Happy feast of the Epiphany! The word epiphany comes from the Greek epiphaneia, which means “appearance” or “manifestation.” Epiphany celebrates the manifestation of Jesus Christ to the world, represented by the magi, who traveled from distant lands to pay homage to the newborn king.
For today’s reflection, I will draw key points from a homily given by St. John Vianney (1786- 1859) taken from a book entitled, The Sermons of the Cure D’ Ars, St. John Marie Vianney: For the Sundays and Feasts of the Year. He became known as a great preacher of his time with a focus on the lukewarmness and relaxed morality that was present in France following the French Revolution. St. John Vianney’s words remain relevant and compelling today, given the lukewarmness and relaxed morality in our current world.
He begins by identifying the magi as our forefathers and models of faith. Before Jesus was born, the world was in a spiritual darkness. Yes, God was present to man under the Old Covenant, but He had not yet fully revealed Himself and His plan for salvation to mankind. Only through Jesus, the Light of the World, was the fullness of God’s love and His plans for us illuminated. When the magi saw the brilliant star in the sky, signifying the manifestation of Jesus to the world, they dropped everything to follow the star and seek out the Messiah of us all. St. John Vianney tells us that they did not ask any questions or waste any time in making their way toward Him. He then laments that we do not follow the magi’s example as our models of faith and drop everything to make our way to Jesus quickly. He preaches that God has extended His grace to us many times, but we remain “deaf and stiff-necked,” unwilling to renounce our sinful ways.
St. John Vianney describes how the magi’s journey was challenging, yet they remained steadfast in their resolve to complete it. They had to make many sacrifices to see this through, including giving up the comforts of their homes, families, and material belongings. They had to suffer the fatigue of the journey, the elements of the seasons, and the lack of welcome from those who did not recognize the strangers. Their faith in this calling was so strong that none of these sacrifices or difficulties deterred them. They remained steadfast in pursuing their journey of faith. St. John Vianney asks us what comforts we are willing to give up and what sacrifices we are eager to make to pursue Jesus in our own lives. He references those who chase satisfaction in temporal affairs, such as earning more money. Or, worse yet, those who spend their week in the pursuit of money, only to spend what they’ve earned at the saloon on Saturday. We find comfort in earthly pleasures, neglecting our call to reject these comforts like the magi in search of greater heavenly comfort, which can only be obtained through sacrifice.
Once the magi arrived in Jerusalem, where the star had led them, St. John Vianney imagines they would have been surprised to find no signs of rejoicing within the city, as if the citizens there were unaware their Savior had been born and was in their very midst. Knowing their own long and arduous journey to see Him, they would have expected a great deal of fanfare but instead found only some shepherds.
Might they not expect that it would happen to them, as it had happened to the Blessed Virgin and St. Joseph, namely, that the crowd of people would be so great that they would find no room? Could they possibly doubt that the Jews who had waited four thousand years for the coming of the Messiah, would hasten in great multitudes to prostrate themselves before the crib and acknowledge Him as their Redeemer and their God? But no, my brethren; no one stirred; they were living in darkness, and they remained in it. A true picture of the sinner, who continually hears the voice of God, calling him by the voice of his shepherds, that he must renounce his sins, and be converted, instead of which he only plunges deeper into sin and becomes more and more hardened.
He then suggests that many of the inhabitants of Jerusalem may have been surprised to see the magi arrive from a tiresome journey to visit a poor, unremarkable infant on the outskirts of town. St. John Vianney identifies this as a trial of faith, one that we all experience if we are pursuing Jesus with the same abandon as the magi. It does not take much insight to look around our cities and towns today and see that their inhabitants remain ignorant that their Savior is in their very midst, most notably in the Holy Eucharist. There is no rejoicing in our streets. When we, as Christians, pursue Him passionately amid so many unbelievers, we are ridiculed and mocked for seeing with eyes of faith what they cannot see through their spiritual blindness. Yet, the magi did not turn around in their lonely pursuit; instead, it strengthened their resolve.
The magi’s persistent faith is rewarded when they finally lay eyes on the infant King. Every sacrifice, discomfort, ridiculing word, and difficulty they faced on the long journey paled in comparison to the means of salvation in the humble infant. Moreover, had they not heeded the call, proceeded in faith, and endured those difficulties, they would have remained in darkness with the rest of the world. They realized the gift that lay before them and prostrated themselves in thanksgiving for that gift.
St. John Vianney challenges us: Do we want to imitate the magi who made the long and arduous journey or the inhabitants of Jerusalem who had Jesus very close, but remained blind? He asks us:
…do we love poverty, humiliations, and contempt? Do we prefer Christianity above all honors, and everything which this world possesses and desires? Do we entertain that respect, that longing, and that zeal to draw all the graces we can find from the Sacraments which our Lord so lavishly bestows upon us? Imitate therefore the Wise men. If you hear the word of God, listen immediately; be strong in your faith in spite of difficulties, and never allow it to waver, but preserve it constantly; so that you, with the Wise men, will have the grace of beholding your God face to face in the hereafter – a blessing which I wish you all.
As we take stock of our own lives in this new year, may we reflect on this challenge from St. John Vianney and ensure that we are seeking, and preferring, Jesus and Christianity above all else.
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