Homily: January 8
Homily on January 8 by Fr. Donald Bramble, O.P.
From the Jewish perspective EPIPHANY is an odd feast! Actually, it’s bizarre.
We have highly over-rated classical Roman and Greek culture. Life was short, life was brutish and life was sad in the Roman Empire, despite its brilliancies. Ethically, by contrast, the Jewish way of life was orderly, torah-surrounded, contained, predictable, and had attractions even for the pagans, who were sick of the civil religion practiced in many places. As a pagan, one might have to give money or in-kind sacrifices to doorway god-lets, mildew, or any number of ridiculous oddities for the sake of civil religion. One was often bullied by thugs, threatened by practitioners of black magic, left to die by one’s self, and family-values was a phrase touted by noble Romans but often unlivable by ordinary working class and poor folk.
Life, especially religious observance, was filled with sham.
If you were wealthy you could pay for just about anything you wanted, including strong-arms to force your will on others, and sacrifices to pay off the capricious gods. The epiphany story of Herod’s brutality would have surprised absolutely no one at the time! It would have been a messy business, but business as usual, standard operating procedure, for the Hasmonean or other dynasties!
It was in this negative, ethically-smoggy environment that Judaism shone out as a real ethical alternative, and Herod’s depravity would have been seen under the microscope. The torah, the wisdom-law-teaching of the Mosaic customs provided a community of meaning and religiosity that was real and attractive to many. The God of Judaism was personal and just and demanded justice of His children. The God of Judaism, as preached by the prophets, was not so interested in nationality or the vagaries of human culture, as He was passionately concerned for the forgotten ones, the vulnerable, the Poor Ones, the Anawim.
Given this, then Herod and his brutal ilk would have been morally discredited but politically powerful — sort of Muamar Gaddafi, Hozneh Mubarak, and Basheer Al Asad wrapped up together in one poisonous family. Needless to say, the food restrictions of KOSHER and the demands of circumcision were considered major hurtles that many pagans rejected as bizarre.
Still, what was the alternative?
Mystery cults with their reputation for secrecy, illegality and immorality?
Into this mélange, Christianity arrived with its new emphasis on Jesus of Nazareth and his teachings.
Jesus was a Jew, unambiguously and openly.
Yet, he spoke of God as His Father, promised the gift of the Holy Spirit of God, and witnessed to his teaching by suffering the ultimate capital punishment as a criminal crucified and abandoned. The God all-powerful had become all-vulnerable in the flesh and blood of Jesus.
This was astonishing news, good news, great news, staggering news!
Given the Jewishness of Jesus, the feast of Epiphany, or Manifestation, as it may be translated, is odd and bizarre.
Who are the magi?
What are they doing in this story?
How dare they butt in?
They are bizarre party crashers!
Startling, like Lady Gaga showing up uninvited at your house warming!
What do you do with her?
How do you keep her from singing Bad Romance or something equally appalling?
Your friends would be uncomfortable, your enemies would laugh out loud!
Nice families have nice guests at house blessings!
Interlopers are generally shown the door unceremoniously.
The magi come in with their gifts and their camels (the Mercedes Benz of the ancient near east) and cause a stir.
For St. Matthew’s Gospel and its Jewish & Gentile Christian community, the whole story of the magi presented a huge challenge. How can Jewish and Gentile followers of Jesus get along and share table fellowship?
–Thank God that this is not a problem for us moderns!
We are at home with one another perfectly!
–We have the internet that is equally available to the wealthy and the poor!
–We have political power shared by first, second, third and fourth worlds.
Congresses and Parliaments around the world are unpolarized and seek the way of justice and peace without flinching!
–Right left and center do not hurl verbal Molotov cocktails at one another.
–There are no canyons between linguistic and cultural groups at home or abroad!
–There are no Taliban Muslims, Jews and Christians blowing each other up.
—There are no racial, ethnic and sexual divides between people of good will.
—-There are no wars or rumors of war. Natural disasters are smoothly dealt with.
Today’s feast of Epiphany manifests the desire of God the Father to draw all peoples, races, nations, languages and epochs into one people of God in the grace and incarnation of the Son, and the gift of the Holy Spirit. This will forever challenge us, in a parochiality, our narrowness and will stretch our hearts until the Lord returns in glory.
We must pray for peace, but we must desire a peace not simply on our terms, with the people we love.
When we sing the Christmas hymn, We Three Kings, let us remember how subversive the message of Epiphany really is! It calls each of us to a new way of thinking and operating in our world, in our communities and in our church!