Fr. Joseph Levine; January 3, 2021
Readings: Is 60:1-6; Ps 72:1-2,7-8,10-13; Eph 3:2-3,5-6; Mt 2:1-12
Today we celebrate the Solemnity of the Epiphany. The word ‘epiphany’ means ‘manifestation’ or ‘revelation’; the feast celebrates the manifestation to the nations of divinity of the newborn Child. Today we celebrate the radiance of the light of Christ entering into a world darkened by sin.
Today the readings for Epiphany give us prophecy and fulfillment, only the fulfillment in the Gospel might seem very little in comparison with the prophecy. That is because the Gospel gives us only the beginning, the dawning of the day.
As some people have heard me say, it is necessary to start at the end. You need to know where you are going before you start your journey; you need to have some idea of what you intend to accomplish before you start doing something. The Magi followed the star because they knew it would lead them to the feet of the Savior of the world.
Well, then, if we want to have some understanding of what God is doing, we need to have some understanding of his purpose, his goal. Sacred Scripture, which reveals to us the plan of divine providence, has a beginning and an end, the book of Genesis and the Book of Revelation. As the first two chapters of Genesis speak to us about the beginning, the creation of the world and man in the world, the last two chapters of the Book of Revelation reveal the end, the final completion of God’s work, hinted at and foreshadowed in the seventh day of creation. In the light of that completion, we can better understand both the prophecy and its fulfillment.
The end has a name, Jerusalem, not the earthly symbol of the heavenly reality, but the new Jerusalem, the heavenly Jerusalem.
The prophet said of Jerusalem, Your light has come, the glory of the Lord shines upon you. In the culmination of his great apocalyptic vision, St. John saw the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God, having the glory of God. (Rev 21:10-11) And, the city had no need of sun or moon to shine upon it, for the glory of God is its light and its lamp is the Lamb. (Rev. 21:23)
The prophet said of Jerusalem, Nations shall walk by your light, and kings by your shining radiance. … the wealth of the nations shall be brought to you. St. John said of the new Jerusalem, by its light nations shall walk; and the kings of the earth shall bring their glory into it … they shall bring into it the glory and honor of the nations. (Rev 21:24,26)
What does it mean that nations shall walk by the light of Jerusalem? The goal of our journey gives light to our path. When we know where we are going, we have light; when we do not know where we are going, we walk in the darkness.
Many people walk in the darkness because they do not know the purpose for which they were created. Therefore, neither do they know the true meaning and purpose of anything in human life. They give importance to things, to events, and to persons, following their own fancy or popular opinion; they cannot properly distinguish good and evil. In the end, they find they are chasing after illusions, will-o’-wisps. (cf. Ps 4:3)
Jesus, the Son of God, who gives light to Jerusalem, said, I am the light of the world; he who follows me will not walk in the darkness, but will have the light of life. (Jn 8:12) Immediately after he said, I know whence I have come and whither I am going. (Jn 8:14) That is the character of spiritual light. Contrariwise: He who walks in the darkness does not know where he goes. (Jn 12:35)
Yet, it is not just individuals that walk in the light of Christ, but nations. Our nation is part of our identity, who we are. There will be men and women from every nation gathered into the New Jerusalem. From the perspective of eternity, the true Americans, or Germans, or Mexicans will be those who dwell in the heavenly Jerusalem.
How about the kings and the wealth, glory, and honor of the nations?
The story of St. Lawrence, the Archdeacon of Rome in the 3rd century, who was ordered by the pagan prefect of the city to deliver the wealth of the Church into his hands, is well known. St. Lawrence asked for three days to gather together the wealth of the Church. During that time, he distributed the Church funds among the poor and the third day presented the prefect the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the suffering – this was the wealth of the Church. The enraged prefect then ordered that St. Lawrence be roasted alive on a gridiron.
The true Christian is the one who, knowing that Jesus reproves and chastens those he loves, accepts his rebuke and repents. He hears the words of our Lord: You say, ‘I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing; not knowing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked. Therefore, I counsel you to buy from me gold refined by fire, that you may be rich, and white garments to clothe you and to keep the shame of your nakedness from being seen, and salve to anoint your eyes, that you may see. (Rev 3:17-18; cf. 19) Thus, the true Christian is poor in spirit, who recognizes his absolute poverty and helplessness in the presence of God; only the poor in spirit can enter the kingdom of heaven. (cf. Mt 5:3)
The Christian people, who are poor in spirit, are the wealth of the nations. They are truly the glory and honor of their people. In the eyes of God, America is greater for having produced St. Elisabeth Ann Seton than George Washington; is greater for having welcomed St. John Neumann and St. Frances Xavier Cabrini, than for having had Abraham Lincoln as President; is greater on account of St. Katherine Drexel and St. Rose Philipine Duchesne than Thomas Edison or Albert Einstein; is greater on account of St. Junipero Serra and Blessed Solanus Casey than Theodore Roosevelt or Douglas McArthur.
