Epiphany: Come Be My Light

Epiphany: Jan. 3, 2010
Isa 60:1-6; Ps 72:1-2, 7-8, 10-13; Eph 3:2-3, 5-6; Matt 2:1-12

This homily was given to a local house of the Religious Sisters of Mercy of Alma, Michigan. My digital voice recorder mysteriously stopped recording just a couple minutes into the homily, so there is no mp3 of this one.

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Two years ago, a collection of letters written by Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta was published as a book. The title was “Come Be My Light”; and I’m sure that many people assumed, as I did, that this title was a prayer by Mother Teresa to our Lord, asking him to come and be her light. And if one assumed further that she prayed these words in India, then she would have borne quite a resemblance to the magi from the east who we see arrive in Jerusalem in today’s gospel reading, asking, “Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We saw his star at its rising and have come to do him homage.”

The arrival of the magi, who were seeking the light of the newborn Messiah, was a pivotal moment in a long history—both a completion and a signal of a new beginning. This is a story that one of my Scripture professors often emphasized: that in the history of salvation, the Lord always intended to work through his chosen ones to reach the entire world. When the Lord first called Abram in the Book of Genesis, he told him [12:1-3], “Go forth from the land of your kinsfolk and from your father’s house to a land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you; … And in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.

From Abraham came a family, and then a tribe, a group of tribes, a nation: and God brought them out of Egypt, and gave them the law, and taught them how to worship him, and brought them to the Promised Land. That the People of Israel were so chosen and so blessed was different from other nations of the earth; as we often recite in Psalm 147 in the Liturgy of the Hours: “He makes his word known to Jacob, to Israel his laws and decrees. He has not dealt thus with other nations, he has not taught them his decrees.” And yet all of this blessing and all of this teaching to Israel, the Lord meant as a means by which he would shine forth to all the nations of the world.

But Israel often found these other nations a threat militarily—both their little pesky neighbors and the great conquering empires that periodically swept through the region. And Israel also found them to be a temptation, pulling them away from the Lord and his covenant. There were moments when their mission seemed to be coming together—as when the Queen of Sheba heard of Solomon’s fame and came to test him; and, after seeing his wisdom and everything around him, declared [1 Kgs 10:9], “Blessed be the Lord, your God, whom it has pleased to place you on the throne of Israel. In his enduring love for Israel, the Lord has made you king to carry out judgment and justice.” But, unfortunately, this shining moment was only a brief one in Israel’s history. Far more of the time, Israel was being led astray by the nations into the worship of false gods, and the use of idols, into different forms of governance, and immoral living, and accumulating riches while ignoring the needy among them. Too often in Israel the light was not shining forth to the nations, but was being smothered.

But this hope was not forgotten. Sometimes the prophets spoke of a future punishment of the nations; but sometimes they spoke of future blessing. Both Isaiah [2:2-3] and Micah [4:1-2] predicted:

In days to come, the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest mountain and raised above the hills.

—which, another of our professors pointed out, is the image of Mount Zion getting bigger, taller than all the mountains of the world. The prophet continues:

All nations shall stream toward it; many peoples shall come and say: “Come, let us climb the Lord’s mountain, to the house of the God of Jacob, that he may instruct us in his ways, and we may walk in his paths.” For from Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.

And we hear this theme repeated in today’s first reading from Isaiah, using the images of light and darkness:

Rise up in splendor, Jerusalem! Your light has come, the glory of the Lord shines upon you. See, darkness covers the earth, and thick clouds cover the peoples; but upon you the LORD shines,… Nations shall walk by your light, and kings by your shining radiance. Raise your eyes and look about; they all gather and come to you:

And by those last centuries before Christ, and during the first century itself, it had begun to happen. As groups of Jewish people settled in towns around the eastern Mediterranean, in the Diaspora, they established synagogues there; and we see in the New Testament indications that some people around them became proselytes, that is, converts to Judaism who submitted to the whole Law; while some are called God-fearers, who associated themselves with Judaism, some even holding completely the doctrinal and moral teaching of Judaism, but without taking on the full ceremonial duties of the Law. There may have been some limited missionary activity going on. In the third Temple in Jerusalem, there was a Court of the Gentiles that covered 35 acres.

