The key to understanding what this feast day of the Epiphany is all about is not so much in the specific details of these strange visitors from the East coming to offer gifts and worship to the newborn king of Israel, but in the bigger picture of what these magi represent. We heard last Sunday about the promise that the Lord made to Abram when he called him from his own people and his own family to go to a new place, a land that God will show him, where God will make Abram to be the patriarch of a new people, and a new nation, but also to be the source of blessing for all the nations.
God began to reveal this plan for all the nations slowly. Just as a human baby takes time to develop and mature, so also the human family who received this message of covenant love and faithfulness needed time – generation upon generation – to make sense of the radical call and identity that God was inviting them into. We should not be surprised that when we read the ancient Hebrew scriptures now that many of the teachings and claims strike us as crude and perhaps barbaric. But they were mere steps along this journey towards what God originally intended for all the nations to be part of.
So what began with one family, gradually developed into a larger and more complex reality that became one tribe, then twelve tribes, which grew into a new people during the time of slavery in Egypt, so that as the people escaped and made their Exodus journey through the wilderness and into the promised land, they became a new people and then became slowly one nation and one kingdom during the days of King David. But this was only the beginning. Paul (or one of his disciples) tells us today in Ephesians 3 that the original plan of God, that was hidden for so long, began to be revealed in glimpses through the Prophets, but in our time was finally revealed through the birth, life, passion, death and resurrection of Jesus. Paul saw himself as the great evangelist of this new announcement: that what was understood as exclusive and particular, was now to be experienced as inclusive and universal – a blessing that belongs to all people, nations, languages, cultures, genders, sexuality, colours, social status, education levels, ethnicity and creeds. A message that some magi from the East happened to stumble across in Bethlehem, was now made available for all people. But now the work of Christmas needs to begin – to bring this inclusive and universal gospel into the lives of all people.
Feast of the Epiphany. Matthew 2:1-12; Isaiah 60:1-6; Ephesians 3:2-3,5-6.
When we first meet Abram, it is in Genesis 12, and he is invited by the Lord to leave his kindred and his father’s house and go from that country to a land that God will show him. Abram is mostly faithful to this – he probably brings to many of his possessions and his kindred along for the journey – but at least he sets out. He is promised that he will become a great nation, with a great name – a name that will become a blessing for the nations and for all families of the earth. Yet, when we meet Abram in our reading today from Genesis 15, it is not just 3 chapters and many adventures that have passed – it is also many years later, perhaps more than two decades. So when God appears again to him, and the word of the Lord is addressed to him (a phrase that is unique here to the Torah; normally it is only used in the Prophetic writings) we finally hear a reply from Abram (rather than only passive listening). And his question seems valid – where are my descendants that you have promised?
At this stage, God invites Abram to take it outside. Go outside and count the stars – if you can – for such will your desendants be. Now, as difficult as it is to count the stars on a very clear night – and having spent time in the southern Negev desert away from electrical lights and pollution I can attest that you can see many stars there on the typically clear nights – it is even more difficult during the day. It is only in verse 12 that we are told that the sun begins to set, and verse 17 that the sun fully sets. So when Abram goes outside to see and count the stars, he can only see one star – the sun. The other stars are still there, but hidden from his eyes. It is a beautiful image of faith. Sometimes we cannot see the promises of God being fulfilled, yet that doesn’t mean that the stars are not still there beyond our ability to see them. And it is for this reason, that Abram is able to trust in God even when he doesn’t see the answer that he is hoping for, that God takes on a priestly role to declare that he is justified, and his faith is reckoned to him as righteousness.
It is often in being faithful to God in these small details in our lives that we can encounter God in the great things. Joseph and Mary demonstrate this in the Gospel today. They just go about the ordinary details of the law of the Lord, naming and circumcising Jesus, and then presenting him at the temple as part of the purification ritual that was required of women after they had given birth. Rituals help to remind us that God is part of our ordinary lives. There is no great division between the secular and sacred aspects of our lives. In praying in thanksgiving our morning offering, or in offering thanks for the food that we are about to receive, we remind ourselves that God is part of our everyday lives.
