Preached January 5, 2020; St. Peter Catholic Church, The Dalles, Oregon
Where is the newborn King of the Jews … we have come to worship him.
The Magi come from the east to worship the Infant Jesus, recognizing in him not just a man, not just a king, but our God and Savior.
Not everyone is happy about this, however, because we learn that Herod and all Jerusalem with him, is greatly troubled – this is Jerusalem, which should be the Holy City, the place of true worship.
Last Sunday I spoke about how Jesus has enemies; we see that theme again today, embodied in the same enemy, Herod. This reminds us again that we need to learn to distinguish between ‘friend’ and ‘foe’ and so escape the plague of spiritual AIDS that has infected the Church.
The light of the Epiphany, if we receive it, will give light for discernment. If we contrast Jerusalem of Herod and Bethlehem of Jesus, both within the land of Israel, both belonging to the People of God, we can see a contrast between worldly ‘politics’ and true worship.
That conflict is nothing new in the history of the Church. In the 4th century, moved by the courage of St. Athanasius, a priest of Alexandria in Egypt, who would later become the Archbishop and Patriarch of Alexandria, the Council of Nicaea condemned the Arian heresy. The Arian heresy was named for Arius, another priest of Alexandria. To put the matter simply, Arius denied that Jesus was truly God, equal to the Father, holding rather that he was a mere creature, even if the noblest of creatures, with a beginning in time. In effect he denied that worship was due to Jesus Christ.
In face of Arius’ denial, in order to clarify the faith handed on once for all by the Apostles, the Council of Nicaea added to the Creed these familiar words: “born of the Father before all ages, God from God, Light from Light, True God from True God, begotten not made, consubstantial with the Father, through whom all things were made”.
St. Athanasius was successful at the Council of Nicaea, but it was not long before the more politically minded bishops wormed their way into the confidence of the Emperor Constantine, persuading him that St. Athanasius was a power-hungry manipulator, dangerous to the peace of the Empire, and that for the sake of peace, St. Athanasius should be condemned and Arius welcomed back. The political bishops, you could say, thought that St. Athanasius was ‘intolerant’; they thought the Church should be more ‘inclusive’, that there should even be room for those who denied the divinity of Jesus Christ. St. Athanasius was indeed sent into exile, but Arius died as he was being welcomed in triumph into Constantinople.
Under Constantine’s successor, Constantius, things grew even worse. He persecuted the bishops who like St. Athanasius were faithful to Nicaea. He imprisoned Pope Liberius – the first Pope in history who was never regarded as a saint – browbeating him into signing a compromise creed and excommunicating St. Athanasius.
St. Jerome commented on this period of history saying, “The whole world woke up to find itself Arian.” Yet, evidently, the politicians did not have the last word; even though all the power of the State, together with a Church that had been bullied into submission, had been directed against the Catholic faithful, God had the last word. Today we recite the Nicene Creed, not the Arian creed.
Politics as opposed to worship – That kind of sums matters up.
In today’s Gospel we see the worldly politics of Jerusalem. There we find the king whose words and deeds are governed not by truth, but by whatever he deems useful to the maintenance of his power; we also see the scribes, who know the truth, but are not ruled by the truth – or else they would have accompanied the Magi to Bethlehem – rather their words and deeds are governed by the useful policy of keeping the king happy lest they lose their own standing and perhaps their lives as well.
This politics of utility, however, knows how to clothe itself with noble language. Herod and his supporters justify his rule by saying that it is all necessary for the sake of ‘peace’. So also, the slaughter of the children of Bethlehem was necessary for the sake of this worldly ‘peace’. So, the exile of St. Athanasius was necessary for the sake of ‘peace’ in the Roman Empire. So, the legally sanctioned slaughter of unborn children today is deemed necessary for the sake of ‘peace’. It is most surely a false peace and not the peace of Christ, which is the only true peace.
But don’t think that these political games belong only to the elites and to the ‘politicians’. This is what takes place wherever life is governed by worldly goals, rather than by worship in spirit and truth. In ordinary life there are those who are more powerful and who order things according to their power interests; then there are those who are less powerful, who just want to go along to get along; they want peace at any price. Their worldly concern is either to survive, or to get ahead, to get the better job, to get the bigger house, to get the bigger car, to secure their comfortable retirement.
