Saturday, January 5, 2013

Solemnity of the Epiphany

It’s the three wise men, or "magi," who take the center stage in today’s celebration of the Epiphany. Without a doubt, they and their journey to find a newborn king are essential elements in Matthew’s account of Jesus’ birth. However, in spite of their importance, Scripture doesn’t give us much information about them. In fact, it doesn’t even tell us that there were three of them. It wasn’t until later that they were numbered and identified by the traditional names of Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar. Scripture also doesn’t tell us exactly where they came from. Scholars tell us that Persia was a likely country of origin. The mention in today’s psalm of kings from Sheba, or present day Ethiopia, led to the ancient belief that Balthasar was a black African. Scripture, however, is content simply to tell us that they came from the East.

This vague geography is significant, however, as it identifies the wise men as Gentiles, or non-Jewish people. They foreshadow the truth that God in Jesus would gather people from every corner of the world into one, universal, catholic community that we know as "Church." No one would be excluded from this assembly. Instead, all men and women, regardless of race, color, ancestry, ethnicity, or country of origin, would be invited to take their place within the new people of God.

Indeed, we discover this theme throughout our entire liturgy today. The Opening Prayer reminded us that, through the guidance of a star, Jesus was revealed to people of every nation. The reading from Isaiah and the psalm which followed spoke of people from all nations coming to Jerusalem to praise the Lord. And we heard St. Paul explain to the Ephesians that the good news of the gospel and membership in the church are meant for everyone- both Gentiles and Jews.

It could be that Paul had to stress this point because some people resisted it or found it difficult to accept. Unfortunately, this continues to be a problem today, and that’s what makes Paul’s words so relevant to our contemporary situation. They speak directly to the continuing scourge of racism and discrimination in the world, in our nation, and in the Church.

As many of you know, Catholics have been victims of racism and discrimination throughout the history of our nation. Here in Maryland, Catholics suffered greatly from 1690 to 1776 under unjust "penal laws." In the first half of the nineteenth century, anti-Catholicism was a strong social and political force. For instance, the American or "Know-Nothing" party, which sought to exclude Catholics from public office and block Catholic immigration, received one fifth of the vote in the presidential election of 1856. In the 1920’s, the revived Ku Klux Klan vented their rage against Catholics and burned crosses in their yards. "No Irish Need Apply" was a warning seen in help wanted ads as late as the 1940’s. And according to some scholars, anti-Catholicism is still a potent force today, especially in the media.

Perhaps in response to this experience, American Catholics- especially recently- have often been in the front lines of efforts to end discrimination and promote religious freedom and racial justice. The second Archbishop of Washington, Cardinal O’Boyle, courageously integrated our parochial schools before the public schools were. He stood on the stage near Dr. Martin Luther King when he gave his "I Have a Dream" speech. And standing in the crowd that day was a future Archbishop of Washington, Cardinal McCarrick, then the Dean of Students at Catholic University, who carried a sign calling for equal employment rights. Today, our Church advocates the rights of recent immigrants to our country, many of whom are Hispanic, Asian, and Africa. And our official Catholic Catechism states clearly that discrimination and racism are wrong. It says: "Every form of social or cultural discrimination in fundamental personal rights on the grounds of sex, race, color, social conditions, language, or religion must be curbed and eradicated as incompatible with God’s design." (CCC 1935)

Yet it also must be said that our Catholic record on this issue is mixed. Maryland Jesuits held slaves during the colonial era. Until 1948, the Archdiocese of Washington had a dual parish structure- some churches for blacks, some for whites- because blacks weren’t welcome at white churches. Many religious orders refused to admit blacks. So at one time did the Knights of Columbus- an organization of which I’m a proud member- leading to the creation of a black group, the Knights of Peter Claver. And racism still plagues our church today. It’s been said that Sunday is the most segregated day of the week in America. As our U.S. bishops recently wrote: Racism is "an evil which endures in our society and in our Church."

As Catholic and American individuals, what can we do to fight racism and discrimination? First, we can pray for racial reconciliation. Second, we need to examine our consciences and attitudes. For instance, do we see ourselves as superior to those of other backgrounds? Do we hate or have animosity towards those of different races? Do negative racial stereotypes contaminate our thoughts, words, and deeds? Do we belong to groups or institutions that subtly reinforce a sense of racial privilege, or at least diminish the contributions of other peoples and cultures? Based on our answers to these questions, we might seek God’s forgiveness in confession and the Holy Spirit’s help in changing our ways. Third, we can vote and advocate for justice and equal rights, and support those groups that promote them. And fourth, we can strive to be welcoming and hospitable to those in our parish and communities who are culturally different from us.

Racism and discrimination divide and wound the one body of Christ, the Church, a body which Christ calls to be lovingly, harmoniously unified in its rich diversity. On this feast of the Epiphany, we’re reminded that Jesus loves everyone, and that everyone should be loved, by those who follow Jesus.

(My book of daily meditations for Lent is now available from Ave Maria Press: It is available also at Amazon: )

1 comment:

Sunday Homilies and Reflections said...

Thanks Fr Scott for sharing this excellent and inspiring homily. Discrimination is eating deep into the fabrics of the Church and the society and something need to be done urgently.