Summary: The plan of God for all of us, especially clergy, is a call to service and understanding, not tyranny.
Solemnity of the Epiphany 2012
Spirit of the Liturgy
“Where is the newborn king of the Jews?” the Magi said to Herod. It was a straightforward question to the wrong guy. There are times to be subtle and times to be blunt. I recall many years ago when I was a sales manager for Connecticut Mutual going on some calls with an agent in another city. He led me into a major restaurant and walked up to the owner, who was an acquaintance of his, shook his hand and said “are you going to buy that life insurance I showed you?” Right out in front of God and everybody. Not the time for direct and blunt. Needless to say, the sale was not made, the agent wasn’t an agent much longer, and I learned what I call Cunningham’s second law: nobody is going to pay you for making them feel bad.
Herod was not a man to trifle with. We know from the Jewish historian Josephus that his 37 year reign as King of the Jews was marked by both massive public works projects and monumental cruelty. His paranoia led him even to murder his wife. He was so hated by his people that he had planned to have prominent Jews murdered after his death so that there would be mourning at his funeral. So what he plotted against the Holy Family–regicide, deicide–and what he carried out against the Holy Innocents were all consistent with his personality and history.
Today’s feast is the first of three that the Church gives us in January. There are three unveilings of Christ, three epiphanies. God became human so that humans could become divine. But that is a mystery we can understand–stand under–but never comprehend, or put our arms around. So God does it progressively, in stages. The revelation at His Nativity was to a bunch of nobodies, shepherds in the field. The world was ignorant of Christ’s birth.
The Magi were different. They came from all over the East, bearing precious gifts: gold befitting a king, frankincense signifying divinity, and myrrh, whose meaning is not death, but healing. We don’t know what happened to them afterwards, but we can speculate with the Christian legends that they returned to their home countries and prepared the way for later Christian apostles.
The second unveiling we celebrate next Sunday, the Baptism of the Lord. Jesus did not intend his mission to end with his death and Resurrection. He left us seven signs, sacraments, the first of which is our own baptism. He, standing as the servant of the Lord, was baptized in the Jordan, and from that moment baptism acquired a new meaning. When I baptize a child, or the pastor baptizes one of our catechumens at Easter, we are not soaking them with water only. We are in a sense marinating them in Christ. We put on an identity with Christ at our baptism, and every time we come to communion we re-initiate that relationship.
The third unveiling, which we don’t proclaim every year, is the first miracle of Jesus at the wedding feast of Cana. There Jesus began the public ministry that He knew would end in His death and resurrection. There he changed water into the best wine, as a preview of His giving us His precious blood under the form of wine at this sacrificial banquet of the Lamb.
What all these manifestations have in common is that, in each, Jesus is revealed not as master, but as servant. He is the servant of the Lord, and the servant of God’s people. When Herod heard the word “king,” he imagined someone like himself–venal, ruthless, tyrannical–just the kind of rival he would want to kill. When the Magi met their king, Jesus, they found someone who was weak, innocent, and destined to serve others, not tyrannize them. Jesus appeared to John as one meek and ready to serve others. Jesus performed His first miracle in an undramatic way that simply served others in trouble. Only the servants, His disciples and His mother knew the whole story. In fact, whenever Jesus did something wonderful, He gave direct orders that nobody was to know, and especially that they were not to use the word Messiah about Him. He knew that the Jews would totally misinterpret His mission as one of politics and violence, not of service.
In this month our Archbishop has challenged us to think about and pray about our call to service. Every one of us is given a vocation at our baptism, confirmation, and even at every Eucharist. Each of us is called to holiness, each of us is called to service. We share in Christ’s vocation of priest, prophet, and leader. After many years, and at least two unsuccessful starts, in 1997 I was called to the diaconate, and ordained in 2002. Diaconate is an order of service. We are the “bishop’s men.” Most of us are assigned to minister in a parish, under the local leadership of the pastor.