Homily for Epiphany 2021
Saints Peter and Paul, Naperville
2 January 2022
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“This is the glorious day on which Christ himself, the savior of the world, appeared; the prophets foretold him, the angels worshipped him;
— the Magi saw his star and rejoiced to lay their treasures at this feet.
God’s holy day has dawned for us at last; come, all you peoples, adore the Lord.
— the Magi saw his star and rejoiced to lay their treasures at his feet.”
(Responsory to 2nd Reading, Office of Readings, Epiphany)
Today we celebrate the great solemnity of the Epiphany, which is day that has had so many meanings over the centuries;
In the first place, we recognize the fulfillment of what the prophet Isaiah foretold (and which we heard in the first reading) about what will happen when the Lord comes to Israel:
“You, Jerusalem, shall be radiant at what you see, your heart shall throb and overflow, for the riches of the sea shall be emptied out before you, the wealth of nations shall be brought to you. Caravans of camels shall fill you, dromedaries from Midian and Ephah; all from Sheba shall come bearing gold and frankincense, and proclaiming the praises of the Lord.” (Is. 60)
In the 2nd century, St. Irenaeus helped us see the meaning of these gifts, which help signify and proclaim the mystery of the Word who has become flesh: gold is a symbol of royalty, representing the kingship of Jesus over all time and history; frankincense, used in worship, representing his divinity, Emmanuel, God is with us; and to the prophecy in Isaiah 60, today is added the gift of Myrrh, a gum-like resin taken from a species of thorny trees and has been used for centuries as a remedy for all kinds of things: indigestion, ulcers, arthritis, and leprosy; it is a truly earthy substance, and represents the humanity of Jesus. Myrrh was also used at the time of Jesus to help prepare bodies for burial, and this gift foretells the passion and death of Christ.
In the second place, the Church has long used the feast of the Epiphany, when the three Magi, who were likely Eastern astrologers, followed a star to see where it might lead them. Our calendar and clock are based on the movement of the heavens, and the feast of all of feasts, Easter, is celebrated on the Sunday following the first Full Moon occurring after the Spring Equinox.
So, on this day each year when the stars have led us to Bethlehem, the Church announces with great joy the dates of the moveable feasts of the year, which I will do after the homily.
Thirdly, Epiphany announces once and for all that while salvation will come from the Jews, the chosen race, God’s salvation will be for all people, across every time and place. In the psalms, David sang:
“All the nations that you have brought into being will come and fall down in the adoration in your presence, Lord, and glorify your name…the Lord has made known his salvation, in the sign of the nations, he has revealed his justice.”
But today I would like to draw out a fourth aspect of this awe-filled celebration. Yes, Jesus has been born; the “Word of the Father now in flesh appearing”, and we have come and continue to come and adore him. We are captivated by the mystery of Christmas, we are filled with a sense of new wonder and awe particularly today at the possibilities latent in this new year, and we are helped in our wonder by the first major snowfall which has made everything bright and new.
I don’t really want to add another voice to the chorus of, “Man, 2021, wow what a year. Lots of struggle and difficulty across the board. Here’s to a better 2022!”
But like…Man, 2021, wow what a year!
But I am struck by the number of times and ways that people in the last couple of days have said things like, “Hoping for a better year! I just know 2022 will be better.”
Hope is a very interesting virtue, and is so essential for life; in people who are facing difficulties, no matter how strong, hope is usually the last light still burning, even if very small and dim, when the other virtues seem to have been extinguished.
By virtue of our baptism into Christ, having experienced in our souls, whether we are consciously calling it to mind always or not, the death and resurrection of Jesus, we Christians are de facto a people of hope. For what do we hope?
We hope for better days, for peace, for health, for joy, for harmony and unity in our families, for at least some semblance of success in our lines of work and hobbies; but how do we still find reasons for hope after so much evidence that the true realization of these desires if actually quite rare?
