Sunday, January 03, 2016

Inner Beauty

Solemnity of the Epiphany of the Lord

Picture: cc Mark Lee

Sisters and brothers, do you know how to make a woman hate you for the rest of her life? Especially if you’re a man? Well, I can think of two ways. The first is to wait for that critical moment, after she has dressed and made-up herself for a party, and asks you how she looks. And then to tell her, with a straight face, that you think she has inner beauty… Another way, of course, is to announce to the whole world that she has just won the title of Miss Universe. And then, 5 seconds later, to say you’re sorry. You made a mistake. She actually came in second…

Inner beauty. And second place. Two sure-fire ways to turn a female friend into a life-long foe. But why, my dear friends? Why do you think these methods are so effective? Isn’t it because all of us–even the men–all of us, want to be beautiful. We want others to consider us attractive. Never mind that we may already be married. Or going steady. Or otherwise unavailable. There’s still a part of us that yearns for beauty.

And this is quite natural. Nothing wrong with it. Except that we often have too narrow a view of what beauty means. Whether we care to admit it or not, for many of us, beauty has to do only with external appearance. With cosmetics. As you know, in our world today, beauty is a multi-billion dollar industry. It’s got to do with the food we eat. The fashion we wear. The fragrances we spray. The lotions we apply. The exercises we perform. Even the surgical procedures we undergo. Beauty is big business. And, very often, that business remains only skin deep.

Even so, there is a part of us that yearns for something more. Something that goes deeper than the skin and the hair. The shoes and the bags. Something that endures. Even after time and gravity have robbed us of the cosmetic blessings of youth. Deep down, we all long for true inner beauty.

Isn’t this why we prayed the way we did in the opening prayer just now? We asked God to grant that we, who know you already by faith, may be brought to behold the beauty of your sublime glory. We asked God to let us see God’s beauty. Why? One reason is because to see God’s beauty is also to share in it ourselves. To become beautiful as God is beautiful. Not just cosmetically. Externally. Fleetingly. But completely. Integrally. Eternally. What does this mean? How does it happen? What must we do? These are the questions our Mass readings help us to ponder on this solemn feast of the Epiphany of the Lord.

In the first reading, God tells Jerusalem to arise and shine out, for the glory of the Lord is rising on you. The beauty of God shines upon the Holy City. The People of God. Shines in the midst of deep darkness. And it’s interesting to see what happens as a result. When God’s glory shines on Jerusalem, she is filled with God’s light. She becomes beautiful. With God’s beauty. How do we know this? Because many people are attracted to her. Not just her own sons and daughters, who have been living faraway in exile. But all the nations come to your light and kings to your dawning brightness. All nations are drawn to her beauty.

A beauty that goes far beyond external appearances. Far beyond cosmetics. The reading tells us that, when God shines upon her, Jerusalem will grow radiant, your heart throbbing and full. Unlike painted faces and powdered noses. Pedicures and manicures. The beauty that Jerusalem enjoys is not plastered onto her from without. It radiates from within. From the fullness of her heart.

In the first reading, God promises to make Jerusalem breathtakingly beautiful. With a beauty radiating from deep within. A beauty that belongs not to her. But to God. It is God’s beauty. God’s glory. Shining upon her. Within her. Through her. So that she might attract all nations to herself. And, through her, to God. What she has to do is to arise. To shine out.

And, when she does this, she helps not just herself. But everyone else as well. Especially those who do not know God. Attracted to her inner beauty, these people will themselves be made beautiful. They themselves become attractive. Drawing even more people to God. And so the cycle continues. Beauty begets beauty begets beauty… All that we need to do is to keep arising. To keep shining out. In the light and in the beauty of God. But what does this mean? And are there any obstacles?

We find answers to these questions in the gospel. Where the promise made in the first reading is fulfilled. In the newborn baby Jesus, the beauty of the God’s glory shines upon our world. And it attracts wise men. Who come to Jerusalem from the east. Why do they come? If not because they are drawn by beauty? Not just the beauty of a star, shining in the night sky. But also the beauty of what the star signifies. The beauty of God’s glory shining upon a world engulfed in darkness. The beauty of God’s love illuminating the night of selfishness and sin. A love so strong that it willingly enters our world as a poor defenceless baby.

Foreigners though they are, the wise men see the light for what it is. They arise. And they shine out. In contrast, it is those who should know better who resist the light. Even though King Herod and the chief priests and scribes of Judaea know very well that God’s beauty has come. They refuse to arise. They refuse to shine. Herod even wants to have the child killed. To snuff out the light. Why? Why is the king and his priests so allergic to true inner beauty? Isn’t it because they are more concerned with keeping up appearances? With the preservation of oppressive political power. And of empty religious rituals. Clinging tightly to the cosmetics of life, they fail to shine out with the beauty of God.

They fail to do what, in the second reading, Paul says he is called to do. I have been entrusted by God with the grace he meant for you It means that pagans now share the same inheritance… the same promise has been made to them… What is this grace? This inheritance? This promise? Isn’t it the same promise made in the first reading? And fulfilled in the gospel? The promise of light. Of glory. Of true inner beauty. The promise entrusted to us. For us to share with the rest of the world.

And isn’t this, my dear friends, the challenge that the Epiphany presents to us today? In Christ, the light of God’s beauty is already shining upon us. Among us. Within us. What we have to do is to keep arising. And to keep shining out. To let go of mere cosmetics. In order to cling to Christ. To loosen our grip on the things that pass away. In order to cling to the One who truly endures. The One who is Beauty ever ancient and ever new.

I’m reminded of these words from an old praise song, sung by The Maranatha! Singers:

In your time, in your time.
You make all things beautiful in your time.
Lord, my life to you I bring.
May each song I have to sing,
Be to you a lovely thing in your time.

Sisters and brothers, what must we do to allow God to continue making of us and of our world something truly beautiful today?

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