land into which he comes, for he arrives quietly and unnoticed within the captured territory that Satan holds in his grip through sin and death.
Luke’s gospel, which we heard proclaimed just now, also describes this remarkably quiet moment within what is otherwise quite a lot of commotion in its few short verses. The great Caesar Augustus has the whole world on the move in obedience to his decree. Whatever the emperor decreed was called good news, just because he said it. That’s pure imperial propaganda, of course, but that’s how language gets toyed with by world rulers. Oh yes, Augustus fashioned himself the ruler of the whole world, and he was flexing this “fact” by requiring a census of all. But in the midst of this movement in every direction for the census, in fact a higher providence is guiding a young and special couple named Joseph and Mary to a specially designated place in fulfillment of prophecy. There’s further excitement to come in the story that Luke is telling, but before that he utters his remarkably quiet and few words. Earlier we had been told that Mary was with child, and now he simply says, “She gave birth to her firstborn son, wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger.” It is the silent night. It is the holy night. There are only Joseph, Mary, and the new child. Elsewhere the whole world is bustling, and Bethlehem’s inns are packed; and in this quiet scene the most important thing that has heretofore ever happened on Earth is taking place silently and all unnoticed: a baby, outside the city walls, wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.
Matthew’s gospel, the only other gospel that speaks of the birth of Jesus, is even quieter than this. All it says of the birth itself is “[Joseph] had no relations with her, [Mary], until she bore a son, and he named him Jesus.” These quiet, these spare descriptions, are somehow part of the point, part of the message. And we can only receive it fully in a quiet place within ourselves. A reason to cultivate silence. A reason to enter into the holy night.
I say it is momentous what is happening. Nothing greater or more important than this has ever happened heretofore on Earth. What is it that takes place in such deep silence, in such obscurity? What it is is mysteriously revealed in the Entrance Song we sang as the ministers entered the sanctuary. “In holy splendor, before the daystar, I have begotten you.” This is Psalm 2. But that text, an oracle originally uttered by God to Israel’s king, is seen now as a prophecy of this moment, and it describes the child born of Mary as the one whom God the Father begets. He begets him now in time, but the mystery grows deeper, for the one begotten now in time was eternally begotten of the Father before all ages. That one is here now in very flesh. That is the child wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger. That we sang it as our song means that this event, this begetting, invades our space now.
Elsewhere a rather more spectacular scene is unfolding. It has to do with this quiet scene that remains rapt in the peaceful stillness. In the elsewhere, an angel, just one, makes a stunning appearance to – of all people! – some shepherds. I say “of all people” because shepherds at that time were the lowermost rungs of society, and it wasn’t to be expected that an angel would appear to such as these. But most of what the true God does is unexpected. The shepherds themselves were certainly not expecting it, and the text tells us that “they were struck with great fear.” The angel delivers a vital and precise interpretation of the quiet scene of the newborn babe. The angel declares, “Behold, I proclaim to you good news of great joy for all the people.” (So much for Caesar’s good news and him being in charge of all the people.) The angel continues: “Today in the city of David a savior has been born for you who is Christ and Lord.” Ah, this is the divinely sanctioned interpretation of the birth that we needed. Three titles are applied to the child that explain who he is: Savior, Messiah, and Lord. Two of these titles had been misappropriated by Caesar Augustus, Savior and Lord. But no, Jesus is the only Savior and Lord, and he is Israel’s Messiah who is now “for all the people.” The angel finishes his message making certain that the shepherds – and we who are hearing the story – are clear about whom the angel is speaking. He says, “And this will be a sign for you: you will find an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.”
Lest the shepherds be in any doubt about this one angel’s message, suddenly the whole sky is filled with a multitude of angels singing and praising God, and the song can be about only one thing: the great joy that God is acting on behalf of the whole of humanity and that this joy is meant for everyone. They praise God for this, “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”
The story does not end there, though what we heard tonight does. But the story continues with a response from the shepherds. This is the gospel text that the Church reads in the Christmas Mass at dawn. But I’ll remind you of it now, briefly. Luke tells us that the angels went away to heaven. It is quiet again. The shepherds decide “to go to see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” They go in haste. They are excited. And they see the sign. They “found Mary and Joseph and the infant lying in the manger.” That was the sign. They see it. They understand now the angel’s message. And they immediately started telling others, all of whom were amazed. They tell Mary and Joseph too, for they were not in the place of the angelic appearance. And we are told, pointedly by the evangelist, that “Mary kept all these things, reflecting on them in her heart.”
This image of Mary pondering all this in her heart brings us back into the silence of this night. She is an image of the Church and an example for us in this her silent pondering. “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; upon those who dwelt in the land of gloom a light has shown.”
This same quiet, unobtrusive coming of the Son of God into our midst happens all the time for us actually. It may be so unobtrusive that we fail to notice. But if so, this feast is given us to rectify that. The Eucharist that we celebrate each day is this same quiet coming, with all the same characteristics. For those who do not know, for those who do not believe, the celebration of the Eucharist looks like nothing at all. And fair enough! The priest but gently stretches out his hands over the gifts of bread and wine and beseeches the Father to send the Holy Spirit for their transformation. Then he picks up bread and afterward wine and quietly says the words of Jesus over them, “This is my body. This is my blood.” And the transformation is worked. It is the mystery of faith. The Son comes “in the name of the Lord.” The eternally begotten Son is present to us in his body and blood. It is quiet. All unnoticed by the bustling world. But we are here. We know what it means. We ponder it in our hearts. It is momentous. Inconceivable, really. And yet here he is, in this way, in this form.
He lies on our altar as if in a manger. For, after all, a manger is a food trough for animals, but now in this humble place he lies as living bread for us who believe in him. And the manger, made of wood, and the child wrapped in swaddling clothes, these are prophecies of the wood of the cross and the swaddling clothes of Jesus’ burial. The swaddling clothes are left behind in the tomb from which he rises, and it is as risen and ascended Lord that he feeds us with his body and blood, born this night in Bethlehem. Angels, a multitude of the heavenly host, are with us, adoring him now in his presence to us.
So, you see. Here it is the silent night. Here it is the holy night. All is calm. All is bright.