The first theme that comes to light in today’s Gospel and the 1st reading from the Book of Nehemiah is that both settings for each story takes place in an assembly. There’s a crowd of people – men, women, and children old enough to understand in the Old Testament reading – listening to Ezra the priest proclaim the statutes of the law Moses carried down from God’s holy mountain. And, there’s a crowd in the synagogue listening and looking intently at Jesus the High priest as he proclaims and preaches from the Prophet Isaiah his divine purpose for being born. Both crowds like what they hear. So far. The assembly of Israelites gathered before Ezra as he reads from the book of the law from daybreak until midday. That’s a long time to listen to someone. They like what they hear being read, nod their assent in agreement, shout out some “Amen’s,” being roused up like a Super Bowl crowd; this assembly will eventually move forward to deny the Lord their God. They will take up ways of living that are foreign to the law of Moses, such as stealing from one of their own, cheating one of their own, or the children old enough to understand will not honor their father and mother because in the blink of an eye they are now teenagers, or, unlike Job who had every reason to, they will curse God, taking his name in vein. As an assembly. As a people. And then there’s the synagogue assembly, probably packed to overflowing because the native Son Jesus has returned after performing some miracles down the road. Nothing fills up an assembly quicker than the presence of a miracle worker. This same assembly so in love with one of their own will reverse the course of their collective mood of admiration in a short moment and push their native Son to the brow of a hill to hurl him over headlong, treating him as an enemy. As an assembly. As a people. As an entire town. This Gospel is why I pray the Bishop never assigns me to my home Parish of St. Bernard’s across the tracks from here, unless he wants me crucified, which I don’t believe he does. Assemblies are a funny animal. They can go either way – love you or hate you – or both in just a moment’s time. The Gospel and the 1st reading today address the main concern of St. Paul to the Christian community at Corinth; that of being one body in Christ. But not just a body of one in mind and heart, but one body that genuinely loves one another, cares for one another, grounded in the determination that the law of God, being the law of love is what keeps an assembly together in Christ. I’ll be very honest with you, which is nothing new. Nothing breaks the heart of my priesthood when members of the Church assembly tear each other apart, shoot each other down, judge one another in harsh terms, and turn their back on mercy and forgiveness. That’s the number one heartbreaker for my priesthood. It isn’t death, for God will care for his own who come before Him. It isn’t even sickness or disease, as awful as that is. We will all have our cross to carry, or more than one, assisting those who carry the heavier ones. It’s more the sniping between so-called brothers and sisters in the Lord, the dart-throwing, the glares, the looks that if only they could kill, the entire assembly would drop dead. I can’t wait to find out in heaven one day what I suspect is true from this Gospel; that when the synagogue assembly rejoiced in Jesus one moment, and then chased him to the edge of a hill the next moment, that after he walked safely through their gauntlet, that the assembly went back to Nazareth, that sleepy little village, and began sniping and biting each other. Because that’s how it works. In a religious assembly, in the office, in the classroom, wherever the crowds gather. Eventually, a crowd that loses the virtue of love will perform collective actions of hatred toward one another, and at God too. In the beginning of Luke’s Gospel, he tells Theophilus that he -Luke – writes down everything in orderly sequence so that Theophilus may realize the certainty of the teachings he has received. The 4 Gospel writers leave no doubt as to who Christ is, and to his preeminent teaching of love. Doubt is the tool of the Devil, as is confusion. And in case you haven’t noticed, our culture and our world is a bit confused in the present, especially in the area of morality and sexual behavior. The Devil has his fingerprints all over the name-calling, the baiting, the biting, and all over the strong anger controlling so many hearts in both large and smaller groups. How about ½ a million fans suing to replay a football game because one referee missed a call he should have made? That’s a lot of anger because of a football game. That’s not who we are. That’s not who Christ calls us to be. Jesus leads us into the synagogue, not because of his miraculous power that I pray all of you will be deeply touched by in whatever way is most important to you at this moment. Jesus leads us into this synagogue as many parts of one body; as hands, as feet, as ears, as teachers, as prophets, as apostles, as ones who perform mighty deeds, to go out into the world and transform it according to the law of love. Not according to our personal interpretation of what we think love is. That will lead to biting, fighting, and confusion, knowing who is at the center of it. But go out with God’s law of love that we learn and embrace in the holy teachings of our Catholic faith, received from the Apostles of the Lord. It begins here as one body in Christ. Kindness, compassion, being respectful to one another. Politics and the Devil – which can be one and the same- do not stamp a Christian assembly. Christ does, the One who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life.
