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The Epiphany of the Lord
January 8, 2023

Watch this homily! (Begins at 40:30)

     Evelyn Waugh, the brilliant, British, somewhat curmudgeonly man of letters and author of Brideshead Revisited, once wrote a novel called Helena. It never enjoyed the popularity of Brideshead, but was allegedly Waugh’s favorite among his novels. In one passage, Helena, mother of the Emperor Constantine and searcher for the True Cross, reflects on the coming of the Magi to Bethlehem. Unlike the shepherds, simple and barefoot, who ran across the fields to the stable without a second thought, the Magi traveled long and laboriously with their cumbersome, extravagant, and somewhat outlandish gifts. Their stop to make a diplomatic call on King Herod greatly complicated things and made them arrive in Bethlehem late. So, they missed the angels and all the excitement.

     Helena both understands and pities the Magi. “You are my special patrons,” she says, “patrons of all latecomers, of all who have a tedious journey to make to the truth, all who are confused by knowledge and speculation…of all who stand in danger by reason of their talents.” And she concludes her reflections with this lovely prayer: ”For his sake who did not reject your curious gifts, pray always for all the learned, the oblique, the delicate. Let them not be quite forgotten at the Throne of God when the simple come into their kingdom.”

     It is often said that the Christmas story is best understood by the simple: God’s little ones – the young, the young at heart, the humble, the poor. And there is truth in that for sure. Learning and sophistication can be barriers to getting the Christmas message, or to ‘getting’ God at all, for that matter. But Helena reminds us that there has to be a space for those for whom, because of their very cleverness, faith is foreign territory - people who, to quote the novel, “stand in danger by reason of their talents.” I think, for instance, of people of a rigorous, scientific bent whose restless, probing minds find faith impossible or next to impossible. There are, of course, among believers, great scientists and thinkers whose very brilliance contributes to the clarity and keenness of their faith and ours, but faith is arguably more difficult for them, with the result that many dismiss the very idea of faith as antithetical to reason and as a sellout on human intellect.

     Perhaps the Magi of the Epiphany story can serve as patron saints for just such people who wrestle with the great questions of life and, if they come to faith at all, do so only with great difficulty. The Magi, following the elusive star in the sky, were searchers for truth and seekers after meaning. They will forever speak to the learned and the clever of this world, the talented, and the inquisitive - rigorous scientists, hard-headed empiricists - who find it difficult to impossible to swallow churchy things like revelation and mystery and miracle and grace. For them, an act of faith may be slow in coming but, if and when it does come, it has a special brilliance that grace alone can explain.

     My friends in Christ, the Magi story completes the Christmas story and broadens its appeal.  It is the perfect counterpoint to the story of shepherds at the manger.  The shepherds scurried and saw and simply believed. The Magi searched and wondered, debated, and questioned. But in the end, even if they did arrive a bit over-dressed and burdened with gifts that didn’t quite fit the moment, still they arrived.  And they believed!

Father Michael G. Ryan





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