Catholic Contextual urban Theology, Mimetic Theory, Contemplative Prayer. And other random ramblings.

Sunday, 4 January 2015

Sermon at Parish Mass Epiphany 2015

Isaiah 60:1-6
Ephesians 3:1-12
Matthew 2:1-12

What time are we in? A curious question but one that frames our gospel reading today. What time are we in?
Today’s gospel begins, “In the time of King Herod”. This is more than just establishing a date. The time of King Herod is the time that Herod controls. In Herod’s time, it is he who determines how people live, what they do with the time he allows them, how much time they will have to live.
The time of Herod is a time when power is held on to by fear and the one final reality is death. As so many of Herod’s subjects knew, and as the poor children of Bethlehem and their families were to find out.
But Herod’s time is not really his own, and he knows it. He owes his position as a vassal king to the Roman Emperor who appointed him and gave him his official title: the King of the Jews. Herod’s fear of losing his own power is but part of the iron network of fear that kept the Empire going.
So fear is the order of the day, then, when the wise men from the east, those mysterious strangers, arrive and ask “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?” That was Herod’s own title, so naturally they would come and ask at Herod’s palace, probably supposing that an heir had been born.
But the palace has had no royal birth. Herod indeed had sons, several of whom he had murdered when he thought they were threatening his power. But the wise men are seeking a child whose birth has been signalled by momentous events in the heavens. A new star has been seen at its rising. This is not any old royal birth, but the birth of the Messiah, the one who will be king and ruler of his people in his own right, and not by the will and pleasure of Rome.
That is a threat not just to Herod, but to the whole system of power and fear of which he was part. It is a threat to the time of Herod. The wise men studied the stars and the planets, whose movements marked out times and seasons. And suddenly into that cosmic order of time there has come a new star.
The time of Herod now has a rival, an alternative account of time that is not ruled by violence but by the will of God. God alone brings all things into being, and a new star has appeared in the heavens to mark a new birth on the earth. The time of Herod is being invaded and overcome by the time of God.
And Herod knows this. The priests and scribes tell him of the prophecy of the Messiah’s birth at Bethlehem, a town up till then of little account, which had never been a centre of power. But it is the new centre for the new thing that God is doing. And the old centres of power, Rome and Jerusalem, tremble with fear.
But the wise men are enlightened by faith as well as by the cosmic sign of the star. They follow the star to Bethlehem and find the Child. And when they do so they are overwhelmed with joy, and they fall down and worship. The new reality of God’s time and God’s rule has broken upon them, and they have left behind the shadows of fear and death that marked the time of Herod.
Last week we recalled Luke’s account of the shepherds, those outsiders who were brought into the centre of God’s action and whose lives were changed so that they praised and worshipped God. This week we have heard Matthew’s story of the wise men, the other visitors to the infant Christ. They too are outsiders, gentiles from far away. But they too have been brought by faith into the centre, where the Kingdom of God is becoming real in Jesus. For them too this results in the same transformation: freedom, joy and worship.
As Christians we live as those who believe in God’s time. Sure enough, the time of Herod is still with us. The time of fear, anxiety and terror still holds its grip on the world, as we can see well enough. But now there is an alternative: the time of Jesus, the Messiah. The old world order founded on violence and the fear of death is no longer the only way of living.
In the birth of Jesus God’s time entered the world, and began to overcome the time of fear and death. Through his life he proclaimed its message. In his death those two world orders, those two accounts of time, came to their great collision and final conflict. The time of fear could not bear any rival for its dominion. And so it sought to wipe out the threat with the one final reality it knew: death. But that very conflict, Jesus’s freely surrendering himself to death out of love, became the final victory.
In the resurrection eternity was opened. Jesus now lives entirely by God’s limitless and deathless life, life that pours itself out in love without ever being diminished. The time of Herod has no hold on him. From now on, what is there to be afraid of? Death is not the final word, not the ruling principle of the universe. In Jesus we find that we do not need to hold on to our life as though it were our own, for it is God’s gift, freely given. We do not need to count out our days and years from their ever diminishing stock, for we have an alternative account of time which is not based on our poverty but on God’s eternal abundance and generosity.
This means that we can live as though death were not, even in the midst of Herod’s time, the time of fear and death. Because in the end Jesus is Lord and Messiah, and Herod is not.
God’s eternity is present in every moment, if we have but eyes to see. And, like the wise men and the shepherds, this opens to us overwhelming joy, and the capacity to worship, to pour ourselves out at the feet of Jesus who pours himself out for us.
And like the wise men we too find that we have gifts to offer, bread and wine that become the body and blood of Christ, the food of eternal life and the cup of salvation. So the wise men, like the shepherds, bring us to the feet of Jesus at the altar, as we celebrate the Eucharist. Here, above all, we inhabit God’s eternity, God’s account of time, the alternative to the time of Herod, the time of fear and death. Here we worship with the saints and angels and the church in every age and every land. And here we are filled with joy, for the worship we offer is none other than the worship of Christ himself, into which he draws us.

For his worship is the eternal pouring out of himself to the Father in the Spirit, the eternal life of the Trinity, the endless dance of love for which we were created.

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