Second Sunday: An Epiphany of Love

wedding-feast-a-cana09smThe last three weeks we have been looking at the three classic “epiphanies” of Jesus. The first, on the feast of the Epiphany, was his manifestation to the Wise Men. The second, the opening of Ordinary Time, was the voice of the Father at his Baptism. And the third, this week, is “the beginning of his signs, at Cana in Galilee,” in which he “revealed his glory, and his disciples began to believe in him.”

In each of these three classic Epiphanies, he reveals who he is. This week, he reveals himself as the Lover.


We warmed up with a reading from late Isaiah. “No more shall people call you ‘Forsaken,’ or your land ‘Desolate,’ but you shall be called ‘My Delight,’ and your land ‘Espoused.’ For the Lord delights in you and makes your land his spouse.”

We will not tarry on this reading, except to say that it gets us started with the idea of God’s love for us, a love compared to the love of a Bridegroom.

We see, too, God’s love for the land itself. I have been learning recently about the Song of Songs. There is a strong argument that there, too, the bride is no human woman, but the land of Israel itself. This helps makes sense of strange lines such as, “Thy teeth are like a flock of ewes” (Songs 6:6). It’s not just a bizarre metaphor. The Song of Songs is a love song of God for the nation as a whole – even the land where they dwell.


The central reading this week though is the magnificent Gospel of Cana. How does he love us? Let us count the ways:

He comes to the wedding. Jesus wants to be where his people are. He is not there to manifest himself – in fact, when Mary asks for a miracle, his first response his reluctance. He is there to be with the people he loves.

He has a mother, and follows her. Jesus loves the couple, but he loves his mother, too. The whole story is rich with presence, simply being with the people he loves.

He brings wine to the wedding. It’s nothing important, nothing salvific. It’s just kindness to the people he loves. The gratuity of Cana marks love – just as the celebratory aspect of a wedding marks nothing but the goodness of love.


Let us go a step deeper. When Mary says, “They have no wine,” Jesus responds, “What is this to me and to you, woman.” One way to interpret this is as the question: does this couple’s misfortune – and this kind of misfortune, lacking wine, not lacking anything really important – really affect us?”

The American Lectionary’s translation has, “Woman, how does your concern affect me.” But in the Greek, “What is this to me and to you” seems to put Mary and Jesus on the same side of the question. Not, “how does your concern affect me” but “how does their concern affect you or me?”

Mary’s response is itself a kind of question. (Deeper down there may be an important aspect of Jewish rhetoric here, where everything moves forward by questions, not assertions. Note, for example, that the twelve-year-old Jesus teaches them in the Temple by asking questions.) When Jesus says, “what is this to you and to me?” Mary responds by telling the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.”

It is as if she responds to Jesus’s question with another question, or as if she says to him, “I don’t know, you tell me.” The ball’s in your court, Jesus. Does the lack of wine matter to you? Should it matter to me? I will do nothing but submit to your judgment: you act, and I will follow.

And he acts, with bravado. He chooses the water jugs for purification, so it is clear they are pure water. He has the servants fill them, so there are witnesses. He makes the wine excellent.

Mary says, “You tell me, Jesus, do you care about such things?” And he says, with his actions, “Yes, yes, I do.”

There’s so much to tell about this story, and yet it comes down to one thing: he loves us very much. Cana is a celebration of that love.


But his love is not really about wine – anymore than the couple’s love was really about the wine. The wine is just a manifestation, an epiphany, of that love.

So our reading from First Corinthians 12 shows us the real gifts of the Bridegroom: wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, might deeds, prophecy, discernment of spirits, tongues, the interpretation of tongues. The real gift is not the wine, but the Spirit.

And it is a gift, again, that leave us not merely as individuals, but drawn together into the Body of Christ – just as in Isaiah, the Lord’s love created a land for them, a nation, and just as at Cana he built up a marriage and a community of friends.

God loves us, and gives us love.

What would change for you today if you really believed God loves us?

