04 January 2011

Gifts better than Gold, Frankincense, and Myrrh

Solemnity of the Epiphany

            I have often thought that having a birthday on or near Christmas is a mixed blessing.  On the one hand, you get the joy of knowing that everyone will remember your birthday and that, in many cases, the whole family is around to celebrate.  On the other hand, the celebration that usually takes precedence is the birthday of Jesus Christ, while the birth of the other person usually takes a back seat.  And, in terms of presents, I would think that many people have “present fatigue,” if you will, and aren’t really in the mood to shop for another gift.
            The solemnity we celebrate today, that of the Epiphany, is sort of like having a birthday around Christmas.  In our modern age, the celebration of the birth of Christ, when the Incarnation was made known to the shepherds, is the major celebration.  But, in the overall history of the Church, the Epiphany was always the greater celebration, because Christ was made known, not just to the few shepherds around Bethlehem, but also to the whole world, to the Gentiles, through the adoration of the Magi.  In fact, the very word epiphany comes from two Greek words meaning, “to show forth.”
            While Christ did make Himself known to the Gentiles through the three kings or wise men, traditionally named Melchior, Caspar, and Balthazar, He did not stop revealing Himself, and indeed, the entire Trinity, on that one day.  No, Jesus continues to make Himself known to us so that He and we might not be strangers, but might know each other well, like the best of friends, or like a spouse.
            Four ways that Jesus is made known or present are experienced in this very Mass!  Jesus is made truly present in the Word, since Jesus is the Word of God, as St. John tells us in the Prologue to the Gospel which bears his name.  Jesus is also truly present in the most august Sacrament of His Body and Blood.  He is made present through this community, gathering together, since He promised, “where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in their midst,” as well as through me, your priest, who acts in persona Christi capitis, in the person of Christ the Head.  In this Mass, God, through Jesus, in the Holy Spirit, is making Himself known to all of us so that we might have union with Him in this privileged way.  What is important is, not so much that we show up to Mass (although it is important to come to Mass), but that God wills to communicate, to share, Himself with us, in the way He has given to us as a gift.
            This year the Epiphany, which was traditionally celebrated on January 6, also coincides with the New Year, the time when we look forward to more joys, and hopefully fewer sorrows, than the previous year.  We make new resolutions to better ourselves and the world.  This year, as a Church, we have a great opportunity to make some new resolutions that also go hand-in-hand with Christ making Himself known.
This New Year will bring with it a new translation of the way we celebrate Mass starting at the end of November: not in a new language, but in an English translation to which we are not yet accustomed.  FAITH Magazine has been preparing us, and will continue to do so even more, for these new words.  Our parish is preparing times when we can gather as a community to learn more about the Mass and to prepare for the new English words that we will say.  Change can hard.  Whatever our personal New Year’s resolution is, we have to work at it; it does not simply happen.  The same goes for our parish resolution  It will take a while to get used to the priest saying, “The Lord be with you” and the people responding, “And with your spirit.”  But frankly, the bulk of the changes will have to be made by the priests, rather than by the people.  So the burden is mostly on Fr. Mark, Fr. Joe, and I to work at being good leaders for you to guide you through the transition. 
            Our New Year’s resolution as a parish, as a Church, united in Christ, is to give God gifts that we know He wants to receive: not so much the “Caravans of camels…from Midian and Ephah,” or “from Sheba…gold and frankincense,” nor even the gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh that the three Wise Men brought.  But, as we prepare for these new ways of responding during Mass, it is our parish New Year’s resolution to give Jesus the gold of humility, the frankincense of patience, and the myrrh of obedience. 
Humility is like gold because it is precious in the eyes of the Lord when we realize that God is in charge, and we are not.  It helps us to value the fact that our God so loves us that He makes Himself present to us through the Mass in a four-fold way, rather than clinging to our own opinions of whether or not we like the way the new responses will sound.
Patience is like frankincense because when we are patient with the transition to the new responses, it is like the sweet smell of incense which rises before the Lord, and because, if you’re anything like me, the way that I grow in patience is to pray for it from the Lord as a gift.  Incense is a symbol of our prayers rising before God.
Obedience is like myrrh because myrrh is a perfume that was used to anoint dead bodies, and obedience means that we really have to die to our own wills, our own opinions, our own preferences, as good as we might think they are, and adapt to the great gift that the Church is giving us: to worship God in the way that He wants to be worshipped.  And, the more that we die to ourselves, the more we will rise to God, just as Christ, who was anointed at His death and burial, rose to new life in the resurrection.
Let us not pass over this great celebration of Jesus making Himself known to the Gentiles, but rather, let us offer God the great gift and New Year’s resolution of humility, patience, and obedience in thanksgiving for the four-fold way He makes himself known to us in this Mass: His Word, the Eucharist, the People gathered, and the priest; and in the manifold ways that He makes Himself known to us in our day-to-day life.