And yet, once again, for all the good parts to this story, there were also the bad parts. Many Jews in the Holy Land were only interested in adopting the Hellenistic ways of the nations around them; while others seemed only interested in strictly shunning those who were not Jewish. When Jesus drove the money-changers out of the Temple, they had probably been operating within the Court of the Gentiles, rather than in the other part of the city set aside for this purpose. The merchants cared more about their convenience while doing business, than about the souls of the peoples around them who needed to be brought to the Lord.

But in the fullness of time, a star appeared. The pagan prophet Balaam had prophesied some 1400 years earlier [Num 24:17]: A star advanced from Jacob, and a staff rose from Israel. Through Isaiah [49:6], the Lord had said: “It is too little … for you to be my servant, to raise up the tribes of Jacob, and restore the survivors of Israel; I will make you a light to the nations—Lumen Gentium—that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.” Our Lord Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judah; and the nations did come from the ends of the earth to find him and do him homage.

They came in the persons of the magi. And I love the sentence in the commentary that explains that the name “magi” suggests Persia; while the fact that they studied astrology suggests Babylon; but the gifts that they brought suggests Arabia, or the deserts of Syria. Persia, Babylon, Arabia… the magi could have come from any of these, or all of them. But at long last, Israel’s light had come, and the glory of the Lord shone upon them. The true light, which enlightens everyone, had come into the world [John 1:9]. Darkness covered the earth, but there the Lord shone. And once again, as with the Queen of Sheba in the days of King Solomon a thousand years earlier, kings had come, seeking grace and bringing gifts: gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

For all of us who descend ethnically from other nations than the People of Israel, this is our feast day.

Christ is the light of the world, as we hear again and again in the Gospel of John. And to his disciples, in the Sermon on the Mount [Matt 5:14], he says, “You are the light of the world.” The Gospel of Matthew, which recounts the coming of the magi, concludes with his Great Commission [28:19]: “Go … and make disciples of all nations…” And for 2000 years the Church has done this, spreading this light, of the call of Abraham, and even more of the Star of Bethlehem, into every land and every nation and every single heart that we possibly can. All the families of the earth have indeed been blessed. And so the coming of the magi was both a completion of one promise and the signal of a new beginning, of a mission that continues to this day.

That title of the book of Mother Teresa’s letters—and I haven’t actually read the book yet, but I have heard this much, and I find it fascinating—that title isn’t Mother Teresa’s prayer to Jesus, but Jesus’ invitation to her. Come Be My Light. In 1947, she wrote that she heard our Lord say:

“My little one, come, come, carry me into the holes of the poor. Come, be My light. I cannot go alone. They don’t know Me so they don’t want me. You come, go amongst them. Carry Me with you into them. How I long to enter their holes, their dark, unhappy homes. Come, be their victim. In your immolation, in your love for Me, they will see Me, know Me, want Me.”

This was part of what led Mother Teresa to found her Missionaries of Charity. Now, we understand that through the course of her life, Blessed Teresa did not always feel much light within herself. But we know what a light she was: not only to the poor in Calcutta, but to us, each of us, in our own lives! In her, the light of Christ shone brightly in the darkness of the late 20th century. And it still shines today, as the U.S. Postal Service recently announced that it will release a Mother Teresa stamp during this year.

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it [John 1:5]. Christ continues to shine through his baptized. He continues to draw to himself every nation, race, people, and tongue. And he shines especially brightly through those whom he has called to be espoused to him as consecrated religious. Another of my professors said that religious are like a billboard for the Gospel. And so, for a second reason, this is your feast day.

“Nations shall walk by your light, and kings by your shining radiance. Raise your eyes and look about; they all gather and come to you: your sons come from afar, and your daughters in the arms of their nurses.” “Just so, your light must shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your heavenly Father.” [Matt 5:16]

“Come, be my light.”

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