Sunday, January 06, 2013

Epiphany Homily

First Reading:  Isaiah 60:1-6
Responsorial Psalm: Psalm 72
Second Reading:  Ephesians 3:1-13
Gospel:  Matthew 2:1-12

The first reading from what Biblical scholars call, Third Isaiah, was written at a time when God has fulfilled his promise and the Israelites were released from Babylon.  They were granted permission to rebuild the temple, which they started to do… but then they got caught up in rivalry and questionable activities for personal gain.  Their crops began to fail and there was drought and thing were generally not going very well.  Today’s reading opens with the announcement of light breaking forth in darkness as an image portraying God’s saving entry into the brokenness of human bondage and suffering.

Arise, shine; for your light has come!
the glory of Yahweh is rising upon you!
Though darkness still covers the earth,
and dense clouds enshroud the peoples;
upon you Yahweh now dawns,

Isaiah’s words are an affirmation that light will ultimately prevail even in situations so bleak as to threaten to extinguish the human spirit.  Such a belief can be dismissed as utopian only by those who have not experienced the dark moment when all human resources have been exhausted. 
In our own time, Gandhi, Nelson Mandela and Oscar Romero are unforgettable conduits of the light of God’s justice breaking through the darkness of state sanctioned oppression and injustice.  Oscar Romero, with the sights of his assassins’ rifles trained upon his heart, offered both the bread of Christ and his own life as an affirmation of God’s light breaking through the darkness.  And although, Romero didn’t live to see it as Gandhi and Mandela did, El Salvador also, saw an end to the death squads and the civil war in 1992.
In today’s gospel, Matthew has “wise men from the East” instead of shepherds coming to pay homage.  In so doing Matthew conveys that the Messiah has come─ not just for the people of Israel─ but also for outsiders.  The Magi bring gifts fit for a king.  Gold is always associated with wealth and royalty.  What is the significance of the other gifts?  Old Testament references tell us that Solomon’s littler was perfumed by the myrrh and frankincense carried with it; that frankincense was a holy perfume used in the sanctuary; and, that myrrh was used in the anointing of the High Priest.  In the New Testament, John’s Gospel tells us that Nicodemus brought a mixture of myrrh and aloes for the preparation of Jesus’ body for burial.  Some have reflected that Matthew’s use of myrrh in today’s gospel story connects Jesus’ birth to his death and that the gift of frankincense anticipates the glory of Christ’s resurrection. 
Unlike Luke, who closes his nativity story with, “The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen ...”  Matthew closes with, “And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.”  Matthew has transformed the praise-filled return of the shepherds into the Magi’s flight from persecution. 
Today is the feast of the Epiphany and according to Wikipedia, the word epiphany comes from the ancient Greek word, epiphaneia, which means manifestation or striking appearance.  The word epiphany can apply in any situation in which an enlightening insight allows a problem or situation to be understood from a new and deeper perspective.  In short, epiphanies are─ for us─ those “aha” moments, when some deeper understanding of our faith comes bursting forth into our consciousness.  In other words, a transformative light revealing more of God’s presence enlightening the dark or blank spaces of our awareness.
When listening to or reading scripture, it helps one come to epiphanies if one has a little bit of background on what was happening at the time a particular piece of scripture was written.  So with regard to today’s reading from Matthew’s Gospel, I think it would be helpful for you to know a little bit about Matthew’s time and the community to whom his writings were addressed.  Gentiles or non-Jews were flocking to the Jesus Movement and Jesus’ teachings, causing the Movement to grow rapidly.  Teachings such as “where one or two are gathered in my name” and “the kingdom of God is within you” were not very profitable for the Jerusalem temple coffers.  So the burgeoning church was being persecuted not by the Romans but by the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem.  Some of the conditions of Matthew’s time are strikingly similar to our own.   For example, some so-called followers of Jesus began to preach that faith alone was necessary; that one need not live up to the teachings of peace, love and justice that Jesus preached.  Others embraced the teachings of these pseudo-disciples to avoid persecution and also to avoid the need to live up to the radical love and justice that following Jesus demanded.   During this time, some sincere followers of Jesus have had to flee for their lives, become travelling preachers, dependent on the hospitality of others willing to sacrifice their own freedom.  Yet despite persecution from the Jewish authorities, they dared to live openly as Jesus’ disciples and preach the gospel in public.  So Matthew wrote his gospel to encourage and instruct the faithful on true discipleship.  He portrays the church as a kinship of all people.  The church’s little ones─ the poor and persecuted outcasts, the itinerant preachers fleeing persecution, the young people, the blind and crippled are Jesus’ true disciples.  The “little ones” replicate Jesus’ ministry in word and deed, more so than the comfortable and well-off who demand obedience to laws that they themselves ignore.
So that’s a brief look at some of the issues of concern for Matthew’s community.  But I’d like to take us back to the idea of an epiphany.   We may think that an epiphany must be some huge spiritual insight.  That it breaks into our consciousness with a big bang but this way of thinking could lead us to ignore the epiphanies that just gently and fleetingly tap into our consciousness.   For example, now that we have a glimpse of the community that Matthew was writing for, we can look at the deeper meaning of today’s Gospel.
If we look through the prism of symbolism, the star becomes the light of compassion, the Magi become strangers with gifts and Herod represents fear-induced potential obstacles.  Using this we can look at this Gospel narrative in terms of current affairs and in personal terms.  When we look at our current government policies, we can see them becoming more and more xenophobic.  To gain support for these policies, politicians like Jason Kenny, try to instil xenophobia, the fear of strangers, into the general public. For example, statements have been made that represent war resisters as cowards and shirkers; and, the Roma people and other groups of people as criminals or cheats.  It appears the aim is to plant the seed of fear in the public mind, specifically, the fear that immigrants or refugees from certain countries or of certain racial or ethnic groups are suspect and untrustworthy.
Today’s Gospel, on the other hand, suggests that when we turn away the stranger, we may also be turning away the wealth of gifts they bring.  For example, Robi Botos is a Roma from Hungary who came to Canada in 1998.  He is a musician, composer and the winner of the TD Grand Jazz Award for the 2012 edition of the Montreal International Jazz Festival.
When we look at a few Viet Nam era war resisters that came to Canada when the government’s policy was more open, we see the lie in this blanket negative perception of the other.  Here are just a couple of the names that you might be more familiar with:

