Thursday, January 1, 2015

Epiphany: Homily: 2015 Updated

Epiphany: Homily: 2015

We have seen his star
A hard time we had of it.
. . .
With the voices singing in our ears,
That this was all folly.

So T.S. Eliot says in his Epiphany poem The Journey of the Magi. But the wise men have had almost as much of a hard time recently from modern  de-mythologizers as they had on that first pilgrimage: ‘this was all folly.’ We are told confidently that the wise men were not necessarily men, they were not necessarily three of them, we do not know their names  and anyway they probably never existed. So what we end up with is non-existent persons of indeterminate name and gender which is much more relevant supposedly to modern folks. But you have to wonder if this says more about modern folks than it does about the biblical text.

Does anyone really think that there is such a thing as wisdom anymore? It seems to me to me that we believe in information, statistics, the accumulation of what we take to be facts. We have more information then we know what to do with.  But wisdom is not how much you know but rather what you do with what you know.  In politics and even in natural science information is what we hurl at our opponents, not something we use to convince other people of the truth.  Would we even recognize someone, never mind the gender, who was wise? If you ask me, it is not so much that the three wise men never existed but that wise men no longer to exist.

In any case the Gospel for the Epiphany gives us a pretty good description of what a wise man is.

We have seen his star in the East: there has been much speculation about what in terms of astronomy the Star of Bethlehem might have been: a meteor, a comet, the conjunction of planets, a nova or a supernova? Most of these speculations are simply wrong or at best problematic. But the wise men were not natural scientists in the modern sense. They were more akin to philosophers, men like Plato, Aristotle, St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas. These guys did not just want to know what was the immediate material cause of the things in the world but what was their ultimate cause. Why is the star there at all? Like St. Thomas they were led to the conclusion that the cause had to be a cause which itself was uncaused, ‘which is what everybody calls God’.

The wise men stand at the beginning of a great tradition not only Christian but Jewish and Islamic as well of ‘faith seeking understanding’. The world, the skies, the earth, the whole created order constitute a Book wherein may be read the reality of God. As Augustine said the heavens and earth cry out, “We did not make ourselves, we were made by him who abides for eternity.”

You know the problem with almost every evangelism program I have ever heard about?  It ignores this great patrimony. The assumption is that bringing people to Christian Faith only involves our emotions and not our brains. We simply surrender to the religion of science and to atheism and hope that we will run into some folks who are emotional basket cases and whom we can rescue. It does not work and will never work in the world in which we live because for every hour we spend converting people the secular culture spends twenty-three hours converting them to scientism and agnosticism.

What kind of evangelism program would I want? Well, of course, one taught by St. Thomas.That is what I intend to do for the next few months in the Christian Education Class. Since I know that I probably cannot convince all of you to attend, I will make the materials available to the whole parish.

But back to the wise men.

And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed for their country by another way: One of the ancient ways of describing those who are followers of Jesus is to call them the followers of the Way. That other way which home is not just the one that avoids Herod; it is the way of life which follows from knowing him, not just saying “Lord, Lord’ but, as Jesus will say, if you love me keep my commandments.

Faith, which springs from hearing and obeying the Divine Word presupposes the God revealed in nature. It is the Star which leads the wise men to Jesus; it is conversion which makes them obey Him.  Faith is not just believing something; it is what St. Paul calls ‘the obedience of faith’. Faith is living out the consequences of belief.

So faith is not the end of the story; the end of the story is worship: on entering the house they saw the child with Mary his mother. They prostrated themselves and did him homage.  Worship. The Greek word is προσεκύνησαν (prosekunēsan) which means more literally “to fall down in worship” or “give adoration.” The verb is used 12 times in the New Testament and it is clear each time that religious worship is the purpose of the prostration. We are familiar with the notion that you get saved once and then you are done. But salvation  is not just being saved from something but saved for something . We are saved from sin and death but we are made to worship.

That ultimately is the characteristic of the wise man. He not only knows the ultimate cause of things and the capital- case Good which must guide all his thoughts, words and actions – in itself that might be the cause of overbearing pride --  but also he is capable of falling down to worship the Source of the True, the Good and the Beautiful.  This is so because worship is the love without which St. Paul tells us we are only a ‘noisy gong or clashing cymbal’ ‘If I understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.”

‘Wise men still seek Him’ the hymn says.

We have seen his star


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