Epiphany Sunday – A Great Light


IS 60:1-6; PS 72: 1-2, 7-8, 10-11, 12-13; EPH 3:2-3a, 5-6; MT 2:1-12

Sunday we celebrated the feast of the Three Kings. (It ought to be on Wednesday, Jan. 6, but we move it because organizing solemnities is difficult in some places. Perhaps, like me, you are inclined to get annoyed about things like this. If so, join me in trying to be patient with our priests and bishops: unless you’ve lived their vocation, try not to complain. Meekness is good for us.)

We know the story of the kings. We can see the superficial similarities in the Old Testament readings: our reading from Isaiah says, “Caravans of camels shall fill you . . . bearing gold and frankincense”; our Psalm says, “the kings of Tarshish and the Isles shall offer gifts; the kings of Arabia and Seba shall bring tribute.” But what is this all about? And do these readings have more than a superficial connection to the birth of Christ?

There are hints to the deeper point in several places. Before the reading from Isaiah gets to the camels, it says, “Rise up in splendor, Jerusalem! Your light has come. . . . Darkness covers the earth . . . but upon you the Lord shines. . . . Nations shall walk by your light.” Our story this week is about a light that shines forth from Jerusalem.


The theology shines out from the Psalm. “O God, with your judgment endow the king,” it begins. We come face to face with grace. The king is good – endowed also with “your justice,” so that “he shall govern your people with justice and your afflicted ones with [good, divine] judgment” – because God has enlightened him.

There is a beautiful ambiguity about who, which king, this Psalm has in mind.

First, it seems to talk about the Messiah. “Justice shall flower in his days, and profound peace, till the moon be no more. May he rule from sea to sea.” This is apocalyptic, the ultimate king. It is Jesus who is first anointed with the grace of divine wisdom.

But then it speaks of “the kings of Tarshish and the Isles . . . the kings of Arabia and Seba. . . . All kings. . . . all nations.” From Christ’s anointing flows ours. From his fullness of grace we receive. As he is anointed with divine wisdom, so are we. God is with us in the baby in the cradle – but God is with the kings, too, enlightening them to come find this baby.


The same theme rings out in our reading from Ephesians. First he speaks of “the stewardship of God’s grace that was given to me for your benefit, namely, that the mystery was made known to me by revelation.” St. Paul has special knowledge – “it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit.” He can write the Bible for us because he knows what others do not. We are illumined by his rays.

(In evening prayer we pray, from the same Ephesians, “God has given us the wisdom to understand fully the mystery.” Our reading today seems to explain why the tradition thinks St. Paul is speaking about himself here: God has given him the wisdom. He has special insight, special light – to enlighten us.)

The specific mystery Paul is discussing here, however, is the diffusion of this light: “the Gentiles are coheirs, members of the same body.” The Church gives us this reading for the Three Kings, first, because the Three Kings show that the revelation of Christ is not just for the Jews, but even for the Gentiles. With the Three Kings, all nations begin to stream into Jerusalem.

But this calling of the Gentiles is connected to Paul’s one calling. It is all about grace. Paul knows by grace, the Gentiles know by grace. It is not by family ties, not by human wisdom – it is by the light streaming out from Christ.


With this in mind, we can draw more from the Gospel. Most of the story is about King Herod. This is remarkable. He too is a king – but even better, he is a Jewish king, king of the Jews. He has the revelation – he has the books where “it has been written through the prophet” where to find the Messiah, the true king, “a ruler, who is to shepherd my people Israel.”

But he does not have the light. This king has not been endowed with God’s justice. Revelation is not just about having a book – a Bible, or a Catechism, or anything else, though those books to reflect some of the light shining from the faces of the apostles. We learn a lot from those books (as we are learning now from our Bible readings).

But we can only see if the light of Christ shines in our hearts. The true light is not a privilege of birth, not a matter of human power. The true light is the grace of Christ.

What part of your life could you see better if you let Jesus enlighten you?

Epiphanies, Our Lady, and Active Participation in the Mysteries

caravaggio nativityWe are now midway through the Twelve Days from Christmas to Epiphany.  Epiphany is a Greek word that means “appearance.”  The feast celebrates three manifestations: the Baptism of Jesus in the Jordan, the first miracle at Cana, and the Adoration of the Magi.  At first, this seems a jumble.

