Homily: The Word of God


“The word of God is living and effective, sharper than any two-edged sword.

“Your words, Lord, are Spirit and life.”

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”

Our readings today are about the Liturgy of the Word. God’s holy word, his own divine being, spoken in a holy setting, a holy moment, a holy encounter.

In Jewish tradition, there is a traditional saying, “When two sit together and words of Torah pass between them, the Divine Presence rests between them” (Mishnah Avot 3:3). The Torah is the Word of God, the Holy Scriptures of the Law (“Instruction”) given from God to Moses. When God’s word is read, His divine presence is there among them. Hopefully, all the Christians reading that are immediately reminded of Jesus’ words in Matthew 18:20, “For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.” So Jesus, as usual, is not pulling his teaching out of thin air. But even better, he’s “making all things new,” showing, like he did on the Road to Emmaus, how everything God’s people received from God was actually preparing them for Jesus himself, the incarnation of the Living Word of God, who is himself Emmanuel, God among them.

Our first reading goes back to the Israelites having just recently returned to the ruins of Jerusalem after the Babylonian Exile. The Babylonians had been defeated by the Persians and Medes, and allowed the captive people to return to their homelands, but as subjects of the empire. The Israelite people remembered the great temple of Solomon, or heard stories of its grandeur, before it had been destroyed. But the temple they were able to build in its place, with Ezra as the priest, and with few supplies, was far from the splendor of its predecessor. Nehemiah, the governor sent from the Persians to maintain civil order, had led them in rebuilding the Jerusalem city walls. With the Temple and the city walls somewhat restored, Ezra and Nehemiah wanted to rally the morale of the people from their despondency and despair, and so they held this revival of their Jewish identity, a reading of the Law of Moses. Image result for nehemiah ezra readsThey built out this elaborate wooden platform, and had all the men, women, and older children assembled as they recommitted themselves to their once-proud Jewish heritage.

But the revival did not immediately have the effect they had hoped for. On hearing the great wonders that God had done for their people throughout their history, and then the terms of the covenant that they had entered into, they heard both the blessings they would receive for abiding by the covenant, and the curses they would suffer for betraying the covenant. And the people wept. They saw the incredible goodness of God, which itself causes us to weep in gratitude and humility (if only more people today allowed themselves to be moved to weeping for repentance on hearing the Word of God!). But also, they saw how their people’s history reflected the curses that God had foretold would happen to them, if they were unfaithful.

But the leaders brought encouragement to the people. “Today is holy to the LORD your God. Do not be sad, and do not weep… Go, eat rich foods and drink sweet drinks, and allot portions to those who had nothing prepared; for today is holy to our LORD.” They were rededicating themselves to the covenant. What is past is past, God has told us that our people have paid the price of our unfaithfulness. He has shown us mercy, and is giving us this day to enter into the covenant anew.

In his commentary on this First Reading, Dr. John Bergsma says beautifully:

The people of God finds its identity in worship.  In the absence of political power or economic prosperity, they find hope, joy, and peace in celebrating liturgy, which recalls God’s saving acts in the past and anticipates the ultimate salvation of God in the future.  In many ways, this paradigm remains in place for the people of the New Covenant.

And so what do we see in our reading? Well, we see the Word of God being read to the people, and explained, from a raised position above the people, and then calling the people to a great banquet, and the instruction to provide food also for others. It shows the people standing up, kneeling down, saying “Amen, Amen.” Now it does say that the readings went from daybreak until midday, so we get a bit of a break from that. But other than that, it sounds very much like… the Liturgy of the Word, and the Liturgy of the Eucharist: A very Old Testament precursor of the Mass. Visitors to Mass often ask, why do Catholics stand and kneel at different places? Because the Liturgical Tradition of the Mass grew organically from the worship of Israel, the Temple and the Synagogue, the religious experience of the first generations of Christians.

And now we’ll look at the Gospel. It’s kind of a strange selection. The first paragraph is from the beginning of the Gospel of Luke, his Prologue, chapter 1, verses 1-4. Then it jumps to chapter 4, Jesus reading and preaching in the synagogue in Nazareth.

