Gospel for Today

The Solemnity of the Epiphany of the Lord
The Universal Church

Today's Gospel reading is from Mt 2:1-12.  For many Christians, this is the familiar conclusion to "the Christmas story."  This gospel passage recounts how magi (or wise men) from the east came to Jerusalem, asking for the "newborn King of the Jews."  They had been keeping an eye on the stars, you see, and something they saw in the stars told them that a great king had been born, and they wanted to come pay homage.  All the scribes in Jerusalem told them that the expected Messiah was to be born in Bethlehem; the star they had been following also pointed the way to Bethlehem.  And so there they went, and there they found Mary and the child Jesus, payed him homage, and offered him gifts.

What is the point of this story?  Why is it retold each year at the conclusion of the Christmas season?  It is the fulfillment of ancient prophecy, as recounted in the Old Testament reading from today's Mass.  Isaiah 60:1-6 speaks of the light of Jerusalem (the Messiah), and of the universal reach of that light.  "Nations shall walk by your light, and kings by your shining radiance," Isaiah foretells.  "Raise your eyes and look about; they all gather and come to you… the wealth of nations shall be brought to you.  Caravans of camels shall fill you, dromedaries from Midian and Ephah; all from Sheba shall come bearing gold and frankincense, and proclaiming the praises of the Lord."

In other words, when the Christ comes, he will not only be the light of Jerusalem, but his light will shine on all nations, near and far.  This is why our Psalm response for today is, "Lord, every nation on earth will adore you."  The verses are from Psalm 72, part of which reads, "The kings of Tarshish and the Isles shall offer gifts; the kings of Arabia and Seba shall bring tribute.  All kings shall pay him homage, all nations shall serve him."

The adoration of Jesus by the magi from the east is the fulfillment of these Old Testament prophecies.  It means that Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah, the light for whom not only Jerusalem but all the world was waiting.  It means that Jesus is not only the savior of the Jewish people, but of all mankind.  The universality of Christ's mission was attested to in the New Testament by St. Paul.  In today's second reading (Eph 3:2-3a, 5-6), Paul tells us that "the Gentiles [non-Jewish people] are coheirs, members of the same body, and copartners in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel."

It does not matter if you are a Jew or a Gentile – there is no one from whom Christ was not born.  There is no one for whom He did not die.  His salvific mission is for all.  He is Lord over all the heavens and earth – you and me included.

This universality of the Lordship of Christ is what we attest to when we call our Church "Catholic."  The word "catholic" comes from the Greek words kata and holos, meaning "universal."  We believe that our faith, the faith given us by Christ, is universal.  It is meant for all.  The first record (that we know of) of this term being used as the proper name of the Church was from St. Ignatius, second bishop of Antioch (St. Peter was the first).  Ignatius wrote letters to various Christian communities and this body of writings tells us much about the Church in the first generation after the Apostles.  St. Ignatius was taught the Christian faith by the Apostle John, and was most likely ordained by St. Peter.   He wrote in a letter to the Smyrneans in 110 AD, “Let no one do anything of concern to the Church without the bishop. Let that be considered a valid Eucharist which is celebrated by the bishop or by one whom he ordains [a priest]. Wherever the bishop appears, let the people be there; just as wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church."  Doubtless he did not make the name up himself, but learned it from the Apostles, at whose feet he was taught the faith.

Another great Father of the Church, St. Cyril of Jerusalem, talks about why the Church is called Catholic in his Catechetical Lectures of 350 AD.  He says that the Church is called Catholic "because it extends over the whole world, from end to end of the earth, and because it teaches universally and infallibly each and every doctrine which must come to the knowledge of men, concerning things visible and invisible, heavenly and earthly, and because it brings every race of men into subjection to godliness, governors and governed, learned and unlearned, and because it universally treats and heals every class of sins, those committed with the soul and those with the body, and it possesses within itself every conceivable form of virtue, in deeds and in words and in the spiritual gifts of every description."  

St. Cyril also advises people that if they are visiting another city, they should not simply ask "Where is the Church?" but rather, "Where is the Catholic Church?" because all manner of heretical sects will call themselves churches, but Catholic "is the name peculiar to this holy Church, the mother of us all, which is the spouse of our Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God."
The Church is called Catholic because her truths are universal, and the salvation Christ brings is meant for all men, for all time.  The New Covenant established by Christ was not with one nation or one people, but for the world.  The Catholic Church, likewise, is not of one particular culture or era, but of everywhere and all times.  And most importantly, for all people.   This is the message of Epiphany.  This is what the wise men who came to the child Jesus recognized 2000 years ago.  And, as a favorite bumper sticker of mine says, "wise men still seek Him."  So come, let us adore Him!

WCU Catholic Campus Ministry
Matthew Newsome, MTh, campus minister
(828)293-9374  |   POB 2766, Cullowhee NC 28723
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