My dear brothers and sisters in the Lord,
There are many songs regarding the 12 days of Christmas. The 12th day, January 6, was traditionally on the Catholic calendar the Feast of the Epiphany. Today, at least for the Latin Rite of the Church, the feast is transferred to the nearest Sunday. This is an especially important feast for those in the Eastern Churches, because their principal Christmas celebration takes place on the Epiphany, whose theme is the manifestation of the Christ Child to the world.
Of course, the first manifestation of Christ was to poor shepherds, the lowliest members of society at the time. These nomadic herdsmen heard the voices of angels that led them to the infant Jesus. Sometime later, as we learn from the Gospel of Matthew, the Magi or “Wise Men” from the East followed a star in search of the Child.
First, they went to King Herod to seek information about the newborn Messiah of the Jews. After leaving Herod, they were guided by the star to Bethlehem, where they found the Child and His Mother and presented Him with the gifts of Gold, Frankincense, and Myrrh, frankincense because Christ was the long-awaited messiah-king of Israel. Myrrh, which was used to embalm bodies in the ancient world, to remind the Holy Family of the suffering the Child would one day undergo. And finally, gold; the precious gift that would allow Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, all under the protection of divine Providence, to escape persecution by migrating to Egypt and then subsequently to return to Nazareth.
The Feast of Epiphany is most important because it expresses the universality of God’s salvation as Christ is manifested for the very first time to the nations, represented by the Magi. In the past, some preachers appealed to the ancient teaching “No salvation outside the Church” to mean that a person had to be a baptized Catholic and a believer in Christ in order to go heaven. While it is true that all salvation comes from Jesus Christ the Head through the Church His body, we Catholics recognize that unbaptized persons can also have a share in eternal life. The Fathers of the Second Vatican Council made clear the conditions by which those outside the visible community of faith can attain salvation: they “sincerely seek God and moved by grace strive by their deeds to do His will as it is known to them through the dictates of conscience.”
As Saint Paul says to his protégé Timothy, “God wills everyone to be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth.” (1 Tim 2:4) Jesus came into the world for all. He died for all. He invites all to know Him and love Him as the Truth which sets us free from sin and death. The encounter between the Magi and the Christ Child dramatizes this very point: the Messiah of Israel has come to gather to Himself all peoples, of all times, and of all racial, ethnic, and cultural backgrounds.
Last year, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a Pastoral Letter on racism entitled, “Open Wide Our Hearts: The Enduring Call to Love.” Racism is a false world view that contradicts our Christian belief in the universality of God’s love and concern for the dignity of every human person. It is a denial of our bonds as brothers and sisters within the one human family called to share life with God. As we reflect on the Gospel story for Epiphany, we cannot help but be struck by the inclusivity of its message. The Magi represent “the other,” that is, those of different races and ethnicities who are outside the Jewish people within whom our Lord was born. How appropriate it is that our nativity scenes typically have one or two dark-skinned Wise Men as a way of showing that from the beginning, Christ belongs to the whole world and to all its races and nations.
Unfortunately, in our own day, we see racism again rearing its ugly head. It has been said, and I myself have said it many times, that racism is the “original sin” of America. That is because this great evil goes back to the horrendous mistreatment of the Native Americans when some first settlers arrived in the New World. It is also traceable to the abominable ways in which Africans were brought to North America and South America and then enslaved on the two continents for almost three centuries.
Discrimination against whole classes of human beings is not, however, limited to the problem of racism. It also includes prejudice against nationalities and ethnic communities. Immigrants to the United States have so often borne the brunt of a type of discrimination called Xenophobia, which means fear of strangers. At the beginning of the 20th century, this form of societal prejudice in the U.S. was focused on Southern and Eastern Europeans. Today, Latin Americans and Asians often bear the stigma of anti-immigrant hatred and prejudice. Tragically, in recent weeks we have seen attacks on the Jewish community here in New York and elsewhere. Not far from where I ministered as a young priest for fifteen years in Jersey City, a Jewish market became the scene of terror that left six people dead.
Why are Jews singled out for such abhorrent violence and hatred? The roots of anti-Semitism are indeed complex and sometimes overlap with anti-Jewish sentiments found among Christians and their pastors of previous eras. But today, anti-Semitism is simply incompatible with a Catholic or Christian stance. As Pope Pius XI said in the face of the rising tide of Nazism in the 1930s, “We are all spiritually Semites.” The famous paragraph four of Vatican II’s Nostra Aetate decried “hatred, persecutions, displays of anti-Semitism, directed against Jews at any time and by anyone.” And Pope John Paul II expressed his abiding esteem for the Jewish people by referring to them as “our elder brothers of the Ancient Covenant never broken.”
It is a never-ending task of clergy and catechists to teach our young the true catholicity that embraces all people, regardless of race, religion, and ethnic background, and that also honors their traditions. Along with our parish directors of faith formation, our Catholic academy and school principals have a particularly important role in fostering among children and youth a deep appreciation for the rich diversity that exists within our Church and city. I am pleased to know that the principals will devote a portion of their professional day on January 9th to a presentation by Bishop Neil Tiedemann, Chair of our diocesan Anti-racism Commission, on how to answer racism with the compassionate love of Jesus.
Epiphany invites self-reflection and maybe even confession of these harmful attitudes. But more than anything, Epiphany makes us rejoice in being among that vast array of believers who, like the Wise Men of the Gospel, are privileged to worship and love Jesus, the true Savior of all.
The Magi put out into the deep by leaving their homeland in search of the Child who was destined to become “the Savior of the Nations.” Inspired by their faith, we too may need to leave behind some of our hidden prejudices against those who are different from ourselves so as to accept and understand the message of Jesus Christ, that He is the Savior of all mankind and that hatred or violence towards others has no place in our Christian faith.