The real kings then are those who lead their people to the heavenly Jerusalem.
If, then, we could see the world as God sees it, we would see those who are walking together in the light of Jerusalem towards union with God in that same city. We would also see those who wander in the darkness. Some attack the pilgrims as they make their way to the heavenly city; some wander about lost and aimlessly; some race wildly downward, like skiers, blind to the destruction that waits for them at the end.
Nevertheless, we cannot see as God sees. In this life, we can see only the sign or sacrament, not the reality.
With that in mind, let us consider the fulfilment of the prophecy that takes place beginning with the arrival of the Magi, not in Jerusalem, but Bethlehem. Because the Magi must travel beyond Jerusalem to Bethlehem to reach the goal of their journey, it is revealed that henceforth the true Jerusalem is where Jesus, the Lamb of God is found. Only through the Lamb of God can the Father be worshiped in spirit and truth. (cf. Jn 4:23-24)
Nowhere in the Gospel does it say that the Magi were kings, but the visit of the Magi was soon seen as a fulfilment of the prophecy of Isaiah; hence, they were regarded as kings.
Before the coming of Christ, God was known only among the Jewish people and his only temple was in Jerusalem. Isaiah’s prophecy spoke of the other nations of the world, the Gentiles, coming to worship God in Jerusalem. The Magi, as kings from the nations, are the first fruits of the fulfilment of the prophecy. They come from the nations to Jerusalem where they proclaim their purpose; then they go to where Jesus is and fulfill their purpose, giving him the wealth of the nations in the gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
The visible wealth that they offer is a sign of the interior wealth of the heart, the gold of charity, the love of God, the King; the frankincense of faith, that honors Jesus Christ, the Son of God; and the myrrh of hope in the midst of suffering and death, united to the suffering and death of Jesus, looking forward to the resurrection and the life of the heavenly Jerusalem.
Through the Old Testament there were events that served as living prophecies of Jesus Christ and his Church, on her pilgrimage in this world and in the glory of the heavenly Jerusalem. With the visit of the Magi, the living prophecy touches the fulfilment, because the Magi reach to Jesus himself, the fulfilment of all prophecy. Yet, as first fruits, it remains a prophecy of future fulfilment in the Church. That visible fulfilment, in this world, is achieved first of all in the sacraments, above all the Holy Eucharist.
A classic definition tells us that a sacrament is a visible sign of an invisible grace. (Catechism of the Council of Trent; St. Bernard, Sermon on the Lord’s Supper, c.2) They are efficacious signs instituted by Christ; that is, they produce the grace they signify. (cf. CCC 1131) Or, we can say that Christ himself, acting through the sacraments, gives grace. Grace, as I have repeated over and over, is a real sharing in the life and nature of God; it is a divine gift that transforms us interiorly and makes us truly to be children of God. We are born to this new life in baptism and, in the Holy Eucharist, Jesus himself nourishes the life of grace within us.
In light of the prophecy of Isaiah we could speak of a sacrament as a visible fulfillment of the prophecy that produces the interior fulfillment of grace that leads to the complete fulfillment in the heavenly Jerusalem.
The Mass, the celebration of the Holy Eucharist, above all, becomes then like a sacrament of the heavenly Jerusalem. Because Jesus is here in the Holy Eucharist, Jerusalem is here. We must come to the Mass, then, like the Magi, bringing the best we have to offer both exteriorly and interiorly. The most important though is the interior offering of the gold of charity, the frankincense of faith, and the myrrh of hope.
There is, however, a significant imperfection in the sacramental order. Where a sacrament is given, we know that grace is given, but we do not know that grace is received. The sign is perfect in relation to God the giver, but not in relation to man, the receiver.
The grace of the holy Eucharist can only be received by those who are living in charity, faith, and hope, which are the living actions that come forth from the life of grace. Those who receive communion in mortal sin, lacking the gift of grace, receive only the outward form of the sacrament, not the interior grace. They commit a sacrilege because of their unworthy reception. They have come to the banquet not as the Magi, but as the spies of Herod. From the outside, though, we cannot distinguish clearly between the spies and the Magi.
