When a Star Isn’t a Star – An Epiphany Sermon on Matthew 2:1-12

When a Star Isn’t a Star – An Epiphany Sermon on Matthew 2:1-12

Beautiful meditation on this Feast Day.

[The epiphany of Christ didn’t happen only when the wise men arrived at the house where the child was. Their entire experience was epiphany. Observing “the star at its rising” was epiphanal. Their journey to Bethlehem was epiphanal. Seeing “the child with Mary his mother” was epiphanal. Offering their gifts was epiphanal.]

Interrupting the Silence

Star of Bethlehem, Feast of the Epiphany, Wise Men, Magi, Matthew 2:1-12, Sermon Star of Bethlehem by Waldemar Flaig (source)

“For we observed his star at its rising.”

Wise men from the East have followed this star to Jerusalem. They will follow it to Bethlehem. They will be overwhelmed with joy when it stops over the house where the child is. For they have come to pay homage to this child who has been born king of the Jews.

Some people have said that star wasn’t really a star. “No natural star could have traveled such a course nor could it have shone so brilliantly at midday and, furthermore, it stood still over the child,” said one person. He doesn’t believe it was a star in the sky and it’s not because he’s not a Christian or because he’s an unfaithful Christian. To the contrary he is one of the greatest preachers and bishops of the early church, St. John Chrysostom…

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Pope Francis’ Christmas message to Middle East Christians

This is such a moving, beautiful message that Pope Francis sent to Christians in the Middle East, that I had to share part of it.

“The majority of you live in environments which are predominantly Muslim. You can help your Muslim fellow citizens to present with discernment a more authentic image of Islam, as so many of them desire, reiterating that Islam is a religion of peace, one which is compatible with respect for human rights and favors peaceful coexistence on the part of all. This will prove beneficial for them and for all society.

“The tragic situation faced by our Christian brothers and sisters in Iraq, as well as by the Yazidi and members of other religious and ethnic communities, demands that all religious leaders clearly speak out to condemn these crimes unanimously and unambiguously, and to denounce the practice of invoking religion in order to justify them. Your very presence is precious for the Middle East. You are a small flock, but one with a great responsibility in the land where Christianity was born and first spread.”

Pope Francis

You can read the rest of His Holiness’ message here.

Weeping may endure for a day…

Well, this was an unexpected day. I got up with plans for a full day of computer work, housework, writing, cooking. But when I sat down to work, a great wave of depression hit, the most devastating I’ve had in a *long* time. I’ve had a couple of bouts of depression in the past year (and since beginning this blog), but nothing like this in quite a while. I just sat at my desk crying and crying. Whenever it would abate for a while, I’d try to get started on something, and it would hit again. So debilitating.

weeping

I thought I’d skip forward in my schedule to my next session of prayer and scripture reading (I’d done my morning prayers), and believed that would help. Well, it didn’t have an immediate effect, except to hover like a little flame in the back of my mind, reminding me that this will pass. And it’s so good to have now in my life the assurance of God’s presence and love, which I never really had before, when I went through episodes of depression like this.

I finally managed to get a little work done, and a meal made. But that’s about it. Even listening to music, which usually lifts my mood considerably, didn’t do anything for me today. I just had to ride it out…

Things are looking a bit better this evening. I have a delicious meal finishing up, my boys are heading home, I’m listening to beautiful carols (and the music’s finally beginning to cheer me up…) Before, when a major depression hit, it would take days to get over, but I think this time it may pass more quickly, even though it’s been a big one.

Now, it’s off to eat dinner with my family and then more prayer time. “Weeping may endure for a night” (or a day!), “but joy cometh in the morning.”

“It streams from the hills, it descends to the plain…”

In tomorrow’s RCIA class we’ll be discussing Jesus, God the Son, and we’re to bring our favorite picture of Jesus. I decided to ignore my knee-jerk reaction to the idea of “pictures of Jesus”… 🙂 Of course, as a child, I’d been shown numerous depictions of Jesus (including blond ones!) Now that I’m exploring Catholicism, I’ve been introduced to a picture of Jesus that I’d never seen before as a child, and it instantly became my favorite: the Divine Mercy picture.

Divine Mercy

The very thought of God’s mercy leaves me lost for words. I’ll quote here A Body of Divinity by Thomas Watson:

Mercy sweetens all God’s other attributes. God’s holiness without mercy, and his justice without mercy were terrible. When the water was bitter, and Israel could not drink, Moses cast a tree into the waters, and then they were made sweet. How bitter and dreadful were the other attributes of God, did not mercy sweeten them! Mercy sets God’s power on work to help us; it makes his justice become our friend…

God’s mercy is free. To set up merit is to destroy mercy. Nothing can deserve mercy. “I will love them freely.” Hosea 14: 4 …

God’s mercy is an overflowing mercy; it is infinite. “Plenteous in mercy.” Psalm 86: 6 …

God’s mercy is eternal. “The mercy of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting.” Psalm 103: 37. “His mercy endureth forever” is repeated twenty-six times in one psalm, Psalm 136. …

Oh tell others of God’s goodness, that you may set others blessing him, and that you may make God’s praises live when you are dead…

Imitate God in showing mercy. As God is the Father of mercy, show yourselves to be his children by being like him. Ambrose says, “The sum and definition of religion is, Be rich in works of mercy, be helpful to the bodies and souls of others. Scatter your golden seeds; let the lamp of your profession be filled with the oil of charity. Be merciful in giving and forgiving. ‘Be ye merciful, as your heavenly Father is merciful.’

Ever since beginning to look into Catholicism, I’ve been contemplating God’s forgiveness and mercy, and about a year ago began praying the Divine Mercy prayers fairly regularly. I believe meditating on God’s boundless love and mercy helps one to get rid of petty ego. Of what possible importance can my little grievances and pissed-off-ness and pouting be compared to what we receive freely and bountifully from God?! The gulf between us and God is simply incredible.

Another new idea to me, from studying Catholicism (so amazing and enjoyable to learn all this!) is the Corporal and Spiritual Works of Mercy that is emphasized in the Church. They are (from the online Catholic Encyclopedia):

Corporal Works of Mercy

  1. Feed the hungry;
  2. Give drink to the thirsty;
  3. Clothe the naked;
  4. Harbor the harborless;
  5. Visit the sick;
  6. Ransom the captive;
  7. Bury the dead.

Spiritual Works of Mercy

  1. Instruct the ignorant;
  2. Counsel the doubtful;
  3. Admonish sinners;
  4. Bear wrongs patiently;
  5. Forgive offenses willingly;
  6. Comfort the afflicted;
  7. Pray for the living and the dead.

Quite a lot to work with, right there! From the same entry on that website we read this definition of mercy:

Mercy as it is here contemplated is said to be a virtue influencing one’s will to have compassion for, and, if possible, to alleviate another’s misfortune. It is the teaching of St. Thomas Aquinas that although mercy is as it were the spontaneous product of charity, yet it is to be reckoned a special virtue adequately distinguishable from this latter. In fact the Scholastics in cataloguing it consider it to be referable to the quality of justice mainly because, like justice, it controls relations between distinct persons. It is as they say ad alterum. Its motive is the misery which one discerns in another, particularly in so far as this condition is deemed to be, in some sense at least, involuntary. Obviously the necessity which is to be succored can be either of body or soul. Hence it is customary to enumerate both corporal and spiritual works of mercy.

I will definitely write more about mercy in future posts, because it’s such a complex and rich topic! And so beautiful and almost incomprehensible…

I’ll leave you for now with this beautiful hymn.

“All have sinned and fall short…”

It’s taken me a long time to answer last week’s RCIA questions, and perhaps you’ll see why:

What has Jesus done to save me?

What is God doing to save me?

Those questions are at the same time deeply personal, and somewhat generic. Anyone with even a passing knowledge of Christianity knows the “generic” answer to at least the first question, and many Christians can probably quote some pertinent Bible verses.

It’s only recently that salvation has become personal for me. “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.” (Saint Augustine) Although blessed with so much, I felt empty until I returned to God. And that’s what Jesus has done to save me. His saving act upon the cross allows us to return to God, it bridges that separation, it enables that close, fulfilling relationship with God.

Throughout those years when I’d left Christianity and “dabbled” in Buddhism, it was as if I were subconsciously trying to work out my own salvation. I knew I was a sinner, feeling exactly as Paul did when he said (in his letter to the Romans):

I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do — this I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it. (Romans 7: 15-20)

I could have said all of that, I was that frustrated with myself! The thing is, Buddhism does not believe in sin or evil, so any wrong thoughts or actions that one does, are supposed to be worked out on the meditation cushion. Calm your mind, and you will eventually no longer react angrily. Be mindful, live in the moment, and eventually you will no longer think impatient thoughts. Meditate on impermanence and you will no longer lust after people or things (because they’re impermanent, after all!) Meditate on your own death, and you will no longer fear death…

Now, I’m not saying this doesn’t work for some people (and I definitely met many calm, peaceful, happy Buddhists!) but I knew it wasn’t working for me. I was the same, sinful me after a decade of daily meditation as I was going in! The only thing different, was my despair at my feelings of emptiness and what I termed “spinning my wheels”. If I could have put it into words, I’d have said, “What I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.”

And I also felt a desperate, almost despairing, need to believe in God! And although I felt the separation from God in my life, I also felt the potential for closeness, often while I was meditating — that thrill when the quiet in a room anticipates a sound, rather than dead silence. After awhile I could no longer deny that Presence. I could no longer deny my need for God. I need God to fill that emptiness and longing in my life. I need God to thank with overflowing gratitude for my blessings! I especially need God so that I can quit the endless, useless spinning of my wheels.

In my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death? Thanks be to God who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord! (Romans 7: 22-25)

We hear as children, “God is Love”, but I needed to experience that first-hand before I could believe it. For the first time I feel and believe I am loved and forgiven by God. I’m not sure what changed, except making small decisions to believe. To believe I could pray to Mary and she would hear my pleas for change in my life. To believe that the Presence I detect, and have been conscious of at moments throughout my life, is God’s Presence. To believe that the voice in my heart that is nudging me in certain directions is God’s Voice. To believe that my prayers and thoughts and gratitude and love for God are received. And to believe that this movement out of despair and lostness and toward God’s love and acceptance will continue.

God's Presence

And it is through Christ’s atoning sacrifice that I can be accepted back! “Just as sin ruled over all people and brought them to death, now God’s wonderful kindness rules instead, giving us right standing with God and resulting in eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.” (Romans 5: 21) I am so happy that I finally get it! 🙂

And emphasis on God’s wonderful kindness! It’s: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son…” Not “for God was so annoyed at the world”, or “for God so despaired of the world”, or “for God was so angry at the world”. Those reactions would have been justified, but I never experienced that from God when I returned to him. I only felt love and happiness! God freely gives of himself! It was Christ’s free gift that saves us! “My Father loves Me, because I lay down My life that I may take it up again. No one takes it from Me, but I lay it down of Myself. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again.” (John 10: 17-18)

And I recognize that this is an ongoing process. I lay down my sinful self before Christ in the Eucharist, and he atones for my and others’ sins. I constantly try to die to my sinful self, and instead live for Christ in me. I hope to continue to serve him the rest of my days. “I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God, than to dwell in the tents of wickedness!”

“Start with the person in the mirror, not the stranger on the sidewalk.”

It is the Holy Spirit’s job to convict, God’s job to judge, and my job to love.

Billy Graham

A beautiful, beautiful video:

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If Christians spent half as much time working on their own lives as they do trying to work on other people’s lives, maybe Christ would be real to the rest of the world. Don’t forget what you were saved out of, the mercy you received, and the love that you didn’t deserve…

At the end of the day, we are all people on this road we call life, and when the sun sets at the end of that ride, it won’t matter what you told other people to do. It will only matter what you did yourself.

Clayton Jennings

So happy to have found this fellow’s videos while browsing YouTube today. What a wonderful person! 🙂