Solemnity of the Epiphany: The Epiphany and Prejudice
The Solemnity of the Epiphany is a wonderful celebration with a main theme and many subordinate themes. The main theme is that the King of Kings is being manifested to the nations. This was shocking to the ancient Jews. St. Paul calls this a mystery hidden for the ages but now revealed by the Holy Spirit. The gentiles are co-heirs, members of the same Body and copartners in the promise of Jesus Christ. Among the subordinate themes to the Epiphany are the meaning of the gifts of the magi, Why gold, frankincense and myrrh, the magi themselves; Who were they, were they Zoroastrians, other types of pagans, the prophecy of Isaiah 60 saying that all nations would come to Jerusalem, Did that mean that Jerusalem would become the capital of the world, the prophecy of Micah revealing that the ruler of Israel would come from Bethlehem, Would the line of David be restored, and the contrast between the faith of the magi and the hypocrisy of Herod. And these are all within the solemnity as we celebrate it in the Roman Catholic Church.
Eastern Catholics and the Orthodox include in the Epiphany the Baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist and sometimes even the changing of the water into wine at the wedding feast of Cana.
A particular theme I would like to focus on is that the mercy of God is extended to all people. A week ago on Saturday, the Office of Readings, part of the Liturgy of the Hours, contained a quote from St. Bernard of Clairveaux about the birth of Christ. St. Bernard was an 11th century Cistercian monk. In the reading, St. Bernard said that God sent to earth a bag bulging with his mercy, a bag that, at the passion, is torn open so that our ransom pours out of it onto us. It is a small bag, but a full one: for it was a small child that was given to us, but in him dwells the fullness of the Godhead. I like that. I never thought of the infant Jesus as a little bag bulging with mercy, but it is a beautiful way of understanding the Gift of Christmas.
We often refer to infants as bundles of joy, or as little bundles of love. This infant, the baby Jesus, is a bundle of joy, a bundle of love and a bundle of mercy.
And his mercy is extended to all people, everywhere. That is the mystery of the Epiphany that so many people still have a difficult time comprehending. Many people think that somehow or other they are chosen for mercy while others are excluded from mercy. This fallacy is repeated throughout the ages, beginning with the original disciples who had to learn that the gentiles were included in the redemption of Christ. One heresy of the early Church was Gnosticism which, among other things, taught that what was revealed to the Gnostics was hidden from all others because others were lesser human beings. Later Christians would consider all those who had not embraced Christ exactly as they did as excluded from God's love. In our day, the fallacy is found in the people who have a penchant for grouping others into saved and unsaved categories.
Grouping people into categories of any sort is prejudice.
Prejudice is also a theme that the Epiphany confronts. People like me who were raised in the middle of the last century have to be very careful and have to fight against a prejudice that was part of the times when we were children. We often defined others according to specific groups. Italians behave this way, African Americans that way, Latinos another way, etc. It is interesting that it is rather rare that members of the younger generations, people in their 20's, 30's and 40's, will meet someone and ask about the person's heritage. However, this is often the first question posed by older people. "How do you do? Did you say your last name was Arroyo? Is that Spanish?" We had a visiting priest here who came to give a mission and who could not handle the fact that my ancestors are Italian. He had to talk to me in make believe broken Italian English because he thought that's what I needed to hear. "Hey Joe, how-a are you-a doin today?"
The worse part was that he didn't even know that he was being offensive.
Grouping people into categories is a prejudice against which we all have to fight. If I turn on a basketball game and the first thing I notice is how many black players are on the court, then I have to recognize how far I still need to go to fight prejudice in my own life. But if I can tell you right now that I do not know how many black players start for the my favorite football team, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, nor do I care, then, maybe, I'm making some progress.
We all have to be careful, because we all, not just the older people like me, but we all are inclined to put people into neat categories.
Prejudice is a lazy way of looking at the world. It is lazy because we don't have to take the time to learn an individual's particular characteristics or qualities. We think we know him or her already because, after all, all those people behave in this or that way. It is sad that many politicians subtly or not so subtly scare up votes by appealing to people's prejudices. Perhaps the younger people in our country will save the older generations from themselves.
The Epiphany encourages us to be open to all people, and to see each person as an individual with his or her own particular qualities.
God has extended his mercy to all people equally. This mercy is given to us as individuals; not as part of a specific group. We who have received mercy need to extend mercy to others, all others, seeing each person as a child of God, not as a member of a group.
So, who were those wise men? Pagans? Zoroastrians? That wasn't important to God. Each one of them was an individual looking to worship the king that had been revealed by God through the star. That was all that mattered. Who is this person? Who is that person? He/she is person made in the image and likeness of God. He/she is a child of God. That is all that matters.