But we can better understand it by understanding what it has to do with Christmas.  In the West, we have traditionally given greatest prominence to the day of Christ’s birth.  In the East, they have focused more on the Adoration of the Magi (the visit of the wise men) which is celebrated twelve days after the Birth.

To Western minds, it seems strange to celebrate twelve days after the birth.  The Birth is the big deal, right?


But in fact, in one sense, the Birth is not the big deal.  The big deal is the Incarnation, which happened nine months before the birth.  The Word was not made flesh on Christmas, but months before, in Mary’s womb.  Theologically, the feast of the Annunciation, March 25, is a much bigger deal.

(Modern devotion has forgotten, but before the 1854 proclamation of the Immaculate Conception of Mary in the womb of Anne, the tradition said something amazing happened to Mary when Christ took flesh.  Before that, they said, she was indeed sinless – original sin did not “stain” her with any actual sin – but her flesh still bore the mark of the Fall.  Her soul was full of grace, but all flesh, even Mary’s, was still distant from God.  The moment Christ took flesh, Mary’s flesh, too, was healed.  Pius IX’s careful definition of the Immaculate Conception does not prevent us from still thinking the Incarnation brought a miraculous transformation of Mary’s flesh.)

In other words, whether we celebrate twelve days after the Birth or on the day of the Birth itself, we’re still celebrating long after the real action has taken place.  In one sense, nothing happens on Christmas Day – just as, in a similar sense, nothing happens when a baby is born.  It’s not like there wasn’t a baby before the birth.


And yet birth is a big deal.   (Let our pro-life fervor never lead us to say “nothing happens” at birth.)  It’s a big deal because . . . it is an Epiphany, an appearance.  What happens when a child is born is that, for the first time, mother and child look into each other’s eyes.  That is not nothing.  In some sense, that is everything.  That is the whole meaning of human life.  Finally the child is doing what it was made to do.

And let not our theological correctness lead us to say “nothing happens” at Christmas.  For the first time, mother and child look into one another’s eyes.  In some sense, that is everything.  That is why Christ took flesh.

Forgive me now a hokey moment: every Spring when I teach my course on liturgy and sacraments, I tell my students about a classic corny sign sometimes seen outside Protestant churches: “ch—ch – what’s missing?  UR!”  (For some of my students I have to explain: “u-r” are the letters missing from the word “church.”  But the point is that “you are” what is missing from the Church.)

In perhaps the most important twentieth-century book on sacramental theology, the Dominican Colman O’Neill ponders St. Paul’s bizarre phrase, “make up what is lacking in the suffering of Christ.”  Nothing is lacking in the suffering of Christ – except one thing: u-r.

This is the heart of Catholic soteriology.  Why do our works – or, more properly, our sanctification – matter?  Because the one thing lacking from Christ’s work is for it to penetrate us.  What is lacking?  You are.

It is the heart of sacramental theology.  Christ has done everything on the Cross.  The only thing lacking is for us to receive his power.  What is missing from the power of the Cross?  You are.

It is the heart of liturgical theology.  Traditionalists sometimes get confused on this.  The Eucharist is everything, they correctly say.  We can add nothing.  So who cares about “active participation,” the key word to Vatican II’s document on the liturgy?  But there is one thing lacking from the Eucharist: you are.  Active participation contributes nothing to the power of Christ in the sacraments – or, it contributes nothing except for letting that power flow into us.  The Eucharist doesn’t save the world on its own – else we would be Universalists, or at least Lutherans.  No, what is missing from the Eucharist is us.

And so, too, this is the heart of Christmas.  What is lacking from the Incarnation, on March 25?  We are.  Christ joins himself to human flesh at the very beginning of his earthly journey.  But that is not the end of the story.  He has still to look into his mother’s eyes.  For the mother, what happens at the birth of her child?  Metaphysically, nothing.  Personally, everything.  The whole point of taking flesh is to enter into union.

And so we see in what sense the East gets it right with their emphasis on the Epiphany.  What is the point of Christmas?  The point is that now we can see him – now all the nations, like the three kings, can join Mary in gazing on the face of Christ.

What does the face of Christ mean for you?


