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Home > Archbishop > Homilies > Epiphany

6 Jan 2013

On 1 January, Pope Benedict continued the tradition of previous popes by issuing a message for the World Day of Peace. This year it carries the title of “Blessed are the Peacemakers” In the text of the message Pope Benedict stresses that “true peacemakers are those who love, defend and promote human life in all its dimensions, personal, communitarian and transcendent. Life in its fullness is the height of peace. Anyone who loves peace cannot tolerate attacks and crimes against life.”

More like fifty years ago now, there was a strong focus on the movement for civil rights in the United States. There is a story told of a senior police officer, sitting in his car somewhere in the state of Alabama on a very hot afternoon. He was watching the movement of some people who were protesting in favour of civil rights, and what they were doing was against the law at the time.

A television reporter went over to the police car and asked the officer did he think he would be able to stop the demonstration. The officer replied that he was not sure whether he would succeed or not, but he was certainly going to try. In fact, he said that he would try to, as he put it, “his dying breath”.

For us today, such an approach would be seen as being outrageous and obscene. But, back in those days, many people could see little wrong with such an attitude. To keep people separated was seen as a good thing to do – it was a way of keeping the peace, and it often had the support of the law as well. Very likely the officer was not a bad person, but just an ordinary person, with an ordinary understanding of right and wrong. He was limited in his attitudes and his views, which, to our way of thinking, were narrow-minded.

The world is full of “them and us” situations. We like it like that. Keep people in their places, don’t rock the boat, don’t disturb the peace. Sometimes the trigger is that of culture and race, other times it is actually religion. There are always people who challenge us and who want to change our world.

The story of the Epiphany is that of the wise men from the East who came in search of the newborn king of the Jews. The very thought that some foreigners would be coming to celebrate the arrival of the Jewish Messiah was a disturbing feature. What place did these foreigners have in this wonderful event? Their arrival had an effect on the political scene as well. Clearly Herod became  unsettled with their arrival, and he felt that his dynasty was under threat. So he made his own plans to deal with the situation, and to force the new comers to disappear from the picture.

Meanwhile, the three visitors offer their gifts – of gold, of incense and of myrrh. They are the symbols of the dignity of human life, of the new way of living, which Jesus Christ was proposing, and also of the suffering, which he would, at a later stage have to endure.

The Feast of the Epiphany is not just another feast, nor is it the concluding feast of the Christmas season. It carries a message and a challenge for us. The wise men were the outsiders. They were the strangers, the unfamiliar people. They were not what was expected, but they have become an essential part of the story.

What are we going to do about them? Will we accept the gifts they bring and allow ourselves to be changed by them. The gold represents new wisdom. Can we learn new things, or do we insist on keeping faith only with what is old? Incense speaks of worship and calls us to worship God better then we do, both in liturgy and in life. Myrrh reminds us always of the price we must pay for anything that is worthwhile. It is hard to change. We resist, but we should not do so.

The Feast of the Epiphany raises questions for the Church to consider as well. Who are those who do not have a role to play in the life of the Church? Who are not included? Will we welcome new ideas and new ways. At the beginning of another year, we need to challenge ourselves as the Church and as individuals as well.

Like the Chief of Police, St Paul was a good man too. He was doing everything right and protection the culture and the religious of the Jewish people. It took a bolt out of the blue for something to change, so that it knocked him out of his stride. One can only marvel at the new vision he had, and at the change which took place. And to think that we continue to be the beneficiaries of this new vision, even to the present moment.

Jesus, as we know, reveals another meaning for human life. The hope of the message of peace, which is proclaimed to the shepherds, may seem distant and ideal. But the call of the gospel is to accept the distinctiveness of other people and to respect them. The disciples of Jesus are called to love, which is beyond liking, but demands that we treat others with respect and dignity.

The peace for this we pray will come when others are treated as equals and all are treated with respect. This is difficult, as we know, and it requires a change of heart and in the way we think and feel about others.

Although there are times when we may despair that peace is unachievable, St. Paul’s life shows us how the power of God is active in human weakness. The plan of God is greater than any human plan. We can take heart from the life and conversion of St. Paul. The Epiphany gives us an inspiration to continue on the journey of reconciliation, because Christ is revealed again today as being a light for all peoples.