As a result, the assembly of the faithful, gathered in the celebration of the Eucharist is a sign of the assembly of the saints, gathered around the throne of the Lamb in heaven, but an imperfect sign. In the heavenly Jerusalem, after the resurrection of the dead, the glory of the body will be a perfect manifestation of the glory of the soul. All present there will be true citizens of the heavenly city. In the assembly of the Mass, all the baptized represent the invisible reality of Jerusalem, but not all possess the reality they represent; not everyone is a true citizen of the heavenly Jerusalem; some, rather, are more like citizens of the city of Herod.
There is another important fulfillment in the history of the Church, a fulfilment that began in 380 AD with the Edict of Thessalonica in which the three Roman emperors, Gratian, Valentinus, and Theodosius, declared that the nations subject to their rule should profess the Catholic Christian religion given to the Romans by the Apostle Peter, faithfully preserved by tradition, and at that time professed by Pope Damasus. Starting with the Edict of Thessalonica, history shows us as a long procession of kings, leading their nations to the feet of Christ, bringing the best they could offer.
These Christian kingdoms were a sort of sacramental transformation of the temporal realm, making the whole temporal realm to be a sort of sacred sign of the heavenly city. Typically, the Christian kings and emperors were crowned and sometimes even anointed in a liturgical rite in the Church. Nevertheless, unlike a true and proper sacrament, the sacramental kingdom was a sign, but not a cause of the kingdom of grace.
By 1900 what remained of the ancient sacramental kingdoms had become very decrepit indeed. World War I dealt a death blow to one of the last sacramental kingdoms, the Austrian Empire. The Kingdom of Spain, as a sacramental kingdom, came to an end in 1931 with the exile of Afonso XIII. The Empress Zita of Austria, who passed away in 1989, was the last anointed Catholic monarch.
Why talk about these sacramental kingdoms now? Aren’t they a thing of the past?
Well, they were the fulfillment of prophecy which comes with the promise of greater future fulfillment, either in this world or the next.
Further, their absence reveals the poverty of the present worldly reality. The modern world tells us that the time of the sacramental kingdoms was a time of darkness and oppression. The Church herself seems to have grown ashamed of her heritage.
Yet, in the sacramental kingdom the human world was filled with visible signs and reminders of God’s presence and reality: in art and architecture, in human institutions, and even in political life. Even the bad king was a visible sign of God’s rule. Now we live in a human world that is ever more stripped of anything that will serve as a reminder of God, anything that will raise the mind and heart to God. The sacramental kingdom was transparent to the light of God, like a stained-glass window. The modern world is opaque to the light of God the way a gambling casino is closed-off to the natural light of the sun.
The comparison of art and architecture is telling. The most beautiful art and architecture ever in human history was produced in the sacramental kingdoms. The most brutal and ugly art and architecture ever is modern art and architecture. The city of Paris shows us the stunning contrast between the likes of the now burnt-out Notre Dame and the Sacre-Coeur Basilica on one hand, and such hideous structures as the Centre Georges Pompidou and the Philharmonie de Paris, on the other hand.
We can also compare a calendar structured by the liturgical seasons of Advent, Christmas, Lent, and Easter, and decorated by so many celebrations of saints, which gives meaning to the rhythm of time, to the secular commercial calendar that is all about having people buy things, or perhaps worse to the cycle of elections. Even national holidays have usually either been stripped of their meaning or become crude tools of political propaganda.
Then, if we look inside our church buildings, which at least should be refuges from all this nonsense, what we find is that if the sacramental reality of the Eucharist does not change the temporal reality of human life, then a godless human life ends up shaping church buildings and even what goes on inside the church.
The history of the sacramental kingdoms shows us a partial fulfillment of the promise of Epiphany; at the same time it reveals that today we are living in a world that could be called “anti-Epiphany”.
Where is all this going?
First of all, the godless corruption has gone so far that humanly speaking we are powerless. We cannot change it. All we can do is hold fast to the faith we have received. All that we can do is live in fidelity to the gift that has been given to us. That fidelity must be lived above all in two places, in the liturgy and in the family. If the sacrament is not transforming the public world, it must at least be allowed to transform the domestic world of the family.
What God can do, however, is a different matter. Really, it is important to realize that we have made such a mess of things that only God can help us now. We must live in the hope of a new and greater Epiphany; past fulfillment is the promise of future fulfillment.
What will happen? I see two possibilities: either the establishment of the kingdom of the Antichrist, the anti-sacramental kingdom, followed by Christ’s return in judgment and the final revelation of the heavenly Jerusalem; or a painful purification leading to an earthly triumph of the Immaculate Heart of Mary and a new sacramental kingdom, one that will be purer and more widespread than the ancient kingdoms, more like to the heavenly Jerusalem.