Christianity gives a lot of things to the daily lives of the people who believe in Jesus; one of the most important daily, practical changes that happens to a Christian over time is that she or he begins to see things differently, and to read what they see through a different lens than the rest of the world.
“Epiphany” comes from the Greek word “epiphaneia”, which means “manifestation or striking appearance; a festival held in commemoration of the appearance of a god at some particular place.” That word comes from the word “epiphanes”, which means to “manifest, make conspicuous, to show off, to come suddenly into view.”
These words are a combination of two other Greek words, epi and phainein.
The prefix epi means “on, near, at,” or “against.” I used to think that an EpiPen was called that because you have to slam it against your leg. As many of you know, it’s called an EpiPen because it injects a rapid dose of Epinephrine, also called adrenaline. Did you know that “nephron” is the Greek word for kidney, and that epinephrine and adrenaline have the same name because the adrenal glands are located “on” (epi) the nephrons, the kidneys?
Phainein is the Greek word meaning “to show”, but this word has a much more ancient word at its root, the Proto-Indo-European word “Bha” (where we get pha, as it “photo”, “photon”, “photograph”), and it means “to shine.”
So, an epiphany is “a particular manifestation or striking appearance of something brilliant and related to God, which comes suddenly and conspicuously into our view.” And the effect that such an event can have really is something like an EpiPen injection, but for the soul. Sudden, perhaps life-saving effects, but for an epiphany to have any effect it on the soul, it must be a soul that is awake and watchful, filled with hope for the coming of the divine.
And this, I think, is the reason for our Christian hope. We know that God is able to do what he says he will do, and – even if only once, and that a very long time ago – I think each of us have felt or seen or noticed or heard or experienced a moment, a word, a phrase, a song, a sunrise, in which it became clear to us beyond a shadow of a doubt that God is not only able to do what he says he’ll do, but that he’s actually doing it.
What else could sustain us in hope as we move into another year than the belief that God is who he says he is, and is accomplishing for us everything he promised to accomplish? And the fun, the joy, the sadness, the difficulty of it all is that he is giving us exactly what our hearts have always wanted but he’s doing it a way that we, in our littleness, could never have concocted on our own.
In this way, we can see that the personal and particular histories which we each are living, and the difficulties and tragedies of this life are not for nothing and that no matter what you have brought with you into this place today, you do not have to carry it out of here; if you do carry it out of here, you will not be carrying it alone; if you are hearing the lie that what you have done or where you have been disqualifies you from a life of holiness or from the experience of an epiphany, I am speaking directly into your heart when I remind you that is a lie and the whole world lies open before the repentant heart.
Here is the heart of this 4th aspect of the Epiphany: yes, salvation is available in Christ to “all nations”, whoever and wherever they may be. But most crucially for us, today, here, in the particular place, is the truth that salvation has come even to this house, even in this time, even to this people gathered here.
The first reading is from Isaiah 60, right near the very end of his books; the lectionary only gave us 6 verses, even though chapter 60 has 22 verses. So by way of conclusion, let me read to you the words of Isaiah, addressed to a people walking in darkness, recovering from exile and captivity, who have finally seen the promise of the Lord fulfilled for them:
“Once, Jerusalem, you were forsaken, hated and unvisited. Now I will make you the pride of the ages, a joy to generation after generation.
In place of bronze I will bring gold, instead of iron, silver; in place of wood, bronze, instead of stones, iron; I will appoint peace your governor, and justice your ruler.
No longer shall violence be heard of in your land, or plunder and ruin within your boundaries. You shall call your walls “salvation” and your gates “praise.”
No longer shall the sun be your light by day, Nor the brightness of the moon shine upon you by night; The Lord shall be your light forever, your God shall be your glory.
No longer shall your sun go down, or your moon withdraw, for the Lord will be your light forever, and the days of your sadness shall be at an end.
The smallest shall become a thousand, the youngest, a mighty nation; I, the Lord, will swiftly accomplish all these things.” Isaiah 60: 1-22