In the Prologue to his Gospel, St. Luke makes it abundantly clear that his gospel is for the purpose of providing solid facts, from eye-witnesses, to the truth of Jesus Christ. This is not a fairy tale, this not a myth, this not a legend. This happened. Luke says, “Since many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the events that have been fulfilled among us, just as those who were eyewitnesses from the beginning and ministers of the word have handed them down to us, I too have decided, after investigating everything accurately anew, to write it down in an orderly sequence for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may realize the certainty of the teachings you have received.” Luke is well-educated, well-informed, intelligent, and articulate. The modern claim that Jesus might be make-believe is simply false. Luke is writing for “Theophilus.” The word means, “Friend of God” or “Beloved of God,” and so might be just a hypothetical person (meaning that Luke is really writing his Gospel to all the faithful). But it is very likely that Theophilus was really a person. That Luke addresses him as “most excellent” suggests that Theophilus was a person of high social and/or political standing. He might have been someone who paid for Luke to have the opportunity to write this account of Jesus. The translation of “orderly sequence” could be more closely translated as “accurate account,” “faithful to the event.” Also, the certainty of “the teachings you have received,” the Greek word is katēcheō, from which we get the word, “catechesis,” “to echo in the ears.” We hope that when we catechize, when we give an accurate account of our faith, it’s an echo of what what the Church teaches, of what the apostles have said, what truly happened. Luke’s gospel is catechetical, written to teach us, in the manner best laid out for his contemporary audience, of the truth of Jesus Christ. And after reading it, we must each give an answer to Jesus’ question, “Who do you say that I am?” Hopefully we give the answer that came to Peter, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”

Image result for pitre evidence jesusInterestingly, I just last week listened to Dr. Brant Pitre’s Lighthouse CD on his new book, which goes into the question of whether we can really reasonably believe in the historical truth of Jesus in the Gospels. I didn’t know when I was listening to it that it would include what he also provided as commentary on this week’s Gospel reading. I enjoyed listening to it, so I recommend you either read his book, or if you want to get the gist of it in an hour, listen to his CD about it! 

Then we skip three chapters of Luke’s Gospel (most of which are the birth narratives of St. John the Baptist and Jesus which we encountered during Advent and Christmas, Jesus’ baptism, which we had 2 weeks ago, and his temptations in the wilderness), and catch up with Jesus in his first public appearance after his baptism: in the synagogue in Nazareth.

The synagogue and the Temple were kind of a two-part system. The Jews traveled to the Temple in Jerusalem for the three major annual feasts: the Feast of Unleavened Bread (Passover), Feast of Tabernacles (the Day of Atonement), and the Feast of Weeks (Pentecost).

But for the weekly Sabbath, they went to the local synagogue, where they had, essentially, a Liturgy of the Word (similar to a synagogue service today). They would sing a psalms, they would read from the Torah, and have readings from the Prophets (the Law and the Prophets). Then someone, a rabbi, (often a scribe or Pharisee), would comment on the readings. They would sing a song and go home. Very different from the Temple sacrifice. The Temple was ministered by the Priests, the Levites. The Synagogue was a lay movement, not priests, but those who study the Scriptures and teach the people what they mean. I’ve heard it said that Protestant services are more like synagogue services, and the Catholic liturgy of the Mass is more like the Temple liturgy.

So Jesus is at the synagogue in Nazareth. Throughout his ministry Jesus is often referred to as “Rabbi.” Jesus was recognized for his intelligence, wisdom, and skill, but he wasn’t a Levitical priest. He wasn’t of the tribe of Levi, but of Judah. However, as we read in the New Testament Book of the Hebrews, Jesus was indeed a priest, the high priest—not of Levi, but of Melchizedek—a priesthood in which priests are called by their particular vocation, and not by bloodline.  And Jesus reads this excerpt we just heard from Isaiah 61. What’s special about this is that it is specifically about the Messiah, literally “the Anointed one.” And then they all look at Jesus to hear what he’s going to preach about it. Sometimes we might think that because Jesus sat down, that he was done. But in the synagogue the homily or sermon would be given sitting down, symbolizing that it was a teaching from the chair of Moses. On special occasions in the life of the Church, a bishop will give the homily sitting down, and when he (particularly the Bishop of Rome) teaches authoritatively, he is teaching ex cathedra, “from the chair” (of authority). And all Jesus says is, “Today this Scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing.” We’ll hear in next week’s gospel reading what happened after that. But what Jesus read from Isaiah was the job description of the Messiah, how the people would know that the Messiah had really come. And they didn’t know it at that point, but looking back (reading the rest of the Gospel according to Luke), we can see that this is exactly what Jesus did. “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me (that was his baptism) to bring glad tidings to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord.

