Msgr. Joseph A. Pellegrino
Solemnity of the Epiphany of the Lord: All Are Welcome
This Sunday we celebrate the Solemnity of the Epiphany. This is one of the oldest feasts in the Church Calendar. Most probably, the Church celebrated the Epiphany even before it celebrated the Nativity, Christmas. There are really three epiphanies recognized by the Church: the manifestation of the Lord to the magi, the baptism of the Lord by John the Baptist, and the first public miracle in the Gospel of John, the changing of water into wine. The Eastern Catholic Churches and the Orthodox Churches celebrate all three Epiphanies together. The Western Catholic Church, the Roman Catholic Church, divides up these celebrations.
Our focus today is on the magi. Who were these men, sometimes called kings? We don’t know a whole lot about them. The main thing we know is that they were not Jewish. And this is significant. A few days after the birth of the Lord, gentiles, pagans, were summoned to follow a star to Israel where the One the ages waited for was born. They followed the star because they were good men honestly seeking God’s will.
It must have been quite a sight when they arrived in Israel. They were foreigners, but not just any foreigners. They held positions powerful enough for them to merit an audience with Herod. Herod was troubled by their visit, and with him all of Jerusalem. Who were these men, and what did they want from the king? They asked to give homage to the newborn king of the Jews. Was there a baby out there somewhere who would replace Herod? The chief priests and scribes could only tell Herod about an ancient prophecy that a ruler would come from Bethlehem. If these three magi, in their own time considered kings, could create such a stir in Jerusalem, imagine what it had to be like when they arrived in Bethlehem and went to the place, a house by now, where Mary, Joseph and Jesus were staying. Even more amazing, these rich pagans prostrated themselves before the child and gave him gifts: gold, frankincense and myrrh.
Why would rich pagans be interested in the Jewish Messiah? That the gentiles could be part of God’s plan for His people was beyond the consideration of the Jews. But the mystery, hidden for generations was now revealed: the gentiles were to be co-heirs with the Jews, members of the same body, co-partners in the promise of Jesus Christ, as Paul proclaims in today’s second reading from Ephesians.
Jesus Christ came for all people. None were to be excluded from the Grace of God that He would bring.
We, Catholics, people whose very name means universal, must be careful that we recognize that all people are called to the Grace of God given by Jesus Christ. It is so easy for us to exclude people. In fact, we have been trained by our society to compartmentalize people into various groups. We are told that Jews behave this way, Italians that way, the Irish another way, and the French don’t behave at all. We can easily decide who belongs worshiping the Lord and who really shouldn’t be there. We decide that whole groups of people, for example gay people, must be immoral and shouldn’t enjoy the gifts of the Church. When asked about gays, Pope Francis said, “Who am I to judge?” He was making the humble statement that it was not up to him to say that a person was immoral just because he was gay. There are many moral gay people and many immoral people who are not gay. We don’t have the right to exclude people from worshiping the One who is Gift of Bethlehem.
In a similar way, we don’t have the right to exclude people from receiving the charity of the Church. There are some who feel that Catholic Relief Services and the Catholic Campaign for Human Development should not be supporting organizations that care for needy people unless these organizations adhere to Church teachings on morality. So they would object to CRS helping an organization that wishes to build an eye clinic for children in Africa because that same organization might not follow Catholic moral teaching in another clinics it may run there or in other parts of the world. Similar objections are often raised regarding the poor people supported by CCHD. Better Than Thou Catholics would rather deny children, the poor, and the infirm the help they need then recognize the good that is being done by those who don’t follow the totality of Catholic teaching throughout the world. I am sure they don’t mean it, but in fact some Catholics are saying that the magi had no business receiving the Grace of God, because, after all, they were probably pagans.
We cannot bring people the Good News of Jesus Christ if we exclude them from the charity of the Lord with which we have been entrusted. Jesus did not come for a select group of people. He came for all people. This is a truth of the Church and a great mystery to those who see themselves as the sole benefactors of God’s Grace.
We come to Church on Sunday to celebrate Mass. That word Mass means Sending. We come to Church to receive the gifts of God and are sent to bring these gifts to all of the people of the world. We are sent to bring the good news of the joy of the Gospel to those who have been marginalized by society. We are sent to heal those who are hurting, whether they believe in Christ or not. We are sent to aid those who are caring for the needy, whether they follow the totality of Catholic morality or not. People who are excluded will never find Christ. People who experience his presence in the charity of other Christians, will be attracted to worship the One who is the source of charity. Pope Francis reaffirmed that no one has ever been converted by an argument. People are converted by the presence of Christ they experience in sincere Christians.
What are those magi doing bringing gifts to the King of the Jews? What are those gays doing seeking a Church that welcomes them into the Presence of God? What are those non Catholic organizations doing caring for the needy? They are all doing exactly what they should be doing: worshiping the One who came for all people.
We often begin our Masses by singing, “All are welcome.” Do we mean this? Or are there some who are not as welcome as others, be that here at Mass or outside our doors looking to care for others? This Sunday, on the Solemnity of the Epiphany, we ask the Lord to free us from our prejudices. We ask Jesus to allow us to be what we call ourselves, Catholics, people of a universal Church.