Sunday, January 06, 2019

Following in the Footsteps of the Wise Men

(Epiphany 2019: This homily was given on January 6, 2019 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Isaiah 60: 1-6; Psalm 72; Ephesians 3: 2-6; Matthew 2: 1-12.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Epiphany 2019]

These three questions will test how well you were paying attention to the Gospel text I just read to you . . .

According to the details given to us in this passage from Matthew, chapter 2:

1.      There were three wise men.  True or False?
2.      The wise men were kings.  True or False?
3.      The names of the wise men were Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar.  True or False?

The correct answers, believe it or not, are false, false and false again.  Matthew does not tell us the exact number of astrologers who came to offer homage and gifts to the infant Christ.  The tradition that there were three comes from the fact that three gifts were offered to the Lord: gold, frankincense and myrrh.  Nor does Matthew ever tell us that they were kings!  That tradition comes from the prophecy of Isaiah 60 (which we heard in our first reading) and Psalm 72 (which was today's responsorial psalm).  From early on, Christians saw a foreshadowing of the Epiphany event in these two passages from the Old Testament.  And as for their names being Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar—that idea is rooted in a tradition that goes back at least to the sixth century.  But it was not a part of Matthew's description of the Magi as found in his Gospel.  Now please don't get me wrong, I'm not saying there were not three Magi; I'm not saying they were not kings, and I'm not saying their names were not Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar.  I'm simply saying those details come to us from other sources—not from the Gospel of Matthew itself.

If, perchance, you didn't do too well with those three questions, I'll give you a chance to redeem yourself with two others:

1.      The Magi were Gentiles.  True or false?
2.      The Magi submitted themselves to Jesus.  True or false?

In this case, the correct answers are true, and true.  And here we see why Matthew made the decision to include this particular story in his account of the life of Christ.  He included it to teach a very important lesson to his community (and, by extension, to all of us).  The Magi were Gentiles like most (if not all) of us are.  Why is that important?  It's important because the prevailing mindset among the Jews was that only they were special to the Lord.  And so by telling us about these non-Jewish astrologers who came to see Jesus at his birth, Matthew is telling us that everyone, without exception, is included in God's plan of salvation.  This was also St. Paul's message to the Ephesians in that text we heard in our second reading today—as those who took our Bible study class this Fall would be happy to tell you.  Listen again to his words (this, remember, would have shocked many of the Jews of Paul's day):
God's secret plan, as I have briefly described it, was revealed to me, unknown to men in former ages but now revealed by the Spirit to the holy apostles and prophets.  It is no less than this: in Christ Jesus the Gentiles are now co-heirs with the Jews, members of the same body and sharers of the promise through the preaching of the gospel. 
(That’s a slightly different translation from the one we heard a few minutes ago, but I like it better.  It a lot clearer.)

Many of the Jewish men and women who first heard those words must have gasped in disbelief!—"You mean those unclean, vile, heathen Gentiles have the same spiritual potential as we do?!"

Yes, they do—thank God!

But there's another crucial fact to note about these men from the East: they submitted themselves to Jesus!  St. Matthew says that when they came into the Lord's presence, "They prostrated themselves and did him homage."  In this regard, have you ever noticed that in almost every crèche scene, at least one of the wise men is portrayed on his knees?  (Look at ours before you leave Mass today.)  And the other two are usually hunched over, as if they're preparing to kneel and prostrate themselves before the Savior.  Despite the fact that they might have been kings, the Magi came to the Lord in submission and in humility.

And that's how we must come to Jesus--if we want to experience the fruits of his redemptive work.  Thus, if the Magi were standing here at this pulpit this morning, they would say to us: "Yes, everyone is included in God's plan of salvation--Jew and Gentile alike.  That means that every person can be saved.  But, regardless of who you are, you must be willing to bend your knee to Jesus like we did.  If you want to experience the gift of salvation that he came into the world to bring, you must follow our example and be willing to submit to him in humility and in repentance.  Otherwise you cannot be included in his kingdom."  That, of course, is a very difficult message for some modern-day Christians to accept: Christians who think that pretty much everybody goes to heaven, even if they never repent of their sins!  The Magi would disagree strongly!

A while back I heard the confession of a man who had not received the sacrament of Reconciliation in almost 20 years.  Without revealing any of the details, suffice it to say that this person made a great confession.  He had a lot to unload—and (as far as I could tell) he unloaded it all!  He was what St. John Vianney would have called "a big fish"--a big catch for the Lord.  Although he probably didn't realize it at the time, that man came into the confessional and did exactly what the Magi did in the cave of Bethlehem 2,000 years ago: spiritually speaking, he prostrated himself before Jesus, by humbly asking for his Savior's forgiveness.  And so it should come as no surprise that he left the confessional that day a "wise man"--a wise man filled with joy and gratitude.

May all of us in our lives learn to be equally wise.