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January 6, 2019: The Epiphany of the Lord

First Reading Isaiah 60:1-6
Second Reading Ephesians 3:2-3,5-6
Gospel Matthew 2:1-12

Lord, every nation on earth will adore you.

The feast of the Epiphany reflects upon the gift that appeared to the world at Bethlehem. In the Gospel passage today, we see the gifts of the three kings from the east. But these three gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, of course, are responses to the Gift—with a capital “G”—named Jesus, who was gifted to mankind by God the Father. It’s the reflection on all four of these gifts that leads members of the Church in the East (both the Eastern Orthodox Churches and the Eastern Catholic Churches) to give Christmas gifts not on December 25, but on January 6, the Twelfth Day of Christmas.

As you know, the feast of the Epiphany is the basis for the folk carol “The Twelve Days of Christmas”. The twelve days referred to in this song—and the corresponding twelve gifts that are described—mark the days that stretch between the Birth of Jesus and His Epiphany to the Wise Men, the Epiphany traditionally being celebrated on January 6. These two feasts—the Nativity of Jesus and the Epiphany of Jesus—are the poles of the Christmas Season, just as the North Pole and South Pole are the poles of the planet earth.

That image of our planet is helpful for another reason. In each of today’s Scripture passages, including the Responsorial Psalm, we hear that God’s grace is given as a gift for all the peoples of the earth. In the First Reading from Isaiah, we hear the prophet proclaim to Jerusalem that “Nations shall walk by your light” and that “the wealth of nations shall be brought to you”. Through the refrain of the Responsorial Psalm, we proclaim to the Lord that “every nation on earth will adore you.” In the Second Reading from his Letter to the Ephesians, we hear Saint Paul preach that “the Gentiles are coheirs, members of the same body, and copartners in the promise in Christ Jesus”.

All of these passages from Sacred Scripture point our attention to God’s desire that His grace be spread universally throughout the earth. These Scripture passages culminate in the Gospel story about the pagan “magi from the east” who “arrived in Jerusalem” bearing the gifts that Isaiah foretold. When the wise men “prostrated themselves and did [the child Jesus] homage”, they fulfilled the refrain of today’s Psalm. These pagan kings were only three, but these three pagans represent all the Gentiles of the earth, from north to south and east to west. These pagan kings represent all those whom God wanted to be co-partners with the Jews, “members of the same [Mystical] body” of Christ.

The Church, in other words, is meant by God to be universal. “Universal” is simply another word for “catholic”. Most likely, when you and I discuss religious matters with others and use the word “Catholic”, we’re using it in contrast to words such as “Methodist” or “Baptist” or “Presbyterian”. But that’s not the Scriptural meaning of the word “catholic”. The literal meaning of the word “catholic” is “universal”. The word “catholic” refers to God’s desire that His grace cover the earth from north to south and east to west. God’s church is catholic because His heart is catholic.

God’s Gift of Himself is for all peoples and nations of the earth. Obviously, that includes you, but it’s not limited to you. The Catholic Faith is not a faith that’s lived just between “me and Jesus”, as some of our Christian brothers and sisters profess. God’s love wasn’t born in the flesh at Bethlehem for me, but not for my enemies. God’s love wasn’t crucified in the flesh on Calvary for me, but not for those I’d rather not meet in Heaven, if it’s all the same to God. To become like God is to love as God loves, and to love as God loves is to love everyone.

Put another way, the universal Faith of God’s Church is where the two great commandments kiss. Jesus taught us to love God and to love our neighbor. He expanded on this second great commandment with the Parable of the Good Samaritan, teaching us that every man, woman and child on the face of God’s green earth is our neighbor, without exception. That’s how Jesus loved on the Cross, offering His Body and Blood, soul and divinity for all mankind: for every last sinner, without exception. Of course, whether Jesus’ self-offering is accepted or not is up to each person.

Reflect on today’s Gospel passage. Close your eyes. Imagine the magi from the east as they prostrate themselves in the animals’ muck, and pay the Christ Child homage. Imagine them as they open their treasure chests and offer Him gifts. Then recognize yourself in the magi from the east: they are pagans, outside of God’s Chosen People of Israel. But God called them anyway. You are a sinner, left to your own designs. Left to your own inclinations in this world, you are outside God’s grace. But He is calling you anyway: right now, at the start of this year.

It’s in response to God’s call, and the Gift of His Son Jesus, that you can come before the child Jesus and lay your self with your gifts at His feet. That order is very important. It’s not that we give our selves to God and, in response, God—being mightily impressed with us—gives us His Son. That’s not how God’s love works. In his First Letter, Saint John the Evangelist reveals to us the true nature of the divine love that revealed Himself in Bethlehem. “In this is love: not that we have loved God, but that He loved us, and has given us His Son as an offering for our sins” [1 John 4:10].