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Today, we Americans celebrate the solemnity of the Epiphany of the Lord Jesus; in other parts of the world, it will be celebrated on the traditional date of Jan. 6. The word “epiphany” comes from the Greek word for “manifestation.” It is applied to today’s holy day since it celebrates the calling forth of the Magi from the East and the declaration that the long-awaited Anointed Savior has come and is not only the redeemer of the Chosen People of old, but of every people and nation.
The lesson of the Epiphany is clear: The Savior has come for all. The new covenant that he establishes is a home for everyone.
Although foretold in the prophecies, the reality of all people – Jew and Gentile – being welcomed together to worship God and receive his divine favor was earth-shattering. It was a move beyond human expectation. God’s blessings were formerly reserved to Israel, but now they are open to all. Such a shift was the most universal, multicultural, diverse, tolerant, inclusive, thoroughly catholic act in human history. In one move, the Hebrew, Greek, Roman, and every other culture on earth, found a shared home in the covenant of Jesus Christ.
It was a novelty to think that everyone – all tongues, tribes, and peoples – could dwell together in peace. Until this radical inclusion, people were defined by their geographical or cultural associations. In the new covenant, however, all men and women would come together and be true brothers and sisters to one another.
No longer would God’s covenant hinge upon a physical blood line. Now, the covenant is open to anyone who hears the word of God and surrenders their lives to it. Salvation is now based on a decision, an act of freedom, and on a person’s way of life.
Such a broad and unparalleled openness brought a certain freshness and irresistibility to the Gospel message.
On this Epiphany, we have to ask: Where is that vitality now?
In one of the Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI’s writings, he makes the passing statement that the West has become “existentially bored” with the Christian message. It’s a surprising statement – not only because of its candor – but because it hits the heart of the challenge posed to the Gospel and the Church in a post-Christian world.
It appears that the former novelty of the Christian faith has now become the norm. Contemporary Western culture – marked by its raging secularism – takes multiculturalism and universality for granted. It falsely assumes them to be the way things have always been, and neglects the very principles that give them a foundation and substance.
In losing this bedrock, secular society is left with a multiculturalism that lacks both a culture and a religious cult. It has no core. Rather than being a principle of unity, it becomes its own entity and is adhered to in its own right, but there’s nothing there. The means becomes an end, and an end that is empty.
In making his observation about the West, the pope emeritus does not leave us in desolation. He assesses the existential boredom of the West and provides some insight on regaining the zeal and energy that is the true mark of the Gospel.
Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI calls the Church herself back to the springs of the Gospel, namely, to a fidelity to the message of Jesus Christ and a desire to be his friend, have fellowship with him, and invite others into this friendship. He calls the Church to an simpler time when the Gospel was first proclaimed in all its novelty and newness.
Admittedly, the task is harder. The West thinks it knows the Gospel message, it uses its language (although redefined and misapplied), and the message has been boxed into various depictions that are neither accurate nor flattering.
In many respects, the challenge is similar to that of Jerusalem when the Magi arrived there. With King Herod, the city was distressed by the news that the Savior had come. Rather than rejoice, which anyone would have expected, the city was filled with anxiety. Such restlessness then was caused (and is caused today) by a neglect in knowing and celebrating the prophecies and the providence of God.
Union with Jesus Christ isn’t nurtured – or renewed – by compromise or false accommodation to prevalent ideologies or cultural worldviews. As with ancient Jerusalem, so with secular Western society today, the sap is lost when the root has been neglected. The tree, however, does not need to die. It simply has to be given renewed care and tender attention.
The invitation for believers on this Epiphany, therefore, is to live their friendship with Jesus Christ in a bold and kindly fashion and then to share that friendship with others.
Follow Father Jeffrey Kirby on Twitter: @fatherkirby