The family dynamics in today’s Gospel are quite apparent. If there ever was a Gospel story on any given Sunday, or any weekday for that matter, that reveals the popular thought that men are from Mars and women are from Venus, this is number one on that list. The Wedding at Cana. The wine is running low, because the couple invited a bunch of guests who took their wine consumption very seriously. Free wine for everyone! “We can’t wait for that wedding in Cana, but we really can’t wait to indulge in the free wine,” is what the wedding attendants thought. “This is going to be a fun three days.” Except the pace of consuming the obviously delicious wine was that of a NASCAR Race. They hit the 200 MPH mark in their imbibing early in the wedding celebration, and ran out of gas – aka wine – earlier than expected. They needed more gas (wine) to finish this drinking race, but the contents were all consumed. (Are we sure the Wedding at Cana didn’t take place at a pub in Ireland?) Fortunately, the family invited to the wedding Venus, also known as Mary, the mother of Jesus. As mothers do, they become very concerned when some part of an important event is about to collapse, such as no wine for the world’s best wine-drinkers. A horror to someone like Mary, whose love and concern for all things good and proper is apparent. So, Venus turns to Mars, also known as Jesus, because she knows in her heart that he is, as she heard years ago, the cause for the rise and fall of many in Israel, which includes Cana. Mary does not want this Hebrew wedding to fall before it gets off the ground. So Venus says to Mars, “They have no wine.” Jesus gives the perfect Mars response; “Woman, how does that affect me? My hour has not yet come.” It seems like Jesus is saying – although this is really not what he’s saying, “How can those wedding people be so dumb and let the wine run out so soon?” What he’s really saying to his mother is, “The time for my great purpose – crucifixion – has not yet arrived. But since we have a lesser purpose before us here in Cana, let’s take care of it.” So, Mary, aka Venus, gives the attendants, and in fact the entire human race, her own commandment, “Do whatever he tells you.” Rightfully, we center our faith on the commandments of Christ. The right, healthy, and moral living; the Godly values; the personal respect and how to address any wine running low in our lives, brands of wine such as mercy; compassion; caring for the poor, the sick, and the elderly; loving neighbor and enemy, and so many other brands of wine commandments that Jesus teaches us. We rightfully center our lives on his shelf of various wines that bring peace, confidence in his way, and hope that no one else can offer for our good consuming. Even the brand of wine known as a Cross at times. However, this one commandment – this particular brand of wine – that Mary creates through the grace of her Son, is so necessary for our spiritual well-being. In her Venus role, her motherly, caring, wanting all things to be right and happy role, she speaks a “commandment of reminder” for the good of our faith journey; “Do whatever he tells you.” She’s not the voice of the Master Teacher. But she is the voice of one who knows him best, and better than we ever will. Venus has spoken, and Mars is going to do something about it. Jesus does not laugh off Mary’s intercession. He does not lack concern for the imbibing situation developing in his presence. He does not say, “Take care of it yourself.” He does not leave them in a position of asking, “What do we do next?” He takes control. But his control is not the typical macho man form of Mars; his “control,” if you will, is centered in love. This is where his form of being Mars is so radically different from guys like Herod and Pilate, like the Chief Priests and Pharisees, the crazy ones who use power to destroy others, or those who are so consumed with power, they will protect it to the point of crucifying an innocent man, when his hour does arrive. They make the lives of other people miserable. They set themselves up as false gods in the presence of the one true God. The brand of wine that Christ delivers is a brand that solves problems; a brand that walks with us with understanding and empathy; a brand that draws close to us in the way he drew close to the 2 disciples on the Road to Emmaus after his resurrection. His wine not only fixes the potential collapse of a marital relationship that he should be the center of, but his brand of wine addresses the greatest threat of all, original sin. His brand of wine is called justification, meaning we are now capable, through his hour and his power, to love him and neighbor. Herod and Pilate care nothing about this brand of wine. When they drink this sort of wine, they spit it back out. They hate the taste of it, as do all the Herod’s and Pilate’s in power today in our own country and throughout the world. We worship Christ because he gives us the good wine to drink. The best tasting wine for the human person, for the family, for our culture, for peace in our world, and for eternal life. Any wine you encounter that is outside of Christ, reject it! Listen to Venus; listen to Mary; “Do whatever he tells you.” He’s the only wine we need, aside of the Voice of Mary reminding us of who we listen to.
