Sunday, January 8, 2012
I was on vacation this past week. One evening I was sitting at a restaurant and at the next table were a group of young people, maybe early 20's. They were extraordinarily drunk and looked as though they had been that way for several days and were likely to remain that way for days to come. This wasn't, as best I could tell, a momentary lapse in their otherwise moderate life. It seemed as though this was their life. And, they definitely seemed to be enjoying this life. I mention all of this, not to sit in judgment of these persons, but because seeing them actually helped me to think about the Feast of the Epiphany that we celebrate today.
Sometimes, when we see somebody living in a manner that lacks virtue or is excessive in some way or another, we ask, "But is he really happy?" I concluded that if they were confronted about their drunkenness, their promiscuity, and their very public display of hedonism and then were asked, "But are you really happy?", they would emphatically answer, "YES!" These people were not sitting around thinking to themselves, "Well, deep down I'm really unhappy." None of us really understands how unhappy we are until we find true happiness in Christ. And that recognition only comes to us through a grace given by God.
In the Gospel of Epiphany, we are provided with a contrast. We have the Three Magi and we have King Herod. The Magi are given a sign in the star. They see this sign because they were looking up. They obey this sign. Herod too was given gifts. He had the Magi arrive at his doorstep. He had the scribes and scholars to tell him where the Christ was to be born. And, presumably if the star was visible to the Magi, it must also have been visible to Herod. But, he did not see it because he could not look up.
Herod's palace must have seemed like the place to be. The powerful and politically important were there. It probably housed not only political power but also illicit pleasures. Perhaps it was the house of lavish parties, excessive behaviors, and egotistical idolatry. Maybe those who passed by the palace walls could hear the sounds from inside and wished that they too could be part of that happy life.
But Herod's house had become his tomb. When the Magi heard that Christ was to be born in Bethlehem, they left Herod's palace. When Herod heard that Christ was to be born in Bethlehem, he remained in his palace. The more one gives himself over to darkness and to the passing things of this world, the more imprisoned one becomes by those things. St. Matthew tells us very matter of factually that "after Herod died," Joseph took Mary and the child and came to Nazareth. All of a sudden, Herod who was so powerful, who could orchestrate and order murderous plots . . . he becomes a passing line, "After Herod died . . . ." Herod sought his happiness in transitory things. Those transitory things were one shovel of dirt after another, sealing him in from ever discovering true happiness.
On the other hand, the Magi go out and follow the light that they have been given. They come to the manger and discover there what Herod would never discover. The Magi encounter Eternal Love. They encounter what will never pass away. They find God.
The Prophet Isaiah says, "Look up." This is all we can do as Christians. We can live our lives looking up. I remember when I was in high school, sometimes some friends and I would goof around by standing on a street corner looking up. Sooner or later, other people would start looking up. Christians look up and hope that others will join them. We cannot force others to look up and see the light. And, even if they've seen the light, we cannot force them to follow. All we can do is bear faithful witness to the light that we've been given.
I hope that those young people look up soon. Because whoever follows the light of Faith will come face to face with eternal love. Herod buried himself in passing things until he himself passed along with them. The Magi followed the light and passed into the presence of Eternal Love.