Sunday, January 3, 2016: Feast of the Epiphany
USCCB link to all three readings here.
Matthew 2: 1-12
When Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea,
in the days of King Herod,
behold, magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem, saying,
“Where is the newborn king of the Jews?
We saw his star at its rising
and have come to do him homage.”
When King Herod heard this,
he was greatly troubled,
and all Jerusalem with him.
Assembling all the chief priests and the scribes of the people,
He inquired of them where the Christ was to be born.
They said to him, “In Bethlehem of Judea,
for thus it has been written through the prophet:
And you, Bethlehem, land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
since from you shall come a ruler,
who is to shepherd my people Israel.”
Then Herod called the magi secretly
and ascertained from them the time of the star’s appearance.
He sent them to Bethlehem and said,
“Go and search diligently for the child.
When you have found him, bring me word,
that I too may go and do him homage.”
After their audience with the king they set out.
And behold, the star that they had seen at its rising preceded them,
until it came and stopped over the place where the child was.
They were overjoyed at seeing the star,
and on entering the house
they saw the child with Mary his mother.
They prostrated themselves and did him homage.
Then they opened their treasures
and offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod,
they departed for their country by another way.
There is a businessman’s train that runs daily between Colon, Panama, at the northern entrance to the Canal, and the outskirts of Panama City, the southern end of the canal. Last year my cruise ship arranged for us to take the train along the entire length of the Canal for sightseeing purposes. I could not help but notice that we cruisers were the only ones on the train, so I asked the guide about that. The answer: our trip happened to fall on December 8, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, which in Panama is a national/federal holiday. When I married my wife, who had spent a good portion of her adult life in Puerto Rico, she reminded me that in Hispanic culture the Feast of the Epiphany, on January 6, is a day of great cultural and religious significance. It is good to remember these things when we address the observance of Epiphany in the United States. (The Wikipedia entry for Epiphany is very useful for a detailed history.)
There is a rather wide divergence on the meaning and priority of the feasts of the Incarnation between eastern and western Christianity as well. There is a wealth of good information on the development of the Christmas feasts, and I find Adolf Adam’s The Liturgical Year: Its History and Meaning in the Reform of the Liturgy (1981, 1990) a very useful source on this subject. It came as a bit of a surprise to me to discover that in Eastern Christendom, for example, the January 6 observance of the Epiphany actually combined three distinct events: (1) the visit to the young Jesus by the Magi; (2) the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist, and (3) the miracle of the Wedding Feast of Cana. It is not surprising, then, that in much of the Christian world the Epiphany takes preference over the December 25 feast.
In the Roman Missal used in the United States, something of the Epiphany’s grandeur is lost by the fact that in most years the feast is not celebration in union with other Catholics and Christians around the world on January 6. In the post-Vatican II reform, conferences of bishops were given permission to transfer the feast to the first Sunday after the Octave of Christmas (i.e. to a date between January 2 and January 7. (There is a similar transfer of the Ascension, from its traditional Thursday setting to the following Sunday, the Seventh Sunday of Easter, in many but not all dioceses of the U.S.) The permission to transfer such important feasts may have liturgical roots in the principle of the sanctity of the Sunday observance, or it may be a concession that in the U.S., for example, people just “don’t do midweek solemnities.”
In America this weekend we will hear Matthew’s Gospel, a selection from his own Christmas narrative, which differs in considerable ways from Luke’s, who makes no mention of the wise men or Herod. To best understand Matthew’s unique inclusion, it is very helpful—necessary, in fact—to look at the first reading from Isaiah, using the USCCB link above. Isaiah 60 comes from the apocalyptic tradition of prophesy. It is easy to fall into the trap of viewing Jewish messianic expectation in a monolithic fashion, that everyone over twelve centuries looked forward to a wondrous king, the true Son of David. (At Palm Sunday Mass, we hear the crowds cry out, “Hosanna to the Son of David.”)