  • Jim Green became a Vancouver city councillor and also ran for mayor
  • Wayne Robinson is the father of Svend Robinson, a former NDP Member of Parliament for a Burnaby riding
And then there’s one war resister from that era, who is like a gift to Canada that just keeps on giving:
  • Michael Klein is a physician and member of Physicians for Social Responsibility
    • His wife, Bonnie Sherr Klein, is a feminist filmmaker, author, and disability rights activist,
    • Michael and Bonnie are the parents of
      • Naomi Klein, who is a political writer and filmmaker, and
      • Seth Klein, who is the BC director of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives
All of these former strangers have shared their gifts with and for the people of their new home.
On the personal or individual level, the Gospel suggests we should be more open to receive strangers.  The other day, I heard someone on the bus say, “All of my friends were strangers once.”  But I’m not going to belabour this obvious point because I think the more important aspect is opening our minds to what may at first seem foreign.  In the Canadian and American nation building stories, we are taught the romantic images of pioneers and kindly paternal governments trying to expand civilization, or sending in troops to protect innocent settlers from blood thirsty savages.  However, we never stop to think that as colonizers, we were less tolerant than the Romans of Jesus’ time or the medieval Moslems who colonized large parts of Europe.  Both those empires allowed conquered peoples to keep their own religions, languages and cultural identities.  In the colonization process, our ancestors used the excuse of saving souls to steal lands.  The result was we gained lands but lost our collective soul.   How you may ask have we lost our collective soul; it is by remaining oblivious of the true history of the settlement of Canada and refusing to acknowledge the legacy of pain from which we continue to benefit. 
Now, we have a chance to work together to truly heal the injustices of the past and prevent future injustices.  The “Idle No More” movement isn’t just Indigenous Peoples protesting against past wrongs and trying to stop future progress.  It is a call for all of us to join them in doing what is right.  What is right does include honest, respectful and fair relations with First Nations but it also includes trying to save our waters, forests, farmlands and Earth’s future from unrestrained environmental degradation.  
We learn about each other from exchanging our stories but it is our turn to listen.  The idea of decolonizing our minds from national myths may seem foreign, even threatening.  Let’s overcome Herodian fear and extend our hands in friendship.  Let’s listen to our First Nations relatives with an open mind and an open heart.   If we do, compassion and understanding will enlighten us to see─ this time the gifts are integrity for us, healed relationships and healing for the Earth.

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