Sunday, January 06, 2019

Both In Name & In Fact

Solemnity of the Epiphany of the Lord
Picture: cc Choo Yut Sing

My dear friends, if you were to walk past a house with the image of the Sacred Heart of Jesus proudly displayed above the front door, what will you think? If you’re like me, you’ll probably conclude that the family living there is Catholic. And, very likely, you’ll be right. But what if you then have the opportunity to spend some time in that house? To get to know its occupants? And you discover, to your surprise, that they all hate one another. Can’t stand the sight of each other. What will you think then? Perhaps much as you’ll try your best not to judge, you may wonder sadly to yourself why this family is Catholic only in name, but not in fact? For, as we all know, being Catholic requires more of us than simply putting up the right decorations above our front door. To be truly Catholic, both in name and in fact, we need also to live the way Christ lived. Or at least to try our best to do so.

But if this is true of being Catholic, then what about celebrating Christmas? As you know, the Christmas decorations along Orchard Road this year were criticised for being too secular. For focusing too much on Disney characters, and neglecting the birth of Christ. And perhaps this is true. I must confess that I didn’t get a chance to see those decorations for myself. So I can’t judge. But doesn’t this critique invite us then to ask an important question? If the decorations along Orchard Road reflect a secular Christmas, then what does a sacred Christmas look like? Is it only a matter of displaying a different set of decorations?

I believe our Mass readings help us to ponder this question, and so to deepen our celebration of the coming of Christ. To see this, we need to first consider who King Herod is. To remember that he actually holds a title. The title of King of the Jews. King of the Chosen People of God. And, as the gospel demonstrates, as king, Herod has access to considerable religious knowledge. He is able to consult the experts of the Jewish religion, in order to find out where the Christ-child is likely to be found. So that, if Christmas has to do only with having the right name, holding the right title, or putting up the right decorations, then surely King Herod can be expected to have a sacred Christmas.

And yet, this is not what we find in our readings. For they show us that Herod’s response to the coming of the Light is perhaps far more secular than sacred. We see this when we contrast his response to that of others. In the first reading, the city of Jerusalem is encouraged to arise, and to shine out. For not only is the glory of the Lord shining upon her, but all the foreign nations will stream to that light. And Jerusalem is expected to respond in a particular way. She is told that at this sight, you will grow radiant, your heart throbbing and full. In other words, she will be filled with joy and delight. This is what a sacred Christmas looks like. People delighting to welcome strangers among them.

In contrast, Herod’s reaction to the coming of the wise men from a foreign land is the exact opposite. He is feels threatened by them and the news they bring of the birth of a new King of the Jews. And his heart is filled with dread. Dread instead of delight. For Herod, this is what a secular Christmas looks and feels like.

And this dread that Herod feels leads him to respond in what might perhaps be seen as another secular way. In contrast to the wise men, who are willing to travel a long distance, and even to humbly seek the advice of foreign experts, in order to find and to pay homage to the newborn king, Herod wants only to locate the baby in order to kill it. This is a second contrast that we find in our readings. The wise men want to pay homage. To offer humble worship. Herod wishes to commit homicide.

Which brings us to a third helpful contrast. This time between Herod and St Paul. In the second reading, Paul tells the Ephesians that he has received a grace from God: The mystery of God’s love revealed in Christ Jesus our Lord. And this precious grace, this great mystery, is meant not just for Paul, but for everyone. Even foreigners. For pagans now share the same inheritance… they are parts of the same body… the same promise has been made to them, in Jesus Christ… Here we find a third characteristic of a sacred Christmas. Not only is Christmas about being filled with delight, not only should it lead us to pay homage to Christ ourselves, it should also make us willing to share God’s gifts with others. As Paul does. As the wise men do. And as Jerusalem is expected to do too. In sharp contrast, because of his dread, which makes him willing to kill, in order to protect his own privileged status, Herod’s aim is not to share God’s light with others, but to smother it.

Delight versus dread. Homage versus homicide. Sharing versus smothering. This is what a truly sacred Christmas is supposed to look like. And if all this is true, then it becomes clear that it’s not enough for us simply to put up the right decorations at Christmas. We need also to engage in the right practices. The better to welcome the newborn King into our hearts, into our lives, and into our world. For by this everyone will know that we are his disciples, if we have love for one another (cf John 13:35).

Sisters and brothers, what are you doing to celebrate a sacred Christmas, not just in name, but also in fact, today?