However, Israel already had a long line of “sons of David,” a monarchical succession extending from Saul, David, and Solomon to the unfortunate soul who oversaw the destruction of Jerusalem and the Babylonian captivity around 590 BC. While many returning Jews maintained the hope of a new David to deliver them from a new series of conquerors, the Romans most of all, there grew a significant body of biblical literature that—with its apocalyptic/prophetic stance, began to conceive of the future in a new and glorious way—a victory of faith rather than the sword. The author of Isaiah 60—and many like him—came to understand that Israel’s destiny was not to conquer the planet as it had Canaan under a kingly/military savior. Rather, such prophets saw the role of Israel in the world as the religious center of the earth, the light of the nations, the “city on the hill” image that so captivated early settlers in North America centuries later.
Isaiah 60 describes the futuristic pilgrimage to Jerusalem from the four corners of the earth. Clearly Matthew drew from this source in depicting a vignette in which wise men/magi/astrologers (the best and the most insightful of the pagan world) would come bearing a curious array of gifts symbolic of both majesty and suffering—a gesture of remarkable pagan insight when you think of it. Matthew observes that these pagans prostrated themselves and rendered homage to the person of Jesus. These wise men are the first of the pagans who would stream to Jesus and his subsequent community as the New Jerusalem, a procession that would last until the end of time.
If Luke’s Christmas narrative is an attempt to bring the Hebrew past into the experience of Jesus of Nazareth and his community of believers, Matthew’s Christmas narrative takes the early Judeo-Christian Church into the universal salvation of the future. Next year in Cycle A we will have the opportunity to pick up the Matthean theme of Jesus as the new Moses, establishing the Kingdom of God as the City on the Hill where the Sons of Abraham, by their faith and witness, would draw the truly wise from all times and all nations.
Today is professional development day for church workers here at the Café, and given the proximity to Christmas I’m not doing any research work today for the post—other than recollect some helpful professional pointers I learned over a quarter-century of active Church ministry.
One: no matter how many Sundays in Advent you announce warnings that your 4 PM Christmas Vigil Mass will look like a stampede for free Super Bowl tickets when the doors open at 3 PM, you will still get the running of the bulls at Pamplona at 3 PM.
Two: As a corollary to number one, a number of parishioners will complain they didn’t get “their” seats.
Three: If you have a second or overflow Mass in another facility like a social hall, and you temporarily hide the collection in the refrigerator for later retrieval, don’t defrost said freezer till you’ve checked it carefully.
Four: Have a strategy in place when one of your “royal families” sends one person to reserve the front two pews at the 4 PM Vigil. (And when you come up with a good one, kindly share it with us.)
Five: If you have a visit from Santa before Christmas Eve Mass, make sure he sticks to the pastor’s script and hasn’t had a few dips in the egg nog beforehand.
Six: If parking is usually a problem in Ordinary Time, for Christmas you want to have a chorale in the lot singing either “Let There Be Peace On Earth” or “We Are Farmers, bum bum bum bum bum bum bum.”
Seven: If you take the time to correct everyone at Christmas Masses who receives communion in a liturgically inappropriate fashion, you’ll be at it till January 7.
Eight: If you are a pastor, do not schedule yourself for both Midnight Mass and 6 AM Shepherds Mass.
Nine: Have your furnace or air conditioning vendor on speed dial on Christmas Eve.
Ten: Keep a roll of scotch tape in the sacristy so you can tape the identifying card or tag to the right present. Trust me, does that ever save embarrassment.
Eleven: Rein in the diva cantors.
Twelve: (For pastors) I would wait till the church lot clears before you transport all those bottles to your car or over to the house.
Thirteen: After your church has offered hundreds of hours of confessions during Advent, someone will ask at ten minutes to midnight.
Fourteen: Yes, people do call for the time of Midnight Mass.
Fifteen: Someone will complain of being allergic to poinsettias.