The “year acceptable to the Lord” is a reference to the Old Testament tradition of the “Jubilee Year,” which was marked, among other things, that in that year, all debts are forgiven, all slaves are set free, and any land that has been appropriated, that used to belong to a family but they lost it through debt, will be returned to the original owners.

As Dr. Brant Pitre explains:

Now, just imagine if you lived in a Jubilee year and all your student debt, or all your house debt, or all your car debt, or all your credit card debt, whatever debt that you might have that’s weighing over your head, imagine if it was all gone, just like that in the Jubilee year. Now that would be an acceptable year, right? It would be a year of joy, a year of deliverance, and so what Jesus is saying here is that, or what Isaiah is saying, is that when the Messiah comes, his coming is somehow going to be coordinated with, conjoined with, a great Jubilee year. A great year of release, when all debts will be forgiven, and people will be set free from bondage; which, if you’ve been in debt, you’ll know, it is bondage. It is a burden, and to be freed from it is a source of great joy. 

How did Jesus deliver on this Jubilee Year? By freeing those in the bondage of sin, by exorcisms, by healing the blind, the deaf, the crippled, the leprous, by forgiving the debt of sin.

In both the First Reading and the Gospel Reading, we have a reading from the Word of God, which provides both a call to repentance, and hope for salvation. In Ezra’s reading of the Law, that salvation is still far off. But in Jesus’ reading of the prophecy of the Messiah, salvation is present now. Jesus fulfills the Law and the Prophets.

I often tell people who are going to be proclaiming the scriptures: Take your time, don’t rush! Savor it! Let the people feast on the Word! You don’t rush through good food, you taste and appreciate each juicy bite! You don’t read this like you’re reading from a textbook or a magazine. This is the Word of God! You don’t read it, you proclaim it, with reverence and patience, letting each sound and each word fill its proper time. This is an engagement with life-giving, living wisdom, that feeds the mind and the heart, a communion of the Person of God with each person who hears it. Let the people have that privilege, that they might open themselves to this experience, this encounter, with the Word of God, the Word that brings truth, light, and life!

I said in the homily on Christmas night, “Do we need to go to church to be good? For the most part, yes. Because sin darkens the intellect and weakens the will. We need to be taught and formed in mind and heart in what is good. It is human nature to seek what we see as good. But we’re often mistaken about what is good. Without being formed by the light of truth from our faith, we might be led to applaud faithful citizenshipNew York state lawmakers passing legislation that allows the killing of an unborn child up to the moment before he or she is born, instead of respecting the dignity of his or her human life received at the moment of conception. We might be tempted to villainize victims, and fail in our Christian duty to care for the poor and vulnerable. We need to not just be Catholic, but be actively Catholic, and fully engaged in what our Catholic faith requires in the context of contemporary social issues. Hence the periodically updated guide from the US Catholic Bishops, “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship.”

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Lancaster Catholic H.S.

This weekend begins Catholic Schools Week, and we are very proud to have our Catholic school. Our support of our Catholic schools, Our Lady of the Angels and Lancaster Catholic, is by far the largest expenditure in our parish finances, so we truly put our resources into what matters most: our children.

As they promised at their children’s baptisms, parents need to provide for the Catholic formation of their children, through their own homeschooling program, through the parish weekly religious education program, or best of all, full-time attendance at Catholic School. Of course, parents cannot abdicate their own responsibility to be the primary educators of their children (by bringing them to church every Sunday, by leading the family in prayer, by demonstrating how the Catholic faith guides daily life). But our Catholic School is, and has been for over a hundred fifty years, a valuable tool for parents to help in developing the “whole person” of their child: spiritually, academically, emotionally, socially, and physically.

This year we celebrate the 20th anniversary of the consolidation of Holy Trinity School and St. Peter’s School into Our Lady of the Angels School: 20 years under Mary’s protection.

