Feast of the Epiphany, January 6th
Today is one of the great feast days of the Catholic Church. It is the wonderful feast of the Epiphany. Symbolically, Jesus is presented and unveiled to the entire world. That world is symbolized by these mysterious characters coming from the East. In tradition, they have been called “kings”, “magi”, “soothsayers,” and a half dozen other titles. What is important for us is that strangers from afar were mysteriously directed by God to Bethlehem where Mary and Joseph were taking care of a newborn infant. That infant was no one other than our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.I think you can be sure that the kings (let’s call them kings for our purposes) were tired. Not only had they come a long way but they were slowed down a little bit by King Herod who was somewhat nonplussed by the idea that they were looking for a newborn king. Herod always considered that one king, himself, was quite enough.
The important symbol of the story is the adoration that these mysterious men present to the newborn child and the fact that they brought the best that they could of their own possessions to present to him, reflecting adoration and homage. For our secular culture, Christmas is long gone. After all, that was last year, wasn’t it? All of us are trying hard to remember the new resolutions that we made, of our commitment to improve this or that aspect of our temperament and personality, but don’t let me forget the kings. Remember, they are presenting two things – adoration and gifts coming from themselves.
The number of kings viewing this blog is rather limited but anybody reading this today is called to adoration and homage. What do we give our Savior that we honored so completely just two weeks ago? The answer is simple. It is the same things that were given at the first Epiphany. We need to recognize the divinity of the second person of the Blessed Trinity, present and working through the human nature of Jesus of Nazareth. We need to worship him, to remind ourselves that he is Lord of all creation and then to give him something that we value ourselves.
What should that be? A little more patience with the difficult people working with us on the job? An extra large check to the retired sisters funds? (National Religious Retirement Office/CW, 3211 Fourth Street, N.E., Washington, DC 20017-1194) To make a weekly trip to see a friend who is locked up in long-term illness? Whatever the gift you choose it will be appreciated by the Lord. It will be accepted with divine gratitude.
Posts tagged: symbols
Several times over the last few weeks, I have talked very briefly about the beauty to be seen in the celebration of the Sacraments. Catholics know that the seven Sacraments are the central structure of our faith since each one of them brings us into closer touch with Jesus of Nazareth. However, we don’t necessarily see them as gifts in our lives that really do reflect beauty. I started at the end by touching on the Last Anointing or Extreme Unction. I have also said the same thing about Baptism. When each of these ceremonies are carried out properly, they not only achieve their purpose, they achieve it in a way that is quite pleasing to the eye. Now let’s talk about Confirmation.
Like the other Sacraments, Confirmation is filled with symbolism. We receive it but one time in our lifetime and ordinarily we receive it, not in isolation, but in a communal context celebrating our position within the community of faith. This is seen first when those being confirmed are put together in sizable groups and secondly, the larger community of the parish really comes out to join the celebration. In baptism, our parents and godparents speak for us because usually infants are baptized. However, in Confirmation, the person being confirmed speaks for himself or herself. She has come of age, she has studied her holy faith and she is prepared to solidify or to confirm the commitment made for her in baptism. Now the young people do it for themselves.
Each person being confirmed is already a member of its own proper family, but with baptism and First Communion that person very visibly joins the larger faith community, the essential organizational component of the Universal Church, namely the Diocese. Dioceses have very specific boundaries and are headed by a single shepherd, the bishop. In Confirmation, those being confirmed come to the parish church to meet their shepherd and, after questioning them about the clarity of their thinking and their determination to walk in the footsteps of Jesus Christ, he confirms their faith by a holy anointing. The holy oil that is used for that anointing is itself a symbol of ties to the Diocese. The oil was blessed by the bishop at the Cathedral Church during Holy Week and then was divided among all the parishes of the Diocese. Once again, it symbolizes our unity through the bishop with the whole local Church; in this instance, the Diocese of Austin, the Church in Central Texas.
And so the spiritual journey continues. The child is born into its natural family, elevated to membership in the spiritual family, the community of faith which is the Church, and after a certain amount of maturing, that faith is confirmed by the chief shepherd of the local Church, the bishop. No one is isolated in the Church. Through the Sacraments, we are united to Jesus and, through those same Sacraments, united to those who share our faith. These are beautiful milestones on our way to our eternal destiny. Happily, none of us go alone.
We all know that good communication is a never-ending struggle. For most of us, the word, written and oral, is the most common tool of communications. In addition to the word (which is itself a symbol!), there are other tools to assist in moving an idea from one person’s brain to that of another. On that list of alternate forms are symbols. In the Medieval world before widespread literacy came among us various shops and trades would have their own symbol placed over the door and visible from the street. The barber pole, the three balls over the pawn shop. These instruments were devised and understood by the general public.
