Feast of the Ephiphany

HOMILY NOTES – Bishop Noel Treanor


Readings : Is 60.1-6; Ps 71.1-2, 7-8, 10-13; Eph 3. 2-3; Mt 2.1-12

I The glory of the Lord is rising on you (Is 60.1)

Throughout Christian history, in its eastern and western traditions, this feast day of the epiphany has celebrated the baptism of Christ and the revelation of God in his infant birth.  The birth of Jesus of Nazareth, Son of God and Son of Mary, is at the heart of our Christian faith and world view, as is the resurrection of Christ from his death, the consequence of his passion and crucifixion as incarnate Son of God.

It is the unveiling of God in the entire life of Christ – in the birth, life, passion, death and resurrection of Jesus – that this feast of the Epiphany puts before us.

This feast day invites us to dwell on the wonder of all of this, on the saving mystery of divine grace as unveiled in the person of Jesus Christ. The liturgy of the Epiphany, like our baptism and the sacraments we celebrated on the road of life, revives our awareness in mind, heart and soul that we have been renewed in the life of Christ, “in the glory of the Lord”,  to use the words of the first reading (Is 60.1).

II A promise of light – the night covering the earth (Is 60.2)

The scripture readings designated for the liturgy of this feast day carry notes of promise, even as they take account of the darkness and menacing forces that bedevil the human condition.

The text from Isaiah (61.1-6) pulsates with the promise of the restoration of the Jewish people, the Temple and their covenant-based relationship with God.  St Paul’s lines in his letter to the Christians in Ephesus refer to the revelation in the person of Jesus Christ of the grace of the mystery of salvation for all of humanity, not just for one race. The significance of this revelation of God in Jesus of Nazareth, and of the relationship between God and humanity manifested in his life, for all humanity is unfolded in the extract we have just read from the gospel according to St Matthew.

Whilst heralding promise and the unfolding of an intervention in history by God, each of these texts alludes to counter forces of darkness. Isaiah alludes to such forces with the reference to night and darkness covering the earth and humanity. St Paul alludes to the humanity capacity to look down on those of different backgrounds, cultures, nations, faiths and traditions. And St Matthew’s wise men, exemplars of those who use reason to search for ultimate truth, yet culturally different strangers from the east, contrast with the negative murderous intent of the powerful figure of Herod. The lines of the Psalm celebrate the universal quality of God’s plan of salvation. The dynamic, the value-system, the objective of that plan of salvation, as we heard in its lines, is to cause justice to flourish, to care for the poor, the helpless, the weak.

III.  We saw his star as it rose and have come to do him homage” (Mt. 2.2)

The author of the gospel according to Matthew portrays the wise men as powerful and wealthy figures from another world and culture.  The represent humanity’s capacity to recognise the divine, the star and light of the gospel and its significance for human affairs. Their journey, their act of homage and their gifts express humanity’s deep-seated recognition of God and of the self-revelation of God in Jesus.  As figures they represent the spiritual and noble in every human person of every race.

The gospel text does not leave the narrative in that epiphanic moment of encounter and adoration.  It surrounds the wise men’s discernment with the brooding notes of risk and menace.  They decide to take corrective action. They do not contribute to empowering Herod, as he requested. Having followed the star on their quest for wisdom and having met the child Christ, their decision and course of action is guided by a new wisdom, a sense of a new responsibility linking God and humanity.

  1. “The star filled them with delight” (Mt 2.10)

St Matthew’s phrase – “the star filled them with delight” – was composed well after the earthly experience of Jesus life by his followers. It profiles and underscores the depths of personal and indeed the shared communal feeling and reality of being bonded in God and in each other which the Christian faith offers humanity. Faith in Christ establishes and reveals a new relationship between God and humanity, between Christ and each baptised person. Faith in Jesus Christ creates a new spiritual relationship between all people as children of God. This relationship between God and humanity, between God and the human race, between God, us and the people of our time, is part the mystery to which St Paul refers in the reading we have heard.

It is a relationship that is spiritual, rooted in our common humanity and in the ultimate source of life. It is a relationship that entails personal and shared responsibility for the well-being and common good of our fellow human beings.  This relationship in religious faith engenders and fuels a sense of responsibility for both personal and societal dimensions of one’s life and existence.

  1. Pope Francis’ 2019 World Peace Day Message

This shared responsibility, which is an outworking of the gospel, is addressed each year in the World Peace Day Message issued since 1968 by the Pope for New Year’s Day. As you know, this years Message is entitled “Good politics is at the service of peace”.  It is a key theme for our times.

The text of the short Message is written against the peace-giving mission of Christ, handed on to his disciples – “whatever house you enter, first say, “ Peace be to this house” (Lk 10.5-6). In this key it sets out a faith-inspired vision whereby “political life can indeed become an outstanding form of charity” (no.2.3). And this is not wishful thinking, for history has seen such figures even within living memory in post-war Europe and such persons undertake immense sacrifices to self and family in their elected roles in the service of local society today. Their work is a concrete expression of self-sacrificing love for others and for the common good of citizens.

The prophetic call to political service as a form of charity, is also set against a recognition of the vices (no 4) that can beset and cause disenchantment with politics among all generations and especially among the young (no 5.1), the citizens of tomorrow’s world. Such vices tug at every human heart. One way or another they cause the more that forty wars currently plaguing peoples of our world and affecting one in six children on our planet (no.6.2). Like the three wise men, we need to exercise freely Christ-inspired life-giving, demanding and truth-respectful choices on the road of life.

Furthermore, like the wise men, and in line with the current needs of our time, as mentioned in the 2019 World Peace Day Message, we need to heed and read the “darkness” of our times : the climate of mistrust rooted in the fear of others or of the strangers, fear about our personal security, attitudes of rejection of others, forms of nationalism that call into question the fraternity of which our globalised world has such great need (no.5.2).  Contemporary analyses of existential risk for humanity are not lacking. The work of research centres and institutes on the range and types of such risk underscore Pope Francis’ call in this year’s Message: “today, more than ever, our societies need “artisans of peace” who can be messengers and authentic witnesses of God the Father, who wills the good and the happiness of the human family” (no.5.2).

So that such “artisans of peace” (no.5.2) may people society, a capacity to appreciate wisdom, a sense of the importance of the search for truthful and authentic living is indispensable.  Ultimately this is a gift that can be handed to others, to our children and youth, or kindled in the hearts and minds of others by our own efforts to live the good news of the gospel and by evidencing that it fills our hearts with delight, as the wise men were delighted by their encounter with the child Christ.

In the light of our world’s need of artisans of peace, our political systems need leaders who lead courageously and prophetically in these times of global risk and danger. As a human family we stand in need of such leaders.  They will emerge only if we citizens harrow and tend the local soil of values and wisdom, of spiritual and religious insight which empowers humanity to choose the way of justice and truth, rather than the way of self-centred intolerance and rejection of the common good of all.

Today on this feast of the Epiphany, with the 2019 World Peace Day Message in mind, we might recall the words of the 2016 statement of the Standing Committee of the French Bishop’s Conference, which catch the core meaning of today’s Feast : “for us Christians, there is an invincible hope, given to us by Christ, of a light that conquers all forms of darkness”  (Dans un monde qui change, retrouver le sens du politique).            Amen.