As opposed to Good Friday, a curious name considering the events and circumstances, a day when God wept watching his beloved Son dying so painfully and brutally, today’s reaction is the polar opposite; “You are my beloved Son, with you I am well pleased.” So many times we hear so many folks stressing God’s anger, righteous anger where anger is present, for God is always in the right. We’re rightfully concerned about judgment, a part of our faith never to be taken lightly, asking at times, “How can a merciful, loving God send anyone to Hades? Or Hell?” The answer, of course, is that people can choose it. God makes the righteous judgment according to our free will. But, as the Church teaches with great wisdom, we’ve never declared any soul to be in hell (some of us may have made that decision about someone, but not the Church), which is different from saying that no souls are in hell. The truth is we don’t know. What we do know we declare; the joyful declaration that makes God pleased with a big smile, the Communion of Saints. The Saints in light, as St. Paul names them. The Baptism of Jesus in the Jordan by John is a day that draws our full attention to God who is pleased. What is it with Jesus’ Baptism by the Baptist that moves God to speak from heaven, speaking words that make clear that the Creator of the stars is filled with infinite joy? What does Jesus do here that causes the 1st Person of the Trinity to notice with pleasure what the 2nd Person of the Trinity is doing? The first answer to these inquiring questions is Jesus proclaiming himself, on the banks of the Jordan, to be a humble servant. Most parents know that title well, being humble servants to their children, while trying to remain in charge until the teenage years roll around. When we consider who Jesus is, and then consider further that he allowed John the Baptist to baptize him, it’s pretty startling that it all went down the way it did. John says elsewhere, “You should be baptizing me.” That’s correct, John. John understood who was before him. He never forgot that joyful leap in his mother’s womb when the two pregnant mothers came together. And here we are, 30 years later, and instead of John’s legs leaping for joy, now his voice is leaping for joy; “I am not worthy to loosen the thongs of his sandals.” How good life is for us when we make the same daily choice to allow our voices to leap for joy in Christ. The servitude of Jesus, being a servant for his Father first, a servant who is obedient to all that God seeks from him, is at the heart of Jesus’ baptism. In our Catholic faith, we teach this very principle in the context of Christian marriage. One spouse is not meant to be the slave of the other spouse. Christian marriage is mutual servitude. Sorry if I ruined the day for some of you men, and a few of you women. God shows no partiality, except when the Patriots win today. Christ is humble servant in his Baptism. A Christian who is a humble servant accomplishes more good for God than an arrogant person who thinks the world should wait on them. A second truth that emerges from Jesus’ Baptism is one of power. How many of us who were baptized as infants would love to be at the center of an earth-shattering experience of God’s power overpowering us? That thought scares many people. What would it result in? How would such divine power change us? Would I be changed on the level of a St. Paul, who went from persecutor to preacher? Would you be a different person? No. We would be the same person, but in different ways. Ways that served the will of God, wiping out all selfish desires, and using the power of love God has naturally planted in our hearts. That earth-shattering moment is going to happen to us in the resurrection of our bodies. But how about before we die from this world? The Baptism of Jesus results in the Spirit descending upon the Lord in the form of a dove. The Spirit is power. Power for all that is good in God’s eyes. We know that Christ is fully human and fully divine, but the Baptism and what follows, by all appearances, thrusts upon Jesus even more Godly power. It’s from this point in his life that we begin to read about the mega-healings, raising people from the dead (“Hold on Lazarus, I’m coming!”), calling out demons, alongside the greatest power of God found at the heart of Baptism, the forgiveness of sins. We are in need of continually reminding ourselves that our Baptism in our younger years was a moment of great power. And, for many of us, that Christian power has been elevated in the reception of Confirmation… The fire and the dove descending upon us through the office of Bishop. May we gently remind ourselves, especially in trying moments, that the power received at Baptism has not been done away with. Such power received does not grow old. It has not died or been traded to another team. May we, like Christ, use the power that flows from our Baptism and Confirmation well, being humble servants. So that we too may grab the Father’s attention with his words, “You are my beloved son and daughter; with you I am well pleased.”
