(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. The word "epiphany" means God's appearance or manifestation of himself in human history, and the readings for today’s Mass describe this manifestation as a light that appears in a world covered in darkness. Christ's coming meant that God didn't leave us in the darkness. He intervened, and made it possible for us to respond to his truth and grace and love, and so come into the light.
Let's start mass then by thinking of the times when we've been doubtful about that, when we've been discouraged about ourselves and others and God, and ask God to heal us and to strengthen our hope in him.
There was an item in one of the newspapers recently which claimed that the period after Christmas is the time of year when the highest number of people feel depressed: because of the weather, because the party season is over, because the credit card bills start to arrive - various reasons. It's become a time of year for a general feeling of gloom and despondency, apparently.
Traditionally the start of a new year was seen more as a time to turn over a new leaf and make New Year's Resolutions. It was a time of year, in other words, which was associated with improvement and the idea of making things better, not with depression and gloom.
And certainly as far as the seasons of the Church's year are concerned, the Christmas Season - which is only a couple of weeks long - is meant to be a season associated with positive themes, with a mood of rejoicing and a message which is worth rejoicing about.
The theme of the Christmas Season is summed up by the words of the angel's announcement "I bring you glad tidings". And the glad tidings themselves are the birth of the Saviour, the unfolding of God's plan, the coming of the divine light into the world, the retreat of the darkness which marks so many areas of human affairs.
This is the imagery, above all, of today's feast. Isaiah, in the first reading, compares the coming of the Lord to the dawn breaking and bringing the night to an end - an image which, on the feast of the Epiphany, we're supposed to associate with the coming of Christ.
The realities of life are such that there are always going to be plenty of things to be depressed about, in our own personal affairs or in the world at large. At this particular moment in time many people look around at the world and they conclude that there are more causes for despair now than there have been for a long time. And they have a point: it's not a particularly Christian attitude to look around at the corrupt and violent state of the world and pretend that things are better than they are.
Our belief that Christ's coming has made a difference, and our belief that his coming is the shining of a light into the darkness, doesn't testify to any belief in our ability, as human beings, to improve ourselves. Time and again that ability proves very limited. It's more a statement about the fact that God has been faithful to his promises: grace and truth have come through Jesus Christ, as St Paul says.
Christ clarifies our vision. His words, his actions, his whole person make God manifest. They show us how to live in relation to God and to each other.
Christ also invites us to enter a Kingdom which is not of this world. He never suggested in fact that the world around us will necessarily improve in any way, or that God's manifestation of himself would automatically bring about an improvement of human behaviour. Quite the reverse: he pointed out quite frequently that the presence or the activity of God would be rejected by the world as a whole, and only recognised or welcomed by a minority.
So although it's no part of a genuine Christian attitude to be indifferent in the face of cruelty and injustice, it is definitely part of our distinctive Christian outlook not to place any ultimate value on the things and the events of this world. The opening prayer for today's feast said as much, with that imagery of God "drawing us beyond the limits which this world imposes" - into the world where his Spirit “makes all life complete”.
So those, briefly, are one or two aspects of the whole Christmas mystery that I think are highlighted particularly by the feast of the Epiphany.
The work of salvation is primarily God's work rather than ours - he has manifested himself and we've got the choice of whether to respond or not. We are all called to respond personally, individually. Christian faith and discipleship mean becoming bearers of God's light in whatever small way we can, even if, on a larger scale, "the darkness" appears to be winning.
And at the same time the work of our salvation is a work which isn't finished or limited within the confines of this world. It will come to its fullness in God's world - in eternity. This is the fact we've always got to keep sight of when we occasionally fall into feelings of despondency or discouragement for any reason.