Christmas can be a very confusing time. We have mixed together a veritable plethora of traditions, myths, consumer ideals and cultural detritus along with vestiges of gospel stories and religious music and artwork to create this weird celebration of this annual holiday. The end result is not very satisfying for anyone.
During the month of November, I was privileged to be in Jerusalem staying at the Tantur Center for Ecumenical Studies on the southern edge of Jerusalem, looking out over the towns of Bethlehem, Bayt Jala, Bayt Sahur, Beit Safafa and the settlements of Gilo and Har Homa. The problem is that the dry and rocky landscape as you look out across it is dominated by only one thing – the so-called Separation Barrier, or the Apartheid Wall that began to be built by the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) during the second Intifada. It was meant to follow the 1949 Armistice Line, commonly called the Green Line, but it often strays many kilometres into the territory of the occupied State of Palestine. So for example, while I was staying there, our group visited the Wi’am Peace Center which has no access to half of its lands, because they are on the wrong side of the wall. A large section of wall juts into Bethlehem to provide access for Israeli citizens to Rachel’s Tomb, which is located next to a Palestinian Cemetery and is therefore a source of constant tension – as I discovered firsthand when I strayed in between members of the IDF and Palestinian youth on my first visit to Bethlehem. Nevertheless there are signs of hope in this very depressing situation, and there are many Jews who do pray the Torah and Ketuvim (Prophets) and know that they have moved far away from the situation of being a remnant people, to the occupying oppressors. Street artists such as Banksy also provide continued hope for change.
Unfortunately, we are not able to look on this situation and speak of how foreign such oppression is to us. The Australian story of abominable treatment of refugees, both onshore and in our offshore processing centres on Manus Island (even if now closed) and Naura remain as a significant stain upon our social conscience.
On Friday an article was published in the New York Times entitled “Where Jesus Would Spend Christmas”, written by Stephanie Saldana. During my time at Tantur I was very privileged to meet and become friends with Stephanie, who is married to the program director at Tantur, Frederic Masson. Stephanie is American, from San Antonia in Texas; her father is the Diocesan director of Caritas and has been working successfully for decades to find homes for refugees from all over the world, but especially from the middle east, among the Catholic community there. Frederic is French, but since they have been married they have decided to live in the middle east, in Iraq, Syria and most recently in Jerusalem. Frederic is now a Syrian Catholic and is studying to be a priest. They have three wonderful children, JoJo is the oldest, then Seb and the youngest cutie is Carmel. The whole family is fluent in French, English and Arabic. Through a grant, Stephanie has been able to devote the last two years trying to document and save as much of the cultural and social heritage that she can, by visiting and documenting the stories of refugees in camps in Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq, Turkey and Greece, as well as visiting other refugees who have managed to now settle in Europe. I want to quote from three sections of her article – which is linked below, as also is the website where Stephanie shares some of the stories of heritage restoration – Mosaic Stories.
I have visited many refugee camps in the Middle East, but never have I seen anything like Moria, a place Pope Francis has likened to a concentration camp. I have also never understood the true meaning of Christmas — a story in which Jesus was born into a family that became refugees — until I visited the people who are now forced to call it home.
If we want to imagine the Nativity, we needn’t go farther than the tent of Alaa Adin from Syria, who left his home just days after he married. Now his wife is pregnant, and when I met them they were living in a tent outside of Moria, because there was no room for them inside. If we want to see today’s flight to Egypt, we needn’t look far: Nearly every refugee I’ve ever met has a story about escaping in the middle of the night.
If we want a miracle, I’d suggest looking at Anwar, who despite crying while recounting the destruction of Mosul, still paused in the middle and offered me a clementine. [A fruit like a mandarin] As we live through the largest migration in modern history, Christmas invites us to recognize our story in the millions who have been displaced by tyrants, war and poverty and to see their stories in ours.