After they departed from their country by another way, Herod came to find out about it, realized he was deceived by Three Wise Guys, went crazy, tried to have the child killed, instead the murderous deed was upon the other children in Bethlehem, and thought he was successful. He wasn’t. So much for doing homage to the newborn King. The Epiphany is far less about the crazy, out of your mind antics of Herod, and far more about Magi who travel through the desert with eagerness and love in their hearts. This is who we are as Christians who come here each week to do him homage, after traveling wherever this past week, and preparing to travel an upcoming week through the desert of this world, arriving here and leaving from here with hope and desire, I pray, as we do homage to Christ the Lord in word and Sacrament. The comparison couldn’t be more stark between Herod and the Magi, a starkness that deeply touches the entirety of our lives in personal ways. Herod is the image of concupiscence, that bad word that recognizes our potential to lose it, our potential to sin even after receiving the grace of Baptism and Confirmation. Whereas the flip side, the Magi are the image of carrying within our hearts the anticipation and deep joy of seeing Christ, here in word and Sacrament, experiencing his presence through the Spirit’s power. And then, as the Magi do, seeing Christ face-to-face at the end of our years. Today’s Gospel of the Epiphany of the Lord is so rich in symbolism, both for the good of our lives and the not so good. The Magi are the forerunners for all of us gathered here. They’re the exceptional example for all of us of Gentile stock who come to give thanks to God for opening up the way of salvation for this side group of people, not part of the original chosen people, a branch that has been grafted onto the tree of life, who can now travel the distance of our lives, and enter, at our final destination, the holy presence of him who is Christ. The Three Wise Men who covered the expanse of the desert with their food and water, under extreme conditions, conditions that mirror the major difficulties of our own lives, they set the pace and opened the door for us to go to a place that we Gentiles had never gone before. We all have much to be thankful for in our lives as we begin this New Year, but today we stop and take a moment to thank Balthasar, Melchior, and Gaspar for leading us to the greatest place on earth; before him who is Lord. The Magi are much like Jackie Robinson, the first African-American baseball player in the major leagues, breaking the color barrier in that sport. He opened a door where thousands of others have followed. But he was the one brave enough to enter the desert, cross the desert during some very strong storms, and stay on the other side of the desert to break the color barrier in a major American sport. And his number “42” now hangs in every major league ballpark. The Magi broke the barrier of who now stands before God justified by our faith. They took some of Abraham’s spirit of faith, crossed the desert with it, and brought it before the real King. How can we not thank them? They set the pace, opened the door, and made possible through the favor of God the reality of spending eternal life with family and friends, and loving and doing good to each other in this desert crossing right now. As the Magi covered the expanse of the desert back then, how many times did they need to help out each other? How many times, in the name of friendship, did they pick up each other? How many small acts of love did they perform toward each other as they dealt with all the travails of a desert crossing on both a personal and communal level? By the time they arrived before Jesus and did him homage, their hearts were prepared for that holy encounter by way of caring for each other during the difficulties of a certain desert crossing. It was the treacherous times and coming together to care for each other during trying moments that fully prepared them to come face-to-face with Jesus. All the previous actions of love is what allowed them to recognize Him in the stable. That’s our fundamental calling as Christians who live our faith, and not keep it in a locked box, or strictly personal, as we like to say today. Before we come to see our Lord face-to-face, we prepare ourselves for that encounter that will surely happen – whether anyone believes it or not does not do away with the definite encounter – by way of continuous acts of love and concern for our brothers and sisters in the Lord, and those outside the Lord. The other choice is to be Herod, the evil choice, making it no choice for us. The Magi are the forerunners for us Gentiles to be able to offer acceptable homage to Jesus Christ. If that door was not opened for us, we’d be living in a world of squalor and concupiscence. The Magi opened for us the door of holiness, right worship of God and not inanimate things. They present to us the gift of understanding why love is the virtue to drive our lives, for it cancels a multitude of sins, and that love is the door that leads us to seeing our Lord face-to-face. Thank you, guys. You and Jackie Robinson did a great job. Pray for us that we continue to follow in your footsteps, leaving Herod behind, and coming before Jesus in true worship and grace.