The Catholic Church has always understood the importance and value of symbols and used them from the very first generation of Catholicism. One of the earliest and most common was the Greek word ichthus, which means fish. It was taken from the first letters of the expression “Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior.” Early Christians would mark their houses with the symbol of a fish indicating that Christians lived here and telling the Roman authorities nothing. The use of the fish as a symbol of the follower of Jesus fits in very well with some of the bible scenes relating to the Sea of Galilee – these are abundant monumental and literary witnesses to the popularity of this formula. With the passage of time and the cessation of persecution, this particular symbolism is seldom seen today.
Naturally, the most widespread Christian symbol is the cross. It dominates almost everything we do. We cross ourselves on entering the church. We cross ourselves when beginning or ending prayer. It is marked on our buildings – on our bodies. We are constantly adverting to the cross and it is, of course, the symbol of our redemption. It provides us with an opportunity to continually recommitting ourselves to Jesus.
We walk into a church, tip our fingers into a bowl of holy water, a symbol reminding us of our baptism. We should try to remember to say in a meaningful way, “I am here in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. If we are conscious of that, it provides us with a constant recommitting of ourselves to our faith, to our Lord, to our coming salvation.
I love symbols. They are very important to me, and if utilized properly, should be important to everyone. Symbols frequently convey meaning far more graphically than endless words. As I am reflecting on symbols, I’m laughing remembering a scene in the city of Aachen, Germany, that took place nearly 30 years ago. I was with three priest friends, two of whom became bishops- Archbishop Joseph Fiorenza, Bishop Vincent Rizzotto, and Fr. Bill Steele (aka. “Stainless”). Aachen was tremendously important historically, as the capital of Charlemagne. The cathedral was erected in 800 AD, and is, in fact, the oldest cathedral in northern Europe. As we entered this awesome church, we saw a bulletin board in the vestibule, and since Steele could speak a little German, he translated one of the announcements for this magnificent 1200 year old church. It read simply, “The parish council will meet at 7:30pm Tuesday night in the parish hall.” Once translated, all four of us broke out laughing about the SAMEness of the church’s day to day functioning. That doesn’t prove anything, it’s just a delightful fact that reflects the “Catholicity” of this church as it has spread across the world. Diversity, complexity-yes. But, a simple sameness that unites one billion, two hundred million people into what is actually an enormous religious family.
Catholics are happy to be able to count on that sameness, that universality no matter where they go, whether it be the Belgian congo, Tasmania, or New York City.
This is yet another factor that delights so many Roman Catholics as they celebrate their membership not just in their parish, but in the Church universal.
Most of the information that we have about the life of Jesus of Nazareth is contained in the Gospels and, to a lesser extent, in the Epistles. But other stories exist that are firmly locked in ancient tradition. We don’t have the same confidence in them that we do with the New Testament texts but still they are worth looking at and one is the story of an elderly couple, that we call Saints Joachim and Anne, who are considered by an ancient tradition to be the parents of the Virgin Mary. Today (June 26th) is their feast day.
I am sure that Mary had parents and therefore it could very easily have been this elderly couple. I just like the idea of thinking of Mary in a very down to earth context. So often when we think of our Blessed Mother, she is a statue attached to the wall of a church with her feet four feet off the ground. I would also like to think of her peeling potatoes and chopping onions in order to make stew in the kitchen. When I think of this young girl in this manner, she becomes far more realistic to me than the statue with its eyes lifted towards heaven.
Mary was real. She lived in difficult times. She knew what it was to be a refugee, an immigrant. She saw her perfect son arrested and subjected to unbelievable torture. She stood at the foot of the cross and beside the grave. She was real and she is our adopted mother. Because of Mary, I thank God for Joachim and Anne. I am sure that they appreciated the privilege that God had given them.
We’ve been visiting about the saints lately, and I think at this point I should put in a comment about an all-important aspect about devotion to saints. CATHOLICS DO NOT WORSHIP SAINTS!! We love them, we admire them, we struggle to imitate them and we thank God for their presence among us. BUT, WE DO NOT WORSHIP THEM.
Only GOD can be worshipped. God is the author of all existence, all creation, and it is right for us to fall on our knees and adore Him. Saints were and are simply human beings who dwelt among us and led extraordinary lives of commitment to Jesus Christ and His Heavenly Father.
We all need encouragement. We all need examples of success. This is true in sports, government leaders, the world of science, and every other major area of human endeavor. It therefore is certainly necessary for we, the baptized brothers and sisters of Jesus, to keep examples before our eyes of men and women gone before us and who left concrete examples of heroic virtue and holiness.
So, when you go into a Catholic Church, and you see St. Ignatius of Loyola in an alcove of one side of the church, or St. Theresa, they are not items of idolatry, but tools in a normal need to be reminded of their example. Another example of symbolic reminders is our Statue of Liberty in the New York Harbor. Whether people are leaving or entering the country, people are profoundly moved by the sight. It is not just an enormous hunk of metal, but a symbolic reminder of what the United States stands for. My mother’s picture beside my desk provides the same type of service.
This is the role of all Christian art, saint statues included!