Sixteen: Somewhere in the Christmas sermon there will be the mandatory inclusion of the word “materialism.”
Seventeen: There is no aroma anywhere exactly like the empty church immediately after Midnight Mass.
Eighteen: If history is any teacher, there will be folks in church watching the Chargers and the Raiders game on their phones this year on Christmas Eve.
Nineteen: Eating Christmas cookies for dinner during the Christmas Eve schedule does save time but results in the worst heartburn during Midnight Mass.
Twenty: Someone will demand to know why you don’t have a Christmas Mass in (insert any language).
Twenty-one: All savvy Christmas church announcements from the pulpit contain a reminder that it is not too late to make a sizeable gift for year-end tax advantage.
And this really happened to me once: I was shutting down the church for the last time after the final Christmas morning Mass, when a man I recognized as a very irregular attendant came into the sacristy and said that he had accidentally dropped a $100 bill in the collection plate, and could he swap it out for a $5. You don’t want to know what I said.
I appreciate your patience over the last few days as I have been away. The Cafe will be open tomorrow (Thursday) if customs allows me back into the US. I have not been able to post this week so far. When I saw the Internet rates on board my ship, I was reminded that there are still "Pirates of the Caribbean." But I look forward to joining you again. I am currently connected to a wi-fi on a passing Mexican cargo ship, but it is disappearing over the horizon so I better sign off and prepare for my next regular entry, on the Seventh Commandment. Have a great day!
I am taking a break from our regular Wednesday structured professional development discussion to talk about a seasonal matter, namely the jolly fat man who really enjoys his cookies on Christmas Eve. No, I am not talking about myself, but rather Santa Claus. I have had several traumas in my life regarding Santa over the years, several when I was young and several as an adult. One of my recent intellectual jolts was the discovery that Santa’s now familiar red outfit was the invention of the Coca Cola company. (Wikipedia disputes this, noting that White Rock Beverages was first to do so, small comfort to me.) But I was really floored the other day when an old friend of mine from the minor seminary—who has become a dedicated Catholic deacon and missionary in Central America—posted on his Facebook site that Santa threw a punch at a heretic at the Council of Nicaea in 325 A.D.
Let me sort this out. I suspect that most of you know the true origin of Santa Claus. He is the fourth century Bishop of the Greek city of Myra, St. Nicholas. Every 73 minutes my cable music provider plays the old tune “Jolly Old St. Nicholas,” so that settles that. The name Santa Claus traces back to “Saint Klaus” or holy (Ni)colas. This bishop Nicholas is one of Christianity’s true “characters.” Sorting out the fact from the esteemed myth is hard to do, and I made a good effort, but in the end I just went with the best stories that have survived the rigors of time.
Nicholas was probably a much loved churchman by his flock. He led a tax revolt, arguing with the Emperor that taxes were bankrupting Myra. The tradition of Santa leaving gifts goes back to a situation where three young women in Myra could not marry because their father was too poor to provide dowries. Nicholas reportedly left three bags of gold on their window sill in the stealth of night so that the girls could be married to reputable husbands. What Sister Mary of the Pure Heart did not tell you in school was that Nicholas actually rescued the women from a life of prostitution. (Those Roman taxes were indeed quite excessive!)
Our future Santa Claus was, of course, a bishop and naturally invited to the Council of Nicaea in 325 A.D. This council, invoked by the Emperor Constantine, addressed itself to a Trinitarian controversy that was dividing the Church and the Empire, a belief held by many that Jesus was inferior to the Father. This belief is known as Arianism, embodied in the preaching of a priest from Egypt named Arius. At the Council of Nicaea Arius was permitted to explain his position in great deal. He seemed to have received appropriate attention from the bishops, but Nicholas, a staunch defender in the equality of Jesus with the Father (consubstantial, as we say in the Nicene Creed now) was building an enormous rage toward Arius. Finally, Nicholas rose from his seat, approached Arius where he was speaking, and he decked him!
