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Saturday, January 9th, 2021

‘Adorabunt eum reges’: a Homily for Epiphany

And all kings of the earth shall adore Him: all nations shall serve Him (Psalm 71, 11).

The texts of Epiphany are filled with victory. That may not be readily apparent; nor is the concerned American Catholic much inclined to feel a sense of victory at this hour. In truth, we ought to wonder if ever we ought to have felt it. Suffice it to say, however, thoughts of victory are, naturally speaking, rather hard to come by. 

But of course, we know well enough that a purely natural outlook is impossible for us—though it is a common temptation, admittedly. However, the grace of Epiphany comes to remind and renew us.

Not that the sacred liturgy ever engages in flights of fancy or escapism. If  Roman Catholic worship is anything, it is realistic—realistic about the fallenness of man; about the danger and struggle of the Christian life. We hear this in today’s prophecy: ‘For behold, darkness shall cover the earth, and a mist the people.’ Tenebræ operient terram, et caligo populum. We can appreciate the truth of words like that. And it is true that the sacred liturgy does not allow us to pretend that there are no shadows falling upon human history and upon ourselves. That would be another mistake.  

Yet today’s Mass does not go on about it. Darkness and danger do not compete with the mystery of the Epiphany—thus we ought to be sure that this is true of us, too. Darkness and sin have no parity with the interests of Christ. When things go badly in the world, we are exposed to a subtle danger in the spiritual life. For we propose questions among ourselves like, ‘What am I to do in light of the present crisis?’ Or we say, ‘Now that things are so bad—and they promise to get worse—what is to be thought and done?’ However, if we are asking ourselves about how we are meant to react in view of how bad the world is, we’re asking the wrong question; we have the matter backwards.

(I am not speaking of the legitimate questions about how to prepare for hardship or how to prepare for the safety and well-being of our families. I mean what is our disposition of soul before God and man; I mean the quality of our prayer and self-knowledge; I mean our general understanding of the world and our place in it at this moment.)  

Nevertheless, by asking what we are to do in view of a crisis, in some measure we have made the crisis primary, and the interests of God secondary. In a word, it is fear. The world is telling us to jump, and we are asking how high. That is the mistake. We have forgotten the mystery of Divine Providence, and we have made the spirit of the world to be sovereign. 

The grace of Epiphany forbids this; and the Gospel shows us it is exactly the opposite. When the Magi appear before Herod in Jerusalem, it is Herod and the political apparatus that are disturbed. The plan of Christ is unfolding, and the world quakes. Turbatus est et omnis Ierusolyma cum illo.[1] The Magi, on the other hand, appear to be undaunted; they continue their course, guided by the star. Herod does the only thing that godlessness is capable of: scheming and subterfuge. The Magi have no part in this. Whatever may have been their impressions during their stay in Herod’s court, a supernatural grace preserves them from becoming entangled in the destructive plot of Christ’s enemies.

In a word, we ought to see ourselves in the persons of the Magi. Divine Providence conserves those who are faithful, that is, the hominibus bonæ voluntatis. The broken political order is not the moving principle of human history; despite the show of force it can sometimes muster, it amounts to nothing more than a pathetic sideshow. Yes, it can be deadly: but it has no lasting power or permanence. No amount of Herod’s plotting could have removed the Magi’s guiding star from the heavens.  

But there is a reason why all this is true—the journey of the Magi terminates in adoration. They do not come to Christ gathering intelligence; they are not journalists; they have not come to update their astral charts or secure political alliance; it was not bourgeois boredom that brought them leagues from their homes. They have come to adore: Et procidentes adoraverunt eum. They have found Jesus and Mary.

Christ is God, the principle and foundation of all that is. St Paul speaks of this mystery everywhere. The Magi have placed themselves in the very company of this principle, in order to give Him the homage of their lives. That is precisely why they could go unshaken through the dangers of their journey. Likewise, all the martyrs went to their deaths on account of adoration. All witness, the whole of the Catholic life, is reducible to adoration. And that is precisely the insight that Catholics do well to recover under the mists that cloud the people and nations. Because adoration means fixity: because the object of that adoration is the one, true God, who is love and every beautiful and good thing.

As the paten and chalice are prepared for this Mass, the Church will say, ‘all the kings of the earth shall adore him; all the nations shall serve him.’ When history is completed, every human life that has been created will be compelled to adore Christ who the Magi saw. Our gift it that we may do so willingly, in the present moment, out of love. We get to do now what all creation will soon do forever. For the sacred liturgy does not lie: ‘all kings shall adore him; all nations shall serve him.’ We may be passing through a dark interlude in which this seems far off—but the golden days of Epiphany tell us otherwise.

 

 


[1] St Gregory’s homily in the third nocturne of the feast says as much: quia nimirum terrena altitudo confunditur cum celsitudo cælestis aperitur.’ ‘For evidently the heights of earthly power are dismayed when the loftiness of heavenly things appears.’

{Art Credit: Domingos António de Sequeira (1768 –1837), preparatory study for Adoration of the Magi (1828); National Museum of Art, Lisbon}

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