Epiphany: Christ for Us

magiIS 60:1-6; PS 72:1-2, 7-8, 10-11, 12-13; EPH 3:2-3a,5-6; MT 2:1-12

This Sunday we celebrate the Epiphany of the Lord, his manifestation.  In the East, this is the bigger feast.  Though we read the Prologue of John’s Gospel at the daytime Mass on Christmas, it was nine months ago, at the Annunciation, that “The Word was made Flesh and dwelt among us.”  What happens at Christmas is that we see him.  At the midnight and dawn Masses for Christmas, we read Luke’s story of Jesus’s appearance to the shepherds; at Epiphany we read Matthew’s story of Jesus’s appearance to the nations, represented by the kings.

In fact, both Christmas and Epiphany are celebrations of his appearance: not what happens to him, but what happens to us, when we see him.  There’s an important theological and liturgical truth in the Church’s ranking of Christmas higher than the Annunciation.  In fact, what is important here is not just what happens to Jesus (that he is incarnate) but what happens to us: he is incarnate for us.  John’s Gospel quickly continues: “The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us – and we have seen his glory.”

The readings are there for us to hear.  He comes to the altar for us to see, and touch, and taste.  He is made flesh to be united to us.

And so we celebrate Christmas and Epiphany: Christ born for us.


The differentiation of these feasts nicely takes us into the differences among the Gospels.

Matthew’s Gospel, which tradition believes was written first, is the straightforward Gospel.  Matthew organizes Jesus’s teaching into five neat sermons (the Mount, the parables, the Church, missionaries, and the end of time), paired with appropriate signs, opening with the birth told from the perspective of the father (Joseph), and closing with the Cross and the Resurrection.  Neat and clean.

Mark cuts to the chase.  He is short.  The writing is actually very tight, very clean.  There is no nativity: it opens with John the Baptist, like a lion’s roar.  And it rushes forward: the constant refrain is “then immediately,” and no one recognizes Jesus until the Cross.  Mark wants us to know that in real life, it wasn’t so neat and easy to understand as Matthew tells it.  What Matthew says is true – but Mark takes us into the drama.

Luke then takes us into the theology: where Mark emphasizes the Cross, Luke focuses on grace.  Luke is the Gospel of poverty.  His nativity story tells us not about the kings, but about the shepherds; he tells us about the stable (and his symbol is the ox).  Christmas, when we read Luke, is the poor man’s Epiphany.  The Epiphany that we celebrate this week is the more respectable one, with Jesus in the company of kings – and the more straightforward consideration of Christ’s appearing.

John, the eagle, rewrites it all with high-flying theological commentary: his nativity story is “in the beginning was the Word,” just as he glosses the institution of the Eucharist with the Bread of Life discourse (in chapter 6), the washing of the feet (chapter 13), and the farewell discourse, culminating in chapter 17: communion as “may they be one”.

Each Gospel tells the truth, but each selects its material to make a particular kind of theological point.


So what is the theological point of Matthew’s Epiphany?  If Mark’s theme was “no one understood,” Matthew’s theme is “all the signs were there: they should have understood.”  He has appeared!

The Birth of the Messiah appeard to Gentile and Jew.  The magi – pagan wise men – “saw his star at its rising and have come to do him homage.”  And when they come to Herod, all the learned Jews tell him “the Christ was to be born . . . In Bethlehem of Judea, for thus it has been written through the prophet” – and in case we’re unsure, Matthew quotes the prophet at length.  They should have known!

But Herod “sent them to Bethlehem” – he did not go himself.  He did not go, of course, because he did not want to do what they did: “They prostrated themselves and did him homage.  Then they opened their treasures.”  He wanted to be king.  We should let Jesus be king for us.


Our first reading, from Isaiah, nicely emphasizes the problem.  Matthew tells us Herod “was greatly troubled – and all Jerusalem with him.”  Isaiah says, “Rise up in splendor, Jerusalem! Your light has come.”  Jesus is theirs!  “He came to his own home,” as John says – “and his own people received him not.”

“Nations shall walk by your light, and kings by your shining radiance. . . . The riches of the sea shall be emptied out before you, the wealth of nations shall be brought to you,” says Isaiah.  In our reading from Ephesians, Paul adds, “the mystery was made known to me by revelation. . . .  It has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit.”  Thank God he has been revealed!

