Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Perceiving the Essential

It seems that many people take umbrage with the phrase, "Happy Holidays." (You may take umbrage with me posting about Christmas after Christmas, but 'Tis the Season until the 12th day, so deal with it.) I don't know if that many people are really offended, or if a handful of offendees are magnified for the sake of The Narrative, but in any case it strikes me as silly.

Protestantism isolates Christmas, and the secular world expands it into a month-long avarice and gluttony fueled spendfest, but in reality there are many Holidays (Holy Days) celebrated in this season alongside Christmas. With Saint Nicholas, the Immaculate Conception (Patroness of the U.S.A.), Our Lady of Guadalupe (Patroness of the Americas), Gaudete Sunday, the Holy Innocents, the Holy Family, Mary Mother of God (Patroness of the Universal Church), we really should not take offense at the phrase "Happy Holidays," but rather be reminded of the vast array of Holidays and Holy Days to celebrate.

Which brings me to one of my favorite Holy Days: Epiphany. It's not just that I get to pedantically remind you that it is actually on January 6th and not the closest Sunday (though that is in fact true, and irksome). It's not just that I get to complain that the U.S. Bishops by and large seem to think that American Catholics are wimps who can't handle another Holy Day of Obligation (which I do). While I am in fact pointing these things out by virtue of posting on the 6th and not the 3rd, neither are anywhere near the point.

Epiphany. A "piphy"-what? A sublime vision. All the jagged parts of my life have come together to form a complete and mystical... whole. (I could give you the dictionary definition, but quotes from 25 year old movies are much more entertaining!)

The Feast of Epiphany is one that is often sublimated into Christmas, which for popular celebration is just fine and dandy, but Holy Mother Church in her wisdom has decreed that the contemplation of these travelers and their gifts deserve their own particular recollection. Why is that?

Let us take a moment to just look at the Wise Men, or Magi. Much is supposed about them, but little is known. It is clear that they are learned, probably astrologers, but it is less clear where they are from, and why they should care about a Jewish King. Perhaps they are Persians, schooled in the tradition of the Prophet Daniel? Perhaps from some other near-eastern kingdom, who came across the Torah from Jews in the diaspora? I would presume as Father did on Sunday that they were pagans, seeing in the stars the hands of the gods, not necessarily the One True God.

This is the first insight I take from this feast - God is immanent. He "presses" on His creation, never more-so than in the Incarnation. The wise men experience not simply "epiphany" - a perception of the essential reality of something. They are experiencing "theophany," the revelation of God Himself. These magi, these wise men, these foreign (pagan?) travelers, through their study of the natural world - that is of God's creation - come to an encounter with the God of the Universe.

In the perversion of Christmas that is our aforementioned avarice and gluttony fueled bank holiday, does it not behoove us to stop a minute to actually look at the real world? See the stars, and know that they were formed by His hand. Stand a minute as the snow falls and the whole world seems to sleep, yet to be poised in anticipation of the coming Spring?

But what else can we learn from these men? We already know that the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in the manger is the King of the Universe. Can we still learn something from them? And what's with the gifts?

The hymn We Three Kings has become one of my favorite, but only when sung in completion. A great failing of many musical presentations is their lack of completeness. Caroling or on the radio, we may only hear one or two verses, at Mass we might be lucky to hear a third. The prolific publishing company OCP - who is responsible for the majority of missalettes and music books such as the Breaking Bread yearly hymnal - only prints 3 of the 4 verses to Joy to the World, omitting the third verse, "Far as the curse is found..."

Now, there may be very good reasons to omit or update verses, but at least once every season I encourage you to listen or read through all the verses of the classic hymns: they are classics for a reason. We Three Kings is a great gem because it unpacks the seemingly incoherent (and wildly inappropriate for a small child) gifts of Gold, Frankincense, and Myrrh.

In case you're not intimately familiar with the whole song, you can find the lyrics here. Each of the gifts mentioned in chapter 2 verse 11 of Matthew's narrative has a deeper meaning. The 5th verse sums up with "King, and God, and Sacrifice," and indeed Gold announces Christ's Sovereignty, Frankincense His Divinity, and Myrrh foretells His death ("Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying, sealed in the stone cold tomb.")

That is, I was nowhere near originality in my post on The Scandal of Christmas. Some of the best Advent and Christmas hymns point us directly to the Cross. It is an unavoidable truth that Jesus came to die. Knowing that the World would not receive Him, knowing that His beloved children would turn on him, deny His sovereignty, call His claim to divinity blasphemous, and ultimately scourge Him, crown Him with thorns, and crucify Him.

Knowing all this, The Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and reveled Himself not just to Mary, and to Joseph, not just to the outcast of Israel in the persons of the shepherds, but even to pagans and intellectuals such as the wise men, who could see what the chief priests and Pharisees could not - the King of the Universe, God Himself, the Lamb Who was Slain.

The Feast of Epiphany forces us to ask ourselves what we're not seeing. Where are we missing the signs of God's presence in our lives? In who are we failing to see the Imago Dei?

To what Epiphany is the Holy Spirit calling me this year?

May the splendor of your majesty,
O Lord, we pray,
shed its light upon our hearts,
that we may pass through the shadows of this world
and reach the brightness of our eternal home.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever.

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