Christmas continues to challenge us to be faithful to these much deeper stories. Once we have looked into the eyes of our brothers and sisters, we can no longer treat them only as statistics, or problems that are over there. We continue to be challenged to see Christmas as a story of a God who loved the world too much to allow it to remain locked in despair and hopelessness. Christmas reminds us that God wants to be involved in our messy world.
Christmas – Vigil Mass; Midnight Mass; Mass during the day
Although there is nothing in the Gospel of Matthew about camels, kings or even how many of the strange magi visited the child Jesus and his mother Mary – there are enough details to provide much pondering. The first chapter of Matthew’s gospel – although we are given a full (stylised) rendering of the genealogy of Jesus and then the announcement of the pending birth of Jesus from Joseph’s perspective – no information is given to provide any clue about the exact location in time or space of the events (beyond the genealogy) and no human has actually spoken a single word – only angels have spoken so far. So when the second chapter opens with a brief mention of the name of Jesus, we are told where and when he was born and we are then introduced to the central characters of this part of the story – the magoi. In fact, they are given the right and privilege to be the first humans to speak, as they ask their question: “where is the child to be born?” It is interesting that in this most Jewish of all the Gospels, that the first words are allowed to be spoken by people who are not only non-Jewish, but so totally removed from the whole Jewish story of creation, salvation and prophecy. Which leads to the question of what role strangers like this are going to have in the whole of the story, and why they are here if not at least in part to provide something like the first-fruits of the great Gospel commission that will conclude this same Gospel of Matthew in chapter 28.
Recorded at St Paul’s, 8am (8 mins)
Epiphany Sunday. Matthew 2:1-12
The understanding that Mary – a seemingly ordinary teenager growing up in Judea or Galilee who happened to be visited by the archangel Gabriel to hear the announcement that she would become the virgin mother of the saviour, who would be called Jesus – thereby becoming the mother of this unique person who was both human and divine, and therefore she also receives the title of mother of God. Not a bad title for a resume. (Although it was not uncommon in the Roman world, where the Caesar’s following on from Julius all adopted the title of ‘son of God’ for themselves, which also gave a boost to their mothers as well.) In our Diocese one of my brother priests has been struggling with this question, prompting our bishop to send a pastoral letter reminding the people of God what the church teaches on this point. So, let us take a moment to consider why this title for Mary came about, and what it might mean for us today.
Recorded at St Paul’s, 10am Mass (10min)
01 January – Solemnity of Mary, the holy Mother of God.
Numbers 6:22-27; Ps 66; Galatians 4:4-7; Luke 2:16-21
So many of our Christmas traditions are based on the barest threads of details. For example, in the gospel of Luke, although we are given very complete information about the announcement of the birth of first John and then Jesus, and the details of their parents and travels, when it actually comes to the moment of the birth of Jesus, Luke covers the event in just two lines. Because of our developing fascination with the birth of Jesus, those two lines have been parsed and prodded in order to provide material for artwork, plays, sculptures, carols, movies and homilies. For example, the only thing that suggests that Mary gave birth in anything other than a normal house is the fact that she places the child Jesus in a manger / feeding trough, because there is no room in the ‘inn’ (katalumati in Greek). And although ‘inn’ is a valid way of translating this word, it is certainly not the only way, nor perhaps the best way. For example, when describing the upper room where the disciples gather for the last supper, in Luke 22:11, it is the same word that is used. Yet centuries of tradition have now placed their heavy burden upon this interpretation, even though the word could simply be translated as ‘house’. I like this simpler translation, because it still speaks of the rough and impoverished conditions of the birth of Jesus, without completely separating it from Matthew’s account (which has the parents of Jesus living in a house at the time of his birth). But it also speaks of the normalcy of the relationship that Jesus has come to have with us – a relationship of friendship and joy, grace and wonder.