The bishops, aghast at this unsporting display, ripped off his bishop robes, put him in chains, and took him to the Empire Constantine, the object of Nicholas’s tax protests some years earlier. (The bishop of Rome did not attend the Council, in an apparent prerogative dispute with the emperor.) Constantine ruled that since Nicholas had disrupted the bishops’ meeting, the bishops should determine his punishment. Nicholas was chained in a dungeon, but during the night legend has it that he was visited by Jesus and Mary, who broke his chains, restored his vestments of office, and urged him to keep up the fight, metaphorically speaking, of course. Nicholas reportedly repented of his violent act and seems to have been restored to his office. The Council did vote to condemn Arius, his second blow from the assembly.
Wikipedia’s discussion of Santa Claus linked above is quite good, and the development of the Santa persona underwent both theological and culturally diverse strands of development. During the American Civil War, Santa was portrayed in a Union general’s outfit.
There is at least one pastor in this world who is no longer a pastor because of a pastoral pronouncement about Santa. As I was told, the cited pastor was preaching during a Catholic school Mass and he asked the million-dollar question, “Who is coming on Christmas?” Dozens of little first and second grade students in their starched uniforms squealed with delight, “Santa Claus!” That apparently set the pastor in a rage and he informed the entire student body that there was no such thing as Santa Claus. Hell hath no fury, etc., and from what I understand it took the bishop himself to settle things. (I hope that years from now those kids get to see the Marx Brothers movie where Chico famously declares, “there’s no such thing as a sanity clause.”)
As a pastor I felt that Santa Claus/St. Nick embodied the best Christian sentiments of the season, and let’s face it, with the majority of families going to Mass on Christmas Eve, the little ones have so much excitement on their minds. So I purchased a parish Santa Claus suit and the jolly man (certainly jollier than his namesake) would make a visit to the Christmas Eve congregations about 20 minutes before Mass, make a few jokes with the pastor, and then tell the children to listen to the Christmas story at Mass and say their prayers every night. In fifteen years I never got a single complaint from the congregation or from the chancery. But, those were kinder, gentler times in the Church.
One of my youthful traumas occurred just at that time when I was starting to do the math and—God forbid—question the thesis of one man delivering presents to millions of kids. (This was long before Amazon Prime, of course.) On Christmas eve my cousins, aunts and uncles, would gather at my grandparents’ house for a Christmas Eve party. Being old school German Catholics, you could never have fun without pain, so we were forced at the onset to say the rosary on our knees. Only then could we have cookies and share a gift. The party would break up around 9 PM so the grown-ups could get home and take care of Christmas morning preparations.
I was in a snit; I didn’t want to go home, and the “get to sleep before Santa comes” routine was wearing thin. It was a four block drive back home, and we passed three saloons on the way, vintage Buffalo. Grumbling in the back seat, I looked out of the car at the largest of the drinking establishments, and out walked Santa Claus! He reached under his beard, pulled out a pack of cigarettes, and lit up while leaning on the front window. Ignoring the obvious question of why Santa was throwing them back in a tavern on his busy night, I semi-panicked and figured that even allowing for smokes and boiler makers, he would be at my house soon.
Ah, for the days of simple faith and wondrous hopes. Shades of Advent.
P.S. If you have a few minutes, I did find that clip from the Marx Brothers, for your holiday enjoyment.
On our Wednesday Professional Development Day I continue to work with the outline from I Don’t Know What I Want But I Know It’s Not This by Julie Jansen. If you elect to buy it, I recommend the paperback edition which allows you to fill in the inventories and write notes.
When I got into the private practice of psychotherapy I gradually joined the panels of the major insurance carriers and received a fairly steady stream of referrals of individuals who looked me up on their United or Aetna customer website. But a few years in I was approached by several providers about providing EAP or employee assistance counseling. I'm not sure how many employers offer this service today as a benefit, but until recently a number of major businesses made free counseling available for work related stress, usually between three and six sessions. If an EAP patient needed more than six sessions, I could roll them over into their own insurance plans which I honored.
