This homily was given to the Blessed John Henry Newman community in the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of Saint Peter in Orange Country, California.
Our annual celebration of the epiphany of the Lord has two characteristics that we can identify as fundamental to the Christian life, not least as those who rejoice in celebrating the liturgical, spiritual, and pastoral traditions of our Anglican heritage (AC III). First, the solemnity of the epiphany is a highly liturgical feast. As we journey with the magi to the stable, and there bend the knee in adoration of the King of kings and Lord of lords, we come also to this awesome and admirable sacrifice – the Church’s offering of bread and wine in the wonderful exchange of the Eucharist – and we worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness, with gold of obedience and incense of lowliness. We come to offer ourselves – our whole being – to be a living sacrifice to the one who, as a babe in a manger, comes to save us from ourselves. What is proposed for us by the magi, is fulfilled today in the Church’s worship of Christ in the Eucharist.
Secondly, that worship propels us out into the world. We see, in those wise men who journey to the crib, the whole of mankind coming to adore the Christ child, drawn as they are from every corner of the globe. The great commission of Saint Matthew’s gospel rings in our ears: ‘Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit’ (Mt. 28: 19). And we see that if this day is a feast of the sacred liturgy in which we bring ourselves and gifts in honour of the infant king, it is also a feast of evangelization. Christ draws all men to himself in the wood of the cradle and on the wood of the cross; we come as worshippers and we are sent as missionaries, so that others may come to do him homage (Mt. 2).
As a sign of this evangelical characteristic of today’s feast, Blessed John Paul II began a custom of ordaining bishops in Rome on this day. The bishop is the one who leads his people to Christ, who orientates them toward the Word made Flesh, and so he is the first evangelizer – steering and guiding the priests and people in his care to their Lord and God. As Pope Benedict noted in his homily on the feast of the epiphany last year, ‘It is the task of the bishop […] not merely to walk beside the others, but to go before them, showing the way’. By the Holy Father ordaining bishops on this feast, we see the inseparable link between the local mission of the Church’s bishops and parishes such as this, and the universal mission entrusted by the Lord to the successors of Saint Peter: the mission of bringing all sorts and conditions of men to Christ.
We think also of the laudable tradition, attached to this feast, of marking the lintels of our homes with chalk. Certainly we ask the blessing of Christ on our homes by this act – Christus mansionem benedicat – but we also seek to identify our homes as Christian, and invite others to come to know Christ. There is nothing more wonderful than arriving in a town – as I did near Cologne last year – and seeing houses marked out with epiphany chalk. In this small way, we proclaim the gospel of the infant Christ, and allow the divine mystery to take on a tangible and human face. The chalk, made from clay, reminds us that we are – as Saint Paul puts it – ‘common clay pots’ (2 Cor. 4), and yet by his incarnation God himself has taken on our frail and fragile humanity, in order to sanctify and hallow it by his divinity. Christ is perfect God and perfect Man, who comes to restore us to the perfect relationship with the Father which we forfeit by our sin. As your patron and mine, Blessed John Henry Newman, puts it so beautifully: ‘a second Adam to the fight and to the rescue came’.
The Church’s worship, then, is what fuels her work of evangelisation. If our individual or corporate offering of prayer and praise, especially in the offering of the Eucharistic sacrifice, is anything other less than our greatest single endeavour – the ‘source and summit’ of the entire Christian life – then we should expect our attempts and effect in the mission field to be somewhat limited (LG 11). Similarly, if we put all of our efforts into offering Christ the worship which is his due, but fail to allow that worship to be rooted in our hearts and lives, then it risks becoming a golden calf, set up for our own gratification. Worship and evangelization go hand-in-hand, authenticating each other, and ensuring that each is orientated to its proper end.
How, then, can we ensure that we are faithful to what today’s feast presents? First, by our reverent and prayerful celebration of the Church’s sacred liturgy. By an authentic orientation to Christ in our worship, and a true offering of our best to God in prayer. This means channelling our resources and efforts into the faithful celebration of the liturgy – our time, skills, and money – in order to offer to God the richest fruits of our labours. Sacred music, beautiful vestments, rich language, our own dress and demeanour – all are outward signs of an inward desire to give God his due. Where we fall short, let us be inspired by today’s feast to make amends.
Secondly, we can ensure that our celebration of the sacred liturgy is authenticated by our living-out of what we profess by our worship. If the mark of our worship is that it is focussed on Christ, then this must be the mark of our entire lives. If we are concerned that God is at the heart of our liturgical lives, then this must equally true of our actions between Sundays. If our faithfulness to the celebration of the liturgy is a sign of our love of God and his Church, then so must our fidelity to the moral life, and the Lord’s command to take the gospel to the ends of the earth. We are called to proclaim the gospel unashamedly by our words and deeds, in order that Christ may be made manifest – not in some distant stable, but in the hearts of the men and women of our day.
So may this feast of the epiphany of the Lord remind us of these two fundamental characteristics of the Christian life: worship and evangelisation. May we be brought to understand more fully the nature of each. May we be drawn ever more deeply into the mystery of the Eucharistic sacrifice which we come here to offer. And may that same offering be for us and the whole Church a catalyst to proclaim the gospel of Christ to the ends of the earth, that the whole world may believe, and so come to proclaim Christ as Lord to the glory of God the Father.