So, it is understandable if someone, for fear of losing his job, buys into the outright lie of calling a man a woman and a woman a man, or some other mysterious and exotic ‘gender’. St. Peter, when he denied Christ didn’t really mean what he said; he was afraid for his life. So also, the Catholic bishops who signed on to an Arian creed, didn’t really believe it, but they were afraid for their lives.
Well, that is what happens when politics is primary, when Caesar comes first, when our life in this world comes first. Sure, Jesus said render to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, but he added and to God what belongs to God. (cf. Mt 22:21) Everyone, including Caesar, owes worship or adoration to God and God alone.
Now let’s take a look at the Magi. We have come to worship him. What is worship or adoration?
Pope Benedict pointed out that when Moses went to Pharaoh to ask him to let the people go, the purpose was that they might worship God in the desert. Pharaoh was willing to let the people go, but he wanted to put conditions on their worship, in order to keep control himself. That was the heart of the conflict. (Cf. “The Spirit of the Liturgy”, Ch. 1)
Worship of God is unconditional. We like to hear about God’s ‘unconditional’ love of us, well how about a little bit of ‘unconditional’ worship of God on our part? Either the truth of worship orders the whole of life, or the worship itself is falsified by being subordinated to worldly goals. That happens today, for example, when the Mass is used specifically as a means of political protest. If we refuse the way of unconditional worship, we will end with the slavery of politics, in which the stronger always wins.
Worship means first of all recognizing the supreme excellence of God, the Creator and ruler of all, and so submitting ourselves unconditionally to his will, to his love, to his wisdom, and to his providence. Jesus Christ, who on becoming man, became our High Priest, offered himself to the Father from the beginning, saying, Here, I am, I come to do your will. (cf. Heb 10:5-7) We must follow Christ and worship God interiorly through the offering of faith, hope, and charity, accompanied by the ‘incense’ of praise and thanksgiving.
Nevertheless, while worship or adoration begins in the heart, it does not remain there. It must be expressed outwardly by signs and gestures. So the Magi, upon entering the house prostrated themselves before Jesus, who was enthroned in the arms of his Mother. They also offered gifts – sacrifices – as an expression of worship. The offering of gold, frankincense, and myrrh was truly a sacrifice given to God made man in Jesus Christ.
The expression of worship must be both individual (each one of the Magi worshipped Jesus) and communal (they worshipped him together).
Of course, besides the specific act of worship, our whole life must be given to him, we must seek to do his will in all things. As we heard last Sunday, whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. (Col 3:17)
Nevertheless, that worship of our whole life is brought together and given to God in the specific act of public and communal worship. That act of worship, in turn, must govern and direct the whole of our lives, individually and communally. When we worship God, we proclaim that in truth, he is the King of kings and Lord of lords, and we act accordingly.
Finally, it is not enough to worship God in any old way, but we must worship him according to his will.
Since the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the prescribed and mandatory sacrifice, the worship in spirit and truth, is the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, the offering of Jesus’ own Body and Blood, to the Father. Yet, we do not just worship the Father through Christ, but like the Magi, we worship the man Jesus Christ, because he is himself the Son of God, consubstantial with the Father.
We worship Jesus Christ at the Mass by offering ourselves to him, along with the bread and wine, that is placed in the hands of the priest. We worship Jesus Christ at the Mass, by kneeling during the consecration. We worship Jesus Christ at the Mass by the sign of adoration we make before receiving holy communion – the perfunctory head bow is hardly sufficient; the tradition of kneeling is more truly and recognizable as an expression of adoration. We worship Jesus Christ also by recognizing his presence in the tabernacle by means of our genuflection on entering and leaving the church building; we also worship Christ when we visit the church outside of Mass for adoration of the Blessed Sacrament – that is why is called ‘adoration’.
Jesus is our high priest and sacrifice, through whom we offer worship, but he is also our God, together with the Father and the Holy Spirit, whom we worship.
The conclusion of the Eucharistic prayer sums all this up: “Through him, with him, and in him, O God, almighty Father, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, all glory and honor is yours, forever and ever. Amen.”
When we bow down in adoration before God, we do not worship some distant remote God, who has nothing to do with us, we worship the God who has come close to us and become one of us, as close as the child Jesus, as close as Holy Communion. When we bow down in adoration before God, we are not humiliated and degraded, but we actually find our true fulfillment and happiness. When in truth we bow before God, the Most Holy Trinity, he frees us from the slavery of worldly politics and lifts us up to the true life and eternal salvation.