And what is that revelation?  “That the Gentiles are coheirs, members of the same body, and co-partners in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.”  The revelation is precisely that we are called from every nation to see him.  Christ is born for usDeo gratias!

Christ dwells among us.  In your daily life, how could you better join the kings and the shepherds, go to see his glory?

Epiphany of our Lord: Gather in the Nations

adoration-of-the-magi-1306IS 60:1-6; PS72:1-2, 7-8, 10-11, 12-13; EPH 3:2-3a, 5-6; MT2:1-12

This Sunday we celebrate Epiphany, a Greek word that means “appearance.” The principle appearance is when Christ first appears to the nations: when the three kings come to see him in Bethlehem. But tradition and the liturgy also connect to this his “appearance” when he was baptized and his appearance through his first miracle at Cana.

Some fun connections: 1. In the East, Epiphany is Christmas. The birth of Christ is important because now he appears, he is seen. 2. There are many ways Christ appears, and to various people. 3. Baptism is spiritual rebirth; it is fitting to connect his baptism and his birthday. 4. Just as Christ turns water to wine at Cana, so Baptism turns water into the power of the Holy Spirit; the transformation of our soul at Baptism is the greater miracle, to which the physical miracles bear witness. 5. God becomes man at Christmas; man is united to God by baptism; and so marriage, feasting, and all of human life is suffused with God at Cana.

But on Sunday, our readings focus on the three kings.


“Rise up in splendor, Jerusalem! Your light has come, the glory of the Lord shines upon you. See, darkness covers the earth . . . but upon you the Lord shines.”

The reading from Isaiah shows the nations streaming to Jerusalem. But they come to Jerusalem because the Lord is there. Jerusalem becomes the rallying point. All nations are united because all come together at God’s temple.

The image of light and darkness is especially nice. First, because the light comes not from Jerusalem itself, but from God above. The Church, Pope Francis likes to say, lives “the mystery of the moon.” The moon can do nothing but reflect the light of the sun. The light we have is the light that the Lord shines upon us. The Church, the true Jerusalem, is the gathering place of the nations because Jesus is here.

Second, darkness is a negation. It is true that the world is full of sin. But it is more true to say that the world lives in darkness, ignorance, emptiness. Sin itself is a negation, a not, something missing. When we come streaming to the light of the Lord in Jerusalem, it is not so much to “give up” sin, which is a nothingness, but to receive the goodness of the Lord: his light, the meaning he gives to life, his goodness.


Paul speaks of this “mystery of the moon” in the reading from Ephesians. First, he calls himself a “steward of God’s grace.” Both the priesthood and the universal ministry of evangelization are a stewardship. What we spread is not our light, but the light that shines on us. We have been given a great gift, a gift to be shared. We do not preach ourselves. But we do preach the gift we have been given. That requires profound humility: always to submit our minds to the teaching of Christ, the teaching of Scripture, Tradition, and Magisterium; always to depend on the power of the sacraments, not our own power; always to live the communion of the Church, never to prefer our own ways to the ways of Christ.

Second, Paul says his message is “that the Gentiles are coheirs.” We come to Jerusalem. The New Testament is not a denial of the Old, but its perfection. Israel remains; the Church is Israel, the nation of God. The difference is not that we deny anything in the Old Testament; and especially not that we deny the intense national unity of the Old Testament. The difference is that now all nations are called to Jerusalem. We can all join Israel, the place where God’s light shines.


Finally, the Gospel presents a beautiful contrast between King Herod and the three pilgrim kings. (Actually, Matthew describes them as wise men, though the Responsorial Psalm shows clearly that they are fulfilling a prophecy about kings.)

The good kings lay down their crowns and their gifts before the one true king. They give up everything to come to Jerusalem and pay him homage. And so they are more properly wise men than kings: more focused on seeking his light than on asserting their authority.

The bad king, King Herod, thinks Jerusalem belongs to him. He is King of Israel – and that is his downfall. Because the true King is the poor man lying in a manger, and shining with the light of God.


What does the Church mean to us? How can we give up everything to come to Jerusalem and pay homage to the true king, the true light?