Saturday, January 4, 2014

What gift will you give Jesus this year?

HOMILY FOR THE SOLEMNITY OF THE EPIPHANY OF THE LORD, January 5, 2014:
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A CCD class was asked to draw a nativity scene one Sunday. In addition to the usual contingent of characters – Jesus, Mary, Joseph, the shepherds – one boy also drew three extremely tiny men wearing crowns.  Asked who they were, he explained that they were the Three Wee Kings. (I apologize for that joke.  It strains even my own love for corny jokes!)

You may have noticed at the beginning of our Mass today that I wished everyone a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year! Some of you may have thought - wait, Christmas was over a week ago.  But, the reality is that in our Church calendar, we still find ourselves deep in the heart of Christmas. The problem is that the world has got Christmas all upside down. In the secular world Christmas begins sometime in late September as the first Christmas decorations begin to appear in stores. Christmas music begins on the radio a few weeks after that. And then, it seems like at 12:01 a.m. on December 26th, it all disappears and Christmas is over and we've moved on to the next thing.

But, not so in our Church. Here, we still have another week to go. The Christmas season goes all the way to the Solemnity of the Baptism of the Lord which we will celebrate next weekend. We need these weeks to really reflect upon the reality that God has actually come among us, as one of us, in the person of Jesus Christ.

Now, on Christmas Day, I bet many of us were focused on presents. We all get very excited about what gifts we may receive each Christmas. In talking to some of our young people, this year there was great variety – a lot of it revolving around different video games and systems. I know a lot of little girls are very excited about American Girl dolls. I know those have been popular with one of my nieces for a number of years. 

Of course, at this time of year, my thoughts also go to a few of my favorite all-time presents. I think of when I was about 10 years old. That year my brother and I really wanted Huffy dirt bikes. And, I remember the excitement of walking into the living room that Christmas morning and there they were! But, my most favorite memory of a childhood gift is one that I actually didn't receive. I was about 5 or 6 years old and that year I had asked Santa for a baby grand piano! It seemed reasonable at the time. Well, I woke up eagerly that morning and ran to the living room, but there was no piano there. But, instead there was a beautifully handwritten letter and it was addressed to me and it was signed by Santa himself! It was even written on his letterhead. Santa had written to explain to me that a baby grand piano was a wonderful gift, but it simply would not fit on his sleigh; it was just too big.  Well, I was more excited about that letter than just about anything I can remember in life. Can you believe it? Santa wrote to me! He knows my name! I ran around with that letter for a very long time and treasured it.

Today's feast of the Epiphany is also a feast about presents. We commemorate the arrival of the three wise men, or kings, or magi, who came from afar, following a star to pay homage to the new born king. Tradition tells us that their names were Casper, Mehchior and Balthasar. And, of course, they brought gifts. They brought to Jesus the gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.

Now, there is something special in each of these gifts. They are not random, but extremely meaningful. Each of these gifts show that the wise men actually recognize Jesus for who He is. The gold is a symbol of royalty, acknowledging that Jesus is in the royal line of David, destined to be the King of Kings. The frankincense is a symbol of the priesthood and acknowledges that Jesus will be the True High Priest. And myrrh is a type of oil often used in anointing when someone has died, acknowledging that Jesus will die for our salvation. Each of these gifts are gifts of recognition - they recognize the divinity of Christ. And recognizing Christ is the very heart of what Epiphany is about.

But, there is a difference between the gifts of Christmas Day and the gifts of Epiphany. Who received gifts on Christmas? You and me. Who receives the gifts today? Jesus does. And the gifts serve to reveal His true nature.

The feast of the Epiphany calls us to recognize Jesus in our midst - here in this church in each of us gathered in His Name; in His Word proclaimed; and in the greatest gift - His Real and True Presence in the Eucharist we are about to receive.

But, this feast also begs another question of each of us - what will we give to Jesus this year?  One of my favorite adult Christmas experiences happened the first year I entered religious life as a Franciscan. We were each given a ministry - some of the guys worked at a local hospital making visits to the sick, some at an Asian immigrant center, others at a food pantry. I was assigned to a homeless shelter for young women and their children. These women were obviously in difficult situations, often situations of domestic violence and found themselves on the streets. I was curious if they would be receiving anything for Christmas that year, and of course, the staff assured me they would. But, all of their presents would be practical. They would receive clothing, food, blankets and the like. All of course, good and necessary presents. But, I couldn't help but think that they should really receive something fun or personal or just for them.

When I went home for Thanksgiving that year, once the meal was done, I took up a collection among my family members (they were thrilled!). With that money, I had the chance to buy each mother something just for herself and each child a toy. Nothing compares with the smiles on their faces as they opened something joyful and just for them on Christmas morning.  For me, those were presents that truly revealed the face of Christ to me. It was a moment of epiphany; of the revelation of God's presence in our midst.

And so, what will we give to Jesus this year – you and me? It doesn't have to be dramatic, it can be very simple. It can be in the extra time we pledge for prayer each day. It can be in the simple ways we make an effort to be more joyful and patient to those around us. It can be by donating some of our money, or better, some of our time, to reach out to those in need in our midst. It can be simply in any way that helps us reveal Christ more profoundly in our world. And so, what will you give?

St. Augustine famously said of the Eucharist, “We become what we receive.”  In others words, we receive the Body of Christ in the Eucharist so that we may become the Body of Christ – the Real Presence of Jesus in our world; an epiphany; a real manifestation of God in the world and among the people around us.
How will you become the presence of Christ to those you meet?  What will you give to Jesus this year? Let us all not merely celebrate epiphany this year; let us become epiphany in our world.


Merry Christmas and may God give you peace!

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