Recorded at St Paul’s, 8pm Vigil (8 mins)
Christmas, Mass during the night. Luke 2:1-20
When you come to reflect on the baptism of Jesus, the first thing that you need to take account of is how odd an event it must have been. The primary significance of the baptism that John was offering was a washing from sin and a ritual of repentance. It was in direct competition to the sacrificial system of the temple which was all about cleansing a person from personal sin and recognising how terrible sin was – to be cleansed involved the death of an animal – that should tell us how seriously people understood sin. And yet Jesus was here, asking John to baptise him. We profess that Jesus was like us in all things – except sin. So why is the sinless one presenting himself alongside all the other riff-raff of the day to be washed clean? There is no universally agreed answer – which is why the early church considered the baptism of Jesus as such a scandal – even if it is attested by all four gospels. Perhaps the best answer is that it was part of his call to be in solidarity with all people – especially those who knew themselves to be far from God.
Recorded at St Paul’s, 9.30am (10mins)
Feast of the Baptism of Jesus, Year C.
In considering the account of the Magi arriving in Jerusalem and Bethlehem in the gospel is already richly told. Even so, many traditions, legends and carols have added all kinds of details to the story, most of which cannot be supported by the text itself.
When the magi arrive in Jerusalem, they would first have to have made their presence known to Herod, the King of Israel and thereby seek an audience with him. They must have presented as guests of some significance in order for their request to be granted. When they finally had the opportunity to make their request to Herod and ask their question of the place of birth of the prophesied king “of the Jews”, no doubt they would have been surprised that this king did not know something so basic in the spiritual and religious law and traditions of the people that Herod was supposed to serve. When the chief priests and scribes are called, they give the obvious answer of the city of David: Bethlehem. When they finally arrive at the house of the holy family, they do the only thing that they can: they kneel in worship before the child Jesus and offer the most previous gifts that they can provide.
The response of the magi stands in stark contrast to that of Herod. Although he talks sweetly and feigns religious allegiance, Herod is insanely threatened by the birth of this child as a potential and likely claimant to the throne that he had worked so hard through political intrigue to achieve. So rather then contemplating worship or blessing, Herod’s response is the one that we see all too commonly around us: to curse the unknown threat and strike against it with hated and violence.
Recorded at St Paul’s, 9:30am
Video reflection: Epiphany (Shift Worship)
Flowing directly out of the celebration of Christmas this year we have the opportunity to reflect upon not only the holy family of Nazareth, but also our own conceptions and ideas of family. In my case, I know that many of my most basic understandings of family came from comparing the idealised image of family that came from watching perhaps far too many mainly American sitcoms and family dramas as a child – with my experience of family. And it would be fair to say that it seemed that my family rarely measured up to the esteemed heights of the Walton family or the Brady bunch. We never seemed to be able to solve all of our problems within the allotted half-hour or hour, and things sometimes seemed more complicated than ensuring that we all said goodnight to each other would fix. As I have grown older and experienced many more family situations, I have discovered the often-quoted declaration that there are only two kinds of families in the world – the dysfunctional families and the very-dysfunctional families. Thankfully in the scriptures that we are presented with today, we discover that being a holy family and being a dysfunctional family may not be incompatible.
Recorded at St Paul’s, 9.30am (8min)
Feast of the Holy Family, Year C.
1 Sam 1: 20-28; 1 John 3:1-2; 21-24; Luke 2: 41-52
Video reflection: Gift of Life (LifeWay Media)
There is an extraordinary line in the second reading today – ‘When the kindness and love of God our Saviour appeared, he saved us, not because of any righteous thing that we had done, but because of his mercy.’ (Titus 3:4-5) We have often understood Judaism and its focus on the laws and commandments of Torah which included the 613 mitzvah to be about a religious system that emphasised the keeping of the laws and the rewards that this would merit. But this reading turns that whole emphasis on its head to remind us that to be saved is all about God’s kindness, favour and compassion – not our righteousness. And for this we can be eternally grateful.
Recorded at St Paul’s (7 mins)
Christmas, Midnight Mass (readings of the Dawn Mass)