08 January 2023

Don't Take It For Granted

Solemnity of the Epiphany of our Lord

    [In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.].  One of the great country music singers (in my humble opinion) is Merle Haggard.  One of those hits was a song called “You Take Me For Granted,” and was a number one hit on the country charts.  The song talks about being taken for granted in a relationship, doing everything he can to make her happy, all the while she doesn’t seem to care (sounds like a country song, doesn’t it?). 
    One of the things that we may take for granted is being a part of God’s people.  Because the Church has been around for 2,000 years, we are used to a truly Catholic Church, a church that welcomes anyone to join her ranks, regardless of race or ethnicity.  But what we take for granted was quite novel in the beginning of the Church, and one of the ways that Catholicism started to peel away from Judaism early on.
    Because the Old Testament is clear that God chose a certain people.  God chose Abraham, and then promised to be his God and to make of Abraham a great nation through his son, Isaac.  And then Isaac had Jacob, and Jacob (also named Israel) had twelve sons, who became a nation great in numbers.  From that point on you could talk about a Chosen People, a People God had made His own.  And it was God’s original intent that, through this Chosen People the nations would see the glory of the Lord and be joined to them, and so salvation for all those God had created would come.
    From this Chosen People God raised up a Savior, Jesus Christ, a son of Abraham and Son of God.  And most of His ministry was among the lost sheep of the house of Israel.  There are a few foreigners who receive healings and miracles from the Lord (the Samaritan woman, the centurion, and the Syro-Phoenecian woman to name a few), but mostly Christ ministered among the Jews.  The first proclamation of the Gospel after the Ascension was to Jews who were gathered in Jerusalem for Pentecost, and thousands were baptized.
    But then Peter had a vision from God, where he was instructed to eat unclean animals, which Peter says he had never done, and God said not to call unclean what He had made clean.  Then messengers from Cornelius, a non-Jew (Gentile is the word) came and asked Peter to go to Cornelius’ house, and, upon arriving, Cornelius and his household showed signs of the Holy Spirit at work among them, so Peter baptized them, thus opening Christianity up to those who were not already part of the Chosen People.  The Apostles met in Jerusalem to confer about this, with the newest Apostle, Paul, who had also been spreading the Gospel among the Gentiles, and they agreed not to make Gentile become Jewish in order to call themselves a follow of Christ.
    That major change (Gentiles being able to become the people of God), however, was prefigured in what we celebrate today: the visit of the magi to the Holy Family.  The magi were non-Jews, Gentiles, likely from Persia or there about, and yet they were led to Christ as the newborn King of the Jews.  The Persians probably did not care much about the Jews.  They certainly had not cared about King Herod.  But something draws them to worship this newborn King, and offer Him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Joseph and Mary, probably taken aback, do not, however restrict them, but accept their gifts with appreciation.  Who knows?  Maybe Mary kept the myrrh and was going to use it for our Lord’s burial.
    We probably take for granted that we can be welcomed into the Church, even though we are not Jews.  But we shouldn’t.  We should give thanks that salvation was opened up to all nations by the new sign of the covenant, Baptism, which is also celebrated today in the Epiphany.  God did not need to open to salvation to those outside the people He had chosen as His own, but He lovingly did.  We do not have a right to be saved, and yet God extends His salvation to us because of His great love for us.  In the magi, all of the pagan nations that surrounded Israel were represented, and Christ’s mission to all peoples began, even as a small seed that wouldn’t bloom for some 30 years.
    The mission of the Church is to continue to bring into God’s People, the Church, all nations and peoples, so that they can be in a saving relationship with God.  Can God save people who are not baptized?  Certainly, He can if He wants.  But the only way we know we can start that process of salvation is through Baptism, and so our mission is to welcome others who are seeking the King of the Jews.  Often times, they are led by means that may be foreign to us, just as a good Jew would have never attempted to practice astrology, the means that the magi used to find Christ.  But it doesn’t mean that we should reject their searching, anymore than Mary and Joseph rejected the magi.
    In fact, our mission as Catholics, no matter what our vocation, is to draw people to Christ, and to help them see how Christ is already working in their life.  We call this prevenient grace, the grace that comes before.  No one ever seeks Christ on his or her own; Christ always manifests Himself in shadowed ways that draw the person to see the light of Christ’s life.  That person could be a Protestant or Evangelical who sees a need for someone to authentically interpret the Scriptures.  That person could be a Jew, who starts to recognize the ways in which our Lord fulfilled the prophecies connected with the Messiah.  That person could be a Muslim who is drawn to not only be a slave of God, but a beloved son or daughter in the Son of God.  That person could be an agnostic, hoping that there is a God, but not knowing if He can be found.  That person could be an atheist, who asserts that there is no God, but yet knows that our universe cannot explain itself.  All of those people need us to draw them closer to Christ.  We become like the star for the magi, leading them to worship the true God in His fullness.
    We can often take for granted how great our faith is, and what a treasure we have in the Church.  But God’s choice, His election of us, is pure gift, something that we could never earn, and to which we were not entitled, because we were not part of His Chosen People.  But God desires all to be save, and He asks us to cooperate in that work of salvation, by drawing others to Him.  Be a star to those around you, and lead them to Christ[, who with the Father and the Holy Spirit is God, for ever and ever.  Amen].