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Auxiliary Bishop of the Archdiocese
of Detroit, Michigan *
Rise up in splendor, Jerusalem! Your light has come, the glory
of Yahweh shines on you. For, behold, darkness shall cover the earth,
and thick clouds the peoples; but Yahweh will shine on you, and his glory
shall be seen on you. Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the
brightness of your rising. Lift up your eyes round about, and see: they
all gather themselves together, they come to you; your sons shall come
from far, and your daughters shall be carried in the arms. Then you shall
see and be radiant, and your heart shall thrill and be enlarged; because
the abundance of the sea shall be turned to you, the wealth of the nations
shall come to you. The multitude of camels shall cover you, the dromedaries
of Midian and Ephah; all they from Sheba shall come; they shall bring gold
and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praises of Yahweh.
Ephesians 3:2-3a, 5-6
Brothers and sisters, you have heard of the stewardship of the grace
of God which was given me toward you; how that by revelation the mystery
was made known to me, which in other generations was not made known as
it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets in the Spirit;
that the Gentiles are fellow heirs, and fellow members of the body, and
fellow partakers of his promise in Christ Jesus through the Gospel.
Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem, saying, "Where is he who is born King of the Jews? For we saw his star in the east, and have come to worship him." When Herod the king heard it, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. Gathering together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he asked them where the Christ would be born. They said to him, "In Bethlehem of Judea, for thus it is written through the prophet, 'You Bethlehem, land of Judah, are in no way least among the princes of Judah: For out of you shall come forth a governor, who shall shepherd my people, Israel.'"
Then Herod secretly called the wise men, and learned from them exactly
what time the star appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem, and said, "Go and
search diligently for the young child. When you have found him, bring me
word, so that I also may come and worship him." They, having heard the
king, went their way; and behold, the star, which they saw in the east,
them, until it came and stood over where the young child was.
When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceedingly great joy.
They came into the house and saw the young child with Mary, his mother,
and they fell down and worshiped him. Opening their treasures, they offered
to him gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Being warned in a dream
that they shouldn't return to Herod, they went back to their own country
* A longtime national and international activist in the peace movement, Bishop Gumbleton is a founding member of Pax Christi USA and an outspoken critic of the sanctions against Iraq.
has appeared on numerous radio and television programs, and has published
numerous articles and reports.
* Scripture texts in this work are in modified form from the American Standard Version of the Bible and are available as part of the public domain.
For your convenience, the
Scripture texts, as they appear in the Lectionary for Mass for Use in the
Dioceses of the United States, second typical edition, Copyright ©
1998, 1997, 1970 Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Washington, D.C.,
may be found at the website of the United States Conference of Catholic
** The Web link to Pax Christi is provided as a service to our readers.
in the gospel of St. Luke, where the event of Christmas is described, Luke
tells us about Mary and how she would hear certain things and then ponder
them in her heart. She kept reflecting, listening deeply to God’s
spirit within her, trying to discover the full meaning of this event that
had happened. Today, we have one more time when all of us can do
the same thing as we listen to a further account about the birth of Jesus.
We must ponder deeply in our hearts to discover with as full awareness
as possible who this Jesus really is.
I have a sense that we celebrate Christmas almost routinely. In fact, we’ve almost let the deep meaning of Christmas disappear from our celebrations very often. The deepest meaning of Christmas is often overwhelmed by the commercialization of Christmas and so on. So it’s really important that we take the time to listen deeply and try to understand who Jesus is. And if we pay attention to today’s readings, we will see what Matthew is doing in the gospel lesson.
I have to alert you to the fact that Matthew was not writing a biography of Jesus. He was not writing an historical account about Jesus. Matthew, in this gospel that flows from the community where the writer lived, was putting all of this together about 50 or 60 years after Jesus had left this earth, after the resurrection had happened. This was a community that was looking back in light of the resurrection. Their faith in Jesus as risen from the dead helped them to understand the truth about his birth. So Matthew and the community of his disciples there were using stories like the one we heard today to help people understand who Jesus is, stories that will help us to understand very deeply as well.
The first thing, if you notice, Matthew uses these three people from the east. We don’t know really who they were. Sometimes, they’re mentioned as kings, other times as astrologers, and other times as wise people. But Matthew is really drawing from the passage in Isaiah that was our first lesson today and the community for which he was writing would have picked this up right away. They would have seen that Matthew was trying to say something about Jesus in the light of what had been proclaimed through the prophet Isaiah a thousand of years before. Matthew was telling them about this person that Isaiah had talked about. “Lift up your eyes around you and see. They are all gathered and come to you. Your sons from afar, your daughters tenderly carried. This sight will make your face radiant, your heart throbbing and full. A flood of camels will cover you, caravans from Midian and Ephah. Those from Sheba will come bringing with them gold and incense, all singing in praise of Yahweh because the glory of God rises upon you.”
God now rises and God’s glory appears.
So what Matthew was trying to impress upon us, using words that the community of that time would have picked up right away, is that this is God coming into our midst -- God coming to drive away all darkness from our minds and from our hearts, God coming to be fully present in our midst -- God coming, not just for a few, but for all the nations.