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Our Lady of the Angels Catholic School

So as we celebrate this Catholic Schools week, let us inform our minds and hearts by the living and effective Word of God, Jesus, who unites himself to us in the Eucharist, that our lives, formed in truth and love, might be God’s word active in the world.

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Homily: Wedding Feast in Cana & Respect Life Mass

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This is the homily I offered at the 2019 Diocesan Respect Life Mass at Good Shepherd Parish in Camp Hill. I am grateful for the opportunity. I hope it bears fruit, and that the horror of abortion is outlawed in our lifetime. Even more so, I hope that every single baptized Christian might be as consumed with the fire of divine love as St. Francis, St. Catherine, and St. Teresa of Calcutta. 

As usual, what is in grey was for the most part the original homily as delivered, plus the dark blue parts, as references to the readings, green parts, as external quotes, and bright red as just really important. The dark red text is what has been added for the online post, but couldn’t be included in the homily. 

Mother Teresa (Saint Teresa of Calcutta) once said, “At the end of life we will not be judged by how many diplomas we have received, how much money we have made, how many great things we have done. We will be judged by, ‘I was hungry, and you gave me something to eat, I was naked and you clothed me. I was homeless, and you took me in.’” Mother Teresa had spent her life allowing God to shape her heart to be like his, and her heart was full of his divine love. And since God’s love is inseparable from God’s truth, those who are very holy with God’s divine love, tend also to be very holy with God’s divine truth, and wisdom.

Mother Teresa’s reference to Our Lord’s words in Matthew 25, in the parable of the sheep and the goats (often called “The Judgment of the Nations”), sheds light on one of my favorite quotes from Dr. Peter Kreeft, which is that, the moral teaching in the Scriptures makes more sense when you think of it, not as a set of rules that we must obey to get into heaven, but rather as a school of formation. Because for us to get to heaven (that is, for us to want what heaven is), we need to be a certain kind of person. And God has given us the truth of moral law to shape us into that kind of person, the kind of person He created us to be in the first place. As C.S. Lewis said it, “We may think God wants actions of a certain kind, but God wants people of a certain sort.”

To bring it closer to our readings, Dr. Brant Pitre, in his book, Jesus the Bridegroom, points out that of all the images that God gives us to help us understand the deep relationship he seeks to have with us, the most fundamental is that of the nuptial love of a Bridegroom for His Bride, the two becoming one, surrendering to each other in self-giving love. God already loves us as his Bride. It is our task to love God as our divine Bridegroom, in all the ways that biblical marriage is often criticized: He is our provider, He is our protector, He is our head; and we serve Him, we honor Him, and love Him, because He lays down His life on our behalf, His love poured out for us, that we might flourish and have life. For us to respond to that invitation to be members of God’s mystical Bride, we must allow God to form us into His people of a certain sort.

In our first reading, Isaiah is prophesying to a nation suffering as a result of their own actions: they had sought security in human ways instead of in God. They were full of corruption, greed, indifference toward the poor and suffering, sins of every sort. They had forsaken their call to be God’s holy people. (The Northern Kingdom of Israel had already been occupied by the powerful Assyrian Empire, and Southern Kingdom, where Jerusalem is, was a vassal state. But rather than pay their tribute, they joined Egypt and their coalition in waging war on Assyria. Assyria responded by mowing down the Mediterranean coast, taking city after city, right to the walls of Jerusalem, to which they laid siege. The people of Jerusalem flocked to the Temple to try to appease God, whom they finally acknowledged they had offended. King Hezekiah pleaded with Isaiah to intercede with God to preserve Jerusalem, and God did.) Isaiah had warned them, he had chastised them, he had given them the bleak picture of what they would suffer unless they repented. But Isaiah’s words were not just of punishment and wrath. He also gave them words of encouragement and hope. Jerusalem’s time of desolation, of being forsaken, will end, and she will be more than restored: “You shall be a glorious crown in the hand of the LORD,” (deities were often depicted as having the image of their city on their crown; the God of Israel, the One True God, will have the image of Jerusalem as His glorious crown). …”a royal diadem held by your God.” Jerusalem—the mother (city) of the people of God—is being described as a royal bride, because she’s going to marry the divine king! He will call her “My Delight,” and “Espoused.” “For the LORD delights in you and makes your land his spouse. As a young man marries a virgin, your Builder shall marry you.” But we know by history, that Israel would never again be a united, independent kingdom. This divine promise given through Isaiah will have to wait. And so it was added to Israel’s hopes for the long-awaited age of the Messiah.