The diagnostic challenge in the EAP brief mode was to determine whether (1) the patient has an existing condition that impacted the job performance, such as depression or substance abuse, or (2) the workplace environment was so dysfunctional that the conditions were impacting the psychological and physical health of the patient/employee. I might add here that over the years, I was an EAP provider for my own diocese--including clergy, Catholic school teachers, and catechists--as well as several county public school systems, along with cable companies and a score of others.
For the first group, treatment planning was standard enough—or as “standard” as it can be for dealing with the internal pain of the psyche. There are protocols for newly presented depressions that most practitioners follow, tailored to the specific need of the patient, who is thoroughly briefed on treatment options and participates in the treatment planning. The second group of EAP patients, those walking wounded from the work force, present a somewhat more perplexing set of challenges to therapists, given that there is a third party in the therapeutic process: the boss, management team, or corporate office. In my own career to some minor degree, and in the experiences of my patients, there are work settings that one can only call crazy.
Julie Jansen writes of “change resilience” (pp. 40-42) as an important characteristic of a professional, and I would agree, adding that in my opinion the turnover of church staff, including pastors, is becoming so prevalent that the phenomenon is worthy of investigation and clinical research. As an old friend told me recently, her parish gets a new pastor every two years. Years ago I would have called that an anomaly, but when teaching this fall I found that just about all the local faith formation directors I dealt with this year were not in their positions the year before. Just the issue of staff flux—let alone the pressures and dysfunctions that pressure people to seek change—is some indication of the measure of stress that church workers endure. How does a therapist treat that, or more importantly, how does a healthy minister/educator/catechist maintain sanity and pride of profession?
I think that part of the answer—a very large part—is what I would call ego strength. There are technical definitions in text books, of course, but I would stress the ownership of one’s skill set and beliefs. I do not have at my fingertips an excellent essay from the New York Times on the need for the working adult to view himself or herself as a valuable self-sufficient entity in the marketplace, a professional and/or artisan who invests in himself in terms of health, spirit, competency and value to society at large. Put another way, a Catholic educator is a Catholic educator, regardless of local setting, responsible to herself to cultivate her life above and beyond the minimal requirements of a diocese or other entity. This professional ego is developed early in life, and its enhancement over the years provides a critical eye and a stiff backbone that Jansen would describe as “change resilient.”
Catechists—and local DRE’s and faith formation directors who often are promoted to their positions directly from catechetical teaching responsibilities—often do not have an appropriate opportunity to develop a strong ministerial identity. My guess is that many new catechists follow their children into the religious education prep programs, and then to more stable positions within parish ministries. Typically they would not have bachelors or (better) master’s degrees in theology or religious education when pressed into parish ministerial leadership, nor the professional confidence that comes with collegiate training and something akin to internship experience. Or, in the vernacular, their limited experience does not empower them to say no to an unreasonable pastor, or better, to scope a future ministerial worksite and demand a precise job description signed by the employer as well as the minister.
Going back to EAP practice, I found that many of my clients in all settings remained in unhealthy work sites because their educational resumes did not, in their view, give them much desirability in the workforce and they were fearful of leaving their current jobs, stressful as they might be. “The devil you know…is better than nothing.” I cannot emphasize enough that parish ministers, including those we unhelpfully label as more casual “volunteers,” demand the highest level of professional and experiential preparation, as it is from this population that parishes often draw senior staff, and there is a special responsibility of parishes and dioceses to insure that it happens. In addition, the prospective or new catechist or minister must cultivate a professional pride and identity that insures their own confidence and competence. There is such a thing as Stage 4 cancer; I would maintain that there is also such a thing as Stage 4 Vocational Crisis and Career Confusion. The best medicine is to cut the risk factors of both.