Ampleforth Abbey

14 December 2017

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Homily preached on the Solemnity of the Epiphany, 5th January 2014, by Abbot Cuthbert Madden.

Dear Brothers and Sisters, at the heart of today’s feast is a very simple story which is laid out for us in the Gospel we have just heard. We are all so used to the glosses on this story that it is likely that we supply them without really thinking – so let us remind ourselves of the story in all its simplicity. Some wise men come to Jerusalem from the East. These men ask Herod the whereabouts of the infant king of the Jews because they have been following his star since it arose in the sky. They are sent to Bethlehem. There they enter the house over which the star has come to rest and find the child with his mother. They worship the child and they offer him three gifts, gold, frankincense and myrrh. Then they depart.

When the story is presented in this way I find myself wondering about nearly all of these sparse details. Who were these wise men? How many men were there? What was the nature of the star that they followed? How did they know that it denoted the birth of the infant king of the Jews? Why did they worship the child and why did they offer these particular gifts? The details which have grown up over the years show that I am not alone in asking questions and craving the additional colour which the glosses give us – details which we see illustrated for us in so many depictions of the nativity, including the nativity scene in the Lady Chapel here. But the very simple story which the Gospel narrative tells is supposed to awaken faith in your heart and in mine – and it is supposed to awaken faith in the hearts of our contemporaries; so let us look at this story and the other readings again and try to understand something of this call to faith.

In the second reading St Paul addresses the Church gathered at Ephesus and tells them that he has been entrusted with the grace meant for them. This grace, he says, is a mystery revealed through the Spirit to his holy apostles and prophets and unknown to men of past ages. When we say “mystery” here we mean that it is a “hidden thing” rather than a “strange thing”. Furthermore, in putting this reading from St Paul alongside this particular Gospel from St Matthew, the Church wants us to make a connection between the two: she wants us to understand that this grace is not a “thing” at all, it is a person – and that person is Jesus Christ, the Jesus Christ whose birth has been described for us by Matthew; the Jesus Christ who was discovered by the wise men.

In times past mankind valued wisdom. Perhaps we still value wisdom today. Perhaps we are still looking for wise men and women. In times past wisdom was not an abstract entity of no particular utility, it was a quality which shaped a whole way of life. Men and women sought those who were wise in order that their lives might be changed, in order that they might live according to the truth, in order that they might draw a little closer to the source of all truth, to God himself, whilst they were still living on this earth. Perhaps we, too, are seeking that kind of wisdom, the kind of wisdom that will shape the way we live, the kind of wisdom that will heal our brokenness and make us whole; the kind of wisdom that will make us holy.

If we are seeking that kind of wisdom, then the readings today make the astonishing declaration that we will find that wisdom in Jesus. The wise men journey from the East to the land of the Jews in order that they may see the wisdom of God. When they find the child they offer gifts and they offer their worship. They are in the presence of the God-child. Before he can speak a word to them he teaches them everything. You and I are able to enter into that same presence if we are prepared to believe. We can enter into his presence through the words of the Gospel and in the sacraments of the Church. In the words of the Gospel we hear Christ teaching us. In the sacraments we receive the gifts of his presence which he entrusted to the Church. If we allow these presences into our lives, then we will be changed – and the Lord God then commands us, as he commanded Paul, to share this grace, this mystery, with those who are around us: it is not a gift to be kept, selfishly, under lock and key; it is a gift which transforms those it touches and it draws others into the same presence.

The intensely holy time of Christmas is now drawing to a close for this year. You and I are already in the process of returning to the mundane reality of day-to-day life. This feast invites us to manifest to others the change it has created in us. For many of us this will be a challenging thought: have I, in fact, been changed by this Christmas? Do I want to draw others into this life-changing reality? The fact that we are present in this Church today tells us that however ambivalent our thoughts may be, however ambiguous or incomplete the God-given change in us is, God is at work – and it is his will that the whole world should be drawn to him. Surely we do not want to wriggle out of our share in this task? In times past the Church made a solemn pronouncement of the date of Easter at this Mass. Easter, another intensely holy, life-changing, time in our year. Today let us resolve to bear witness to our Christian conversion by trying to draw someone else we know into this life-giving way of life, the way of Christ, so that we may celebrate Easter together with them this year.