Sunday, 3 January 2016

The Epiphany of the Lord

In England and Wales, the Epiphany of the Lord is transferred to Sunday.  
Read Matthew 2: 1-12 and the Catechism of the Catholic Church, nn. 846-848.

The wise men had followed the star for many months by the time they reached Jerusalem — perhaps even as long as two years.  It had led them all the way from a distant eastern land, an unfailing guide across deserts and a familiar friend among strange peoples.  Yet there they were in Jerusalem, only five miles from their destination, and they had to stop to ask for directions.  The star had never before let them down.  Why, then, when they were almost at their journey's end, did it disappear?

Imagine Herod, walking through the echoing corridors of his fragile palace.  Little more than a puppet of the Romans, his was the cold paranoia of one who knows that people really are out to get him.  Vainly did he try to soothe his nerves and ease his mind with all the luxuries and pleasures available to one of his status, but just as the dancers and the banquets and the fine silks blazed colourfully before him in the bright lights of his court, so too did the blade of Damocles' sword as it swung gently over his head.  Hardly a man to welcome news of a new king in Judea.
And king Herod hearing this, was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him.
No student of human nature could be surprised by Herod's concern, but why should all Jerusalem be troubled with him? Was Herod such a wise and benevolent ruler that his people could not stand for another king to take his place? We know from the events that followed that this is very unlikely.  And we also know that Herod, and all Jerusalem with him, knew the identity of the newborn King, because they turned to the Scriptures to find where the long-awaited Messiah was to be born.  King Herod, and all Jerusalem with him, believed the prophets, believed the promises that God made long ago, believed that God would anoint a saviour to establish His Kingdom — they believed, and they were troubled.

People don't like change.  I certainly don't.  Pessimists since the Fall, we focus on what we might lose, rather than what we might gain — the things we have to lose, after all, are already real to us, and the Fall was the moment when God's promises began to seem less real than the things we merely hold in our hands.  The coming of the Messiah is a glorious thing to look forward to in a distant future, a noble aspiration if you will, but we would rather it didn't interfere with our own lives.  I am happy to know that a non-specific future will see dramatic changes, but I don't want to have to change dramatically myself.  The prayer of the people of Jerusalem was something like,
O Adonai, and leader of the House of Israel,
who appeared to Moses in the fire of the burning bush
and gave him the law on Sinai:
Come and redeem us with an outstretched arm...
but not just yet.
This resistance to repentance and renewal covered the whole city in a cloud that God's star would not penetrate.  They did not want to see it, and so it was hidden from them.  God in His mercy knows our dispositions at every moment, and withdraws His grace when it would not be welcome, so that we cannot incur the greater guilt of refusing a gift offered by God.  And so the wise men lost their way.

It seems to me that human virtue lies not so much in the knowledge of truth as in the seeking of it, and the willingness to welcome it if ever it is found.  God does not blame us if we do not know how things really are, since that knowledge is exclusively and entirely in His gift.  Rather, He holds us to account if we do not care how things really are, if we do not aspire to learn the truth and if we are not willing to change our whole lives for the sake of the truth as it becomes known to us.  This is an attitude of will that everybody can nurture, from the Pope to Professor Dawkins.  The one who genuinely, humbly seeks will certainly find, in this world or the next, but Epiphanies only occur where they will be welcomed.

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