And that’s what Paul picks up on in our second lesson today. As Paul puts it, this was a mystery the Jewish people couldn’t understand. Paul himself, at first, wasn’t aware that Jesus had come, not just for the chosen people, but for all nations and that everyone was to be blessed by the presence of the son of God in our world.
This is the truth that we must try to let sink into our hearts and our minds today – that, once more, we are being told that this tiny babe, born into our midst in very simple circumstances someplace in the Holy Land, that this babe is truly God, the God who drives away all darkness, the God who can heal all hurt, the God who can take away all suffering, the God who can destroy all hostility and animosity among people. This God is now present in our midst.
So that’s the first purpose of Matthew’s account in today’s gospel, to help us to understand and to ponder deeply once more who Jesus is.
But then, also, as we listen to what Matthew tells us, we begin to understand perhaps more fully why Jesus came. One of the reasons, of course, was to breakdown barriers of hostility. Jew and gentile were hostile to one another. Jesus came to be revealed as a Jew to all the chosen people, but also for all the gentiles and to draw them together with the Jews so that there would be one family of God’s people. Jesus came to breakdown those barriers. The son of God came into our midst to overcome any barrier or hostility and it happened because Jesus reached out to those who were not Jews, even in his life. He recognized the faith in people who were not among the chosen people.
There was a time when Jesus praised the faith of the Roman centurion, a pagan, and yet Jesus saw in this person one who believed in God. And Jesus reached out to him and his family. Or the Sero Phoenician woman, who, if you remember the story, about how she was afraid to approach him when she needed healing and so she touched his cloak and was healed. And Jesus welcomed her. She wasn’t part of the chosen people, but Jesus welcomed her, reached out to her, drew her in and praised her faith.
So Jesus saw in those who were not part of the chosen people, people who believed. So, all these barriers were broken down between one religion and another.
And so out of all of this, we must draw conclusions for ourselves today. And, of course, one of the first things that we must realize is that, just like Matthew proclaims, where Jesus comes to breakdown barriers, we must continue to do that. We must continue to try to bring harmony among the races within our community, in our human family. We must breakdown those barriers that are created sometimes, almost artificially, between one nation and another nation that brings the threat of war. We must reach out to people in other nations as brothers and sisters, as members of our same human family, as people for whom Jesus came just as much as Jesus came for us.
So we have a tremendous task to try to do what Jesus did, breakdown those barriers that separate us.
One of the most difficult, I think, is that barrier of economic difference. We try to do that here at St. Leo Church. And I’m so proud of how, just this past week, our own community served the meal for all of our neighbors. We make that possible everyday, but last Wednesday our community did it. So we reach out trying to make sure that the people in our community know that they’re our brothers and sisters. We have to keep up that spirit all the time -- try to breakdown that barrier that so often can separate those that have more from those that have far too little -- one of the most difficult barriers I think to span and to go across.
Most of all, as we reflect on what is revealed to us today in the story of the birth of Jesus as told to us by Matthew, we must realize that Jesus came to be revealed to all the nations. Jesus left this world, but he left a community behind, a community of his disciples. And we are that community today. So we have the very same task that Jesus had -- to go out and proclaim the good news.
And at the end of Matthew’s gospel, that’s exactly what Jesus says to his disciples, “Go and proclaim the good news to all the nations.” And that is our task, to make sure that we proclaim this good news of God’s love, that God has come into our midst, God is one of us, God is our brother through Jesus. We are brothers and sisters to him, sons and daughters of God. That is the good news. That we must make sure that the whole world hears us proclaiming this message.
This is one of the greatest tragedies about the church and it’s failures in the recent past. That we have failed so dramatically in our credibility in pronouncing the good news of Jesus -- it is lost.
So we must repair from the scandals that have been created. We must heal the hurt that has been done. We have to reach out and make sure that we become a church that is alive and alight with the message of Jesus. You and I can do that right here in this community, in this neighborhood.
You know, I mentioned in the beginning that Epiphany Church has been closed about 12 years. And that’s a tragedy, I think, that a church would be closed and the opportunity for a community to be present in a neighborhood and to proclaim the good news. Well we have to make sure that this community that we are continues to be present here in this part of the city of Detroit in a way that we are very much alive, a way that we’re reaching out constantly to this neighborhood, that we are making sure that the people around here see this church, not just the building, but all of us who are the church, see us as people who are alive with Jesus and proclaiming his word. And if we can do that, if we can continue to be a community that is truly preaching the good news, this parish will never cease to be. It will always be here doing the work that God calls us to do.
And so I hope this morning, as we do try to listen deeply to God’s message and to ponder deeply what the mystery of Christmas is, that each of us will take that truth deep into our hearts, let it change our lives and recommit ourselves to be disciples of Jesus, a community that is the light to the nations, a light to the world around us, a light to this community where we are. That is how we fulfill what Jesus began as he came into our world 2,000 years ago. We carry on his work, proclaim his message and are the light to the world that can bring healing and goodness, love and peace to all.
In the name of the Father
and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
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