Sunday, January 02, 2011

Solemnity of The Epiphany of the Lord
To Share Or To Snuff Out the Shining
Picture: cc culbertson11

Sisters and brothers, if you happen to go rummaging around in the sacristy or perhaps the storeroom of this church, there’s a good chance that you’ll find an interesting looking piece of equipment. It’s a long pole, possibly made of or plated in brass. At one end, this pole is split into two prongs. One prong is narrow and hollowed out in the middle, so that a taper or a wick can be inserted into it. The other prong ends in something that looks like a small bell or an inverted ice-cream cone. I’m quite sure that at least some of you know what I’m talking about.

This piece of equipment is meant for use on candles. Having these two prongs side by side makes this a very convenient tool to use. Holding it in your hand, when you come before a lighted candle, you can quickly make one of two choices. You can either use the prong with the taper to transfer the flame to another candle, or you can use the other prong – the one with the bell – to extinguish it. To share the flame or to snuff it out. The decision can be made with a quick flick of the wrist. The choice is in your hands.

Not unlike the two prongs on this instrument, our readings today present us with two possible ways in which people can choose to respond to God. Today, we celebrate the solemn feast of the Epiphany of the Lord. Epiphany, as you know, means manifestation. What we celebrate today is the wonderful way in which God’s glory is made manifest before all the nations. Our readings describe this glory in terms of light. In the first reading we hear a joyful proclamation and a detailed description of what happens when the awesome glory of God shines down upon Jerusalem like a powerful spotlight. At this sight, not only do all the exiled people of Israel come streaming back to their home, but even foreigners from faraway lands are attracted to the light. They come bearing gifts of gold and frankincense. We find a strikingly similar image in the gospel. This time, the glory of God shines out in the newborn baby Jesus. And the magi from the east are attracted to his light. They come to pay homage, bearing gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

And that is not all that they do. The people who come to pay homage to the light are not content simply to enjoy it and to keep it for themselves. Rather, we are told in the gospel that, instead of remaining by the side of the baby Jesus, the magi go back to their own country. Having finally arrived at the brightly shining light of God they next proceed to carry the flame back with them to share it with others. By doing this, the magi show us that they have within them the same attitude toward the light that Paul has in the second reading. Here, Paul speaks of his ministry as a stewardship of God’s grace. Paul is deeply aware that although the Light of Christ has been given to him, he is not its owner. He is only its steward, its servant. His duty it is to be a taper, to carry and to share that light with others, as we find him doing in the second reading.

But, unfortunately, the light attracts the attention not just of people bearing gifts and wishing to pay their respects. There are also others drawn to the light, who carry in their hearts far more sinister intentions. The gospel tells us that Herod is greatly troubled by the news of Jesus’ birth. He is uneasy because the title that the magi use to refer to Jesus is the very same one that Herod claims for himself: king of the Jews. But there can only be one king. There can only be one light. So, in order to preserve his own status as king, in order to continue to cultivate what he considers to be his own personal flame, Herod resolves to have Jesus killed. Like someone using the bell-shaped prong, he wishes to search for and to snuff out the Shining Light of Christ.

To share or to snuff out the light. These are the two choices that our readings present to us today. And, at first glance, the choice may seem to us too easy to make. Of course, we want to be stewards like St. Paul and the magi. Of course we don’t want to be cruel tyrants like Herod. Who likes Herod anyway? But perhaps we shouldn’t be too quick to think too highly of ourselves. Perhaps it’ll be helpful for us to first pay closer attention to one important difference between our readings and that instrument from our sacristy.

As we said earlier, for someone carrying that instrument, the decision whether to light or to extinguish a candle can be taken with a quick flick of the wrist. In contrast, the choice between sharing and snuffing out the Light of Christ is not so easily made. Consider again the difference between the actions of the magi and those of Herod. Notice the great inconvenience that the magi had to endure in order to seek out and to share the Light. First, they had to make a long arduous journey to a foreign land. And then, they had to make a return journey to share what must have been a very unusual piece of news with the people back home. Who knows what sort of reception they received? Yet, they were willing to go through all this trouble. They were willing to seek out and to share the light of truth even though it was shining out from a strange land.

On his part, of course, Herod too was willing to endure inconvenience. To extinguish the Light of Christ, he was willing to kill all the male babies in and around Bethlehem who were two years old and under. But what was different about Herod was his motivation. Whereas the magi were willing to courageously embrace the strange for the sake of the truth, Herod tried to snuff out the Light of Christ because he anxiously wished to protect the familiar.

Either to adventurously encounter the truth in what may at first seem strange. Or to anxiously seek only to preserve the familiar. These are also the options that our readings present to us today. And these contrasting choices take on great significance for us today. For we live in a world where there are many who are blinded by anxiety and prejudice, and who eagerly engage in violence for the sake of their own religion. And yet, for our part, even if we Christians may believe that the fullness of truth is to be found in our own faith, we also believe that the Light of Christ may shine out in other religions as well. As the late Pope John Paul II wrote:

Through dialogue, the Church seeks to uncover... ‘a ray of that truth which enlightens all men’; these are found in individuals and religious traditions of mankind.… Other religions constitute a positive challenge for the Church: they stimulate her both to discover and acknowledge the signs of Christ's presence and of the working of the Spirit, as well as to examine more deeply her own identity and to bear witness to the fullness of Revelation which she has received for the good of all (Redemptoris Missio, 56).

Sisters and brothers, on this solemn feast of the Epiphany, something like that instrument from our sacristy is being placed in our hands. It is for us to decide whether we wish to share or to snuff out the Light of Christ, wherever we may find it shining. Which option will we be choosing today?

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