“Wedding Feast at Cana” Stained Glass Window in St. Patrick Cathedral in Harrisburg

As we just heard, the Gospel reading is the Wedding Feast at Cana. Isaiah had prophesied that when the Messiah comes, he will provide “a feast of… juicy rich food, and pure choice wines,” (Isa 25:6) and that all the nations will come to this feast, and their sins will be forgiven. In Jewish tradition it became the “messianic banquet”, which would be particularly characterized by super-abundant wine. Where are Jesus and Mary? At a Wedding Feast. Mary says to Jesus, “They have no wine.” Who is responsible when the wedding feast runs out of wine? The bride and bridegroom. Who fixes the problem? Mary and Jesus. Do we see anyone else named as the Bride and Bridegroom? Jesus responds that “It’s not time for that banquet just yet. My hour has not yet come.” Jesus provides the wedding with a superabundance of wine, for sure! But the real wedding feast of the Messiah, is not 180 gallons of wine in jugs (6 jugs, 30 gallons each, filled to the brim), but an infinite supply of his own Precious Blood in chalices throughout the world until the end of time.

There, at a wedding, Jesus— who is himself the wedding of humanity and divinity—performs his first Messianic sign, and his disciples begin to believe in him.

Jesus is the fulfillment of Isaiah’s messianic prophesy. In revealing his role as the Bridegroom, he reveals not just that he is the Messiah, but that he is divine. The Bridegroom (“Your Builder shall marry you“) is God Himself. The Bride, which we know by the Scriptures is the Church, is (the New) Jerusalem, the mother (city) of the children of God. And here at Cana, Mary plays the role of the Bride, the Church, for she, too, is the mother of the children of God (she who is mother of Jesus is also mother to the brothers and sisters of her Son). In the Eucharist, Jesus sacramentally provides himself, the Passover Lamb, as the “feast of… juicy rich food” and his Precious Blood as “pure choice wines,” to which all the nations come, and their sins are forgiven them. 

This event begins Jesus’ trajectory toward “his hour” of glory, his Paschal mystery. Perhaps this is why the Church puts these readings here before us at the very beginning of the Season of Ordinary Time, this holy time ordered toward our Spiritual growth and hope for salvation; this time of God forming us into people of a certain sort.

Mother Theresa once said, “Any country that accepts abortion is not teaching its people to love, but to use violence to get what they want.” What kind of people are we? What kind of people should we be? Should we be people who love sacrificially, who accept suffering for the sake of love, or should we be people who use violence to get what we want? What kind of world is that? Again, to quote Mother Theresa, “We must not be surprised when we hear of murders, killings, of wars, or of hatred… If a mother can kill her own child, what is left but for us to kill each other?

Our country has from its founding been abundantly blessed. “God shed his grace on thee.” But like every country, it has had its moral problems. Slavery, racism, corruption, greed, indifference toward the poor and suffering, sins of every sort. Abortion. Euthanasia. Capital Punishment.

The Magisterium of the Catholic Church forms our conscience well, in teaching that, “From the time that the ovum is fertilized, a life is begun which is neither that of the father nor of the mother, it is rather the life of a new human being with his own growth. It would never be made human if it were not human already.” (1) Again, she says, “no one, not even the father or mother, can act as its substitute—even if it is still in the embryonic stage—to choose in the child’s name, life or death. The child itself, when grown up, will never have the right to choose suicide; no more may his parents choose death for the child while it is not of an age to decide for itself.”(2) The Church also teaches us that even the most revolting criminal, who completely corrupts his moral character by his evil choices, can do nothing that affects the good of his inherent human dignity, and therefore, “in the light of the Gospel, that ‘the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person’…”(3) Are we the kind of people who use violence to get what we want? Or can we help our nation to remember our role as the light of opportunity and hope we have been for the world