[HOMILY] The Epiphany: Is the Church Still Relevant?
It is the feast of The Epiphany, arrival of the wise men, the Magi. More than that, it’s that moment when the covenant is expanded, the day when it is manifest in all its glory to the Gentiles. The new covenant Jesus brings is foreshadowed by the Magi from the east arriving at the Bethlehem cave. The Old Covenant was tied up in one people, the chosen people, sons and daughters of Abraham. The New Covenant in Christ belongs to no particular culture, though it has transformed many. Just look where the Church is today- you will find us in South America, Africa, and Asia. There are more Catholics in the southern hemisphere than the northern. We sent missionaries to Africa and now, a century later they send them back to us- it’s the way of the Church for those who have much to give to those who have little.
When I was home in Billings a few years ago, a priest took me out to breakfast after a hospital mass. He began asking me about the seminarian situation in our diocese and I was giving him the hard numbers, not only in Helena Diocese but the east, as well as across most the country. I must have seemed somewhat self-pitying because he cut me off and said, “Kirby, there is no shortage of priestly vocations in the Church.” He went on to tell me his diocese in Nigeria receives 200 applications a year, and can only accept 50 men. They can only ordain 20 men per year, so they kick many out simply because they do not meet the academic standards. That was a humbling lesson, we in the west are only part of the Church- and in our time, a relatively small part.
Today we contemplate the glory of the whole Church, this massive edifice- of which this decently massive edifice of St. Ann’s is just a tiny part. We can say so many beautiful things about the Church, that it transcends culture as I mentioned already- some may think western Europe somehow owns the Church. Indeed, the Holy Father is in Rome- but he is from Argentina. And Rome is not the only Church founded by an apostle, the Churches of Alexandria and Ephesus were also apostlic, and Jerusalem- where it all started, you could say- is no western city. So, the Church is universal, magnificent in its diversity.
It is Ancient and wise- I hope you make it to Rome to see the Vatican Museum and library, just to glimpse the tremendous breadth of what the universal Church has taken in and what it has given back to the world.
I could go on to list many of those magnificent things, but so can Wikipedia, and it can give you pictures to go with it, so I leave it up to you to do a search. Anyways, I don’t think it would be terribly useful because if you ask a random person on the streets today to give you a few adjectives to describe the Church, they would probably say something like: Out-of-date, rigid, beauracratic, rich, chauvinist, a source of scandal. This list comes to me not only from my pagan friends but from so many Catholics, and especially from fervent protestants for whom I have much respect. Because of this, I think it’s worth asking: Why do we need the Church? Why can’t we just have Jesus? All these laws and rubrics ruling the way we operate, could we not adopt the simple worship of the Non-denominational church: sing, read the word, listen to the pastor’s message, and pray.
Well, let’s look to the scriptures because I think we begin to see an answer. St. Paul in his letter to the Ephesians tells them:
“the mystery was made known to me by revelation. It was not made known to other generations as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the spirit…”
The Magi came because God was revealing something entirely new, God was speaking in a definitive way. Christ is that definitive voice, between his gospel and the end of the world there will be nothing new. St. John of the Cross says it very succinctly:
“Anyone who wishes to question God or to seek some new vision or revelation, desiring something more than Christ, beyond him, to him God could then answer… “in my Word I have said everything.”
So, God spoke his definitive word by coming among us himself, both in his words and in his death on the cross he gave us the definitive revelation. Yet, that was 2000 years ago. How are we to know that these scriptures we read, the communion we celebrate — are we actually taking part in that same revelation?
When we look at the past 2000 years, the chaos, wars, corruption, and instability, not to mention the shifts in language and culture, how can we even know we have this revelation St. Paul speaks of? Well, because of the Church. Jesus sent us out to the ends of the earth to baptize, to make disciples of all nations. Yet he did not leave us without the Holy Spirit to guide us. He founded the Church upon Peter and the apostles and he promised the gates of hell would not prevail against it. When the apostles went out to found local Churches and ordained men to lead those Churches, did they know that 2000 years later we would still be doing the same thing? They surely didn’t, and we have no clue what the Church will look like in another 2000 years- or if there will be another two millennia before the end of time.
But we can know that Christ will never abandon the Church, he will not leave us to grapple for him in the darkness, rather we can trust that the Church gives us the fullness of the truth. Yet here we have one final question, or set of questions. Questions that could only arise from a culture of skeptics and relativists like our own: we talk of the “fullness of the truth,” is this truth the Church proposes still relevant? Are we answering a question that nobody is asking? As someone with a short teaching tenure, I know for sure there was nothing my students hated more than the answer to a question they didn’t ask (and as a Latin teacher, unfortunately that happened too often).
Does it so happen that the Church belonged to a prescientific world, that Jesus Christ and his gospel just doesn’t strike the human heart as it used to? If you step foot into St. Peter’s basilica in Rome at noon, then wander over to the Roman Forum later that day, the mood of the crowd would seem the same- a crowd gazing upon a thing of the past, a thing that is no longer living.
Yet if it appears that way, brothers and sisters, we are to blame. If the gospel doesn’t stir the hearts of those in the world, if it seems to be a dead thing, it is because the world looks to Christians and sees… nothing in particular – nothing that sets us apart from the rest of the world. Let me ask you this, and it isn’t a rhetorical question, it’s a real question (though I don’t want you to answer out loud): what in your life is different because you’re a Catholic? Think about your non-Catholic friends, what sets you apart from them (other than Sunday Mass)? Do they even know you’re a Catholic?
If someone walked up to you on the street and asked, “why are you a Catholic?” or more generally “why are you a Christian?” What would your answer be? If you don’t have an answer right now, you have some serious soul searching to do. Now, I’m not trying to embarrass anyone, but this is the Christian life! When St. Paul heard the revelation of God, everything in his life changed. When the Magi saw Jesus in the crib, the gospel tells us “they returned by another way.” They were changed.
We cannot hear the Gospel- really hear it- and not be moved by it.
Why does the Church exist? To give the whole world the Gospel, that revelation which changes everything. As we finish the Christmas season and enter into the new calendar year, let Jesus confront you with his revelation as though it were the first time- perhaps it is the first time!
If I seem a little overbearing today, it’s because I spent the past five days on a silent retreat. I’ll tell you- I came out of there with a lot of energy! And that’s because the Christian life is real; I just got to spend 4 hours each day sitting in conversation with the God of the universe. As Christians, how can we not want to tell the whole world that is possible?
I will leave you with that simple question from before: Why are you a Christian? What’s your story? Don’t settle for pithy answer. Dig deep, brothers and sisters, because the answer to that question can- and should- change everything. Amen.