The hope of a renewed humanity
(Readings: Isaiah 60:1-6; Ephesians 3:2-3a, 5-6; Matthew 2:1-12)
Introduction to Mass
Today is the feast of the Epiphany, celebrating the appearance or manifestation of God in the person of Christ. In the gospel Saint Matthew shows the Wise Men from the East bowing down in adoration of the infant Jesus, symbolising the fact that the whole human race is now invited to join a single community of salvation under the lordship of Christ.
My brothers and sisters, to prepare ourselves to celebrate the sacred mysteries…
The theme of the Epiphany is summed up very well by the words which today’s Preface to the Eucharistic Prayer addresses to God the Father. It says:
“Today you revealed in Christ your eternal plan of salvation and showed him as the light of all peoples. Now that his glory has shone among us you have renewed humanity in his immortal image”.
The feast of the Epiphany celebrates the optimism at the heart of the Christian faith. The human race, fallen from it’s original state of grace and friendship with God, lives in darkness in many ways, but God has rescued us and brought us into the light – especially through Christ’s appearance and his life and work. We’re not trapped in the dark and the squalor of sin. Salvation – light, truth, love, holiness - is possible. A “renewed humanity” is possible.
That optimism, and the belief that moral and spiritual renewal is possible, is something that appears to be in short supply at the moment, at least in the culture we live in.
There’s nothing in the culture at large now that gives rise to a sense of purpose, to the sense that our lives, or history in general, are directed towards a particular goal, morally and spiritually. Rather people are haunted, I think, by the suspicion that life is aimless, random, arbitrary – and therefore meaningless.
Many of the products of popular culture at the moment – novels, films, television plays and so on - reflect a strange sort of pessimism, a despair about human nature and the possibilities of ordinary moral goodness.
The assumption underlying many contemporary fictional offerings seems to be that human beings are simply intelligent animals, driven by appetites and compulsions that they can hardly control. There’s a fascination with our violent, predatory, destructive capacities, which at bottom is an expression of hopelessness about the possibility of moral improvement.
We seem to live, on the whole, in a time of exhaustion.
It’s a long time since the Christian faith had a significant influence on the shape of British culture: what we see now isn’t the failure of Christian ideas and values.
What we’re witnessing at the present moment is the final collapse of the hopes and ideals that came after Christianity: the progressive hopes generated after the end of the Second World War and through the nineteen-sixties about the possibility of creating a better, more just society, a peaceful order throughout the world.
It’s those aspirations that people now have lost faith in.
So if that’s the state of secular culture, how should we react, as Christians? What conclusions should we draw as the community of believers living in the midst of this disorientation and hopelessness?
First of all I think we should abandon the diffident, apologetic attitude that church people have tended to assume in recent times.
The Christian religion actually compares very favourably with the tawdry vision of life embodied in today’s secular culture, and we should be prepared to criticise, and expose, the shallowness of modern culture next to the depth of our own great tradition and the riches of Christian spirituality.
The way of life that Christian faith advocates compares quite well to the modern idea that life is an endless cycle of work, shopping and entertainment, so why should we be shy in putting our Christian vision forward to people?
Second, we should show a bit more self-confidence about evangelising and appealing to people to embrace Christian faith and the Christian way of life.
In the second reading today Saint Paul writes with great enthusiasm about the need to announce the new message of salvation to everyone, pagans now as well as Jews, to bring as many people as possible into the light of faith.
We should be as willing as Paul was to challenge people to start looking at life in Christian categories: we’re not just clever animals, fated to endlessly prey off one another in various sophisticated ways.
Salvation, holiness, the perfection of love are possible, when we place ourselves wholeheartedly under God's influence. Every individual man and woman is called to live in communion with God, to share the holiness of his life, and it’s the forward-movement of that journey that’s meant to provide purpose and direction to our lives. It’s when we turn away from that calling or close ourselves off from God’s grace that we flounder.
The same point is made in a different way by Saint Matthew in today’s gospel reading. Twice he refers to the “homage” that the Wise Men pay the infant Jesus. This is our basic condition: we’re religious beings, we have the seeds of divine life in us and we only find our full vocation in union and service and adoration of God.
So instead of always deferring to the unbelieving outlook, why don’t the followers of Christ find the courage to say that apart from union, service and adoration of God, there’s no hope of salvation for humanity, and that’s part of the reason for our present predicament?
When they found, in Christ, the revelation of the true God, the Magi were happy to abandon their former beliefs and practices and surrender themselves to him. Like Saint Paul, Matthew is proposing that everyone – anyone who reads his gospel - imitates their example and follows the same path.
I believe the time is ripe for the fellowship of Christians, the Church, to re-state some of the basic convictions and basic truths of our faith.
Precisely at a time when society appears in so many ways to have reached the end of its tether, and can no longer generate any sense of hope or purpose for people’s lives, we have to try again to explain the salvation that Christ’s appearance has made possible, and invite people to step out of the dark, out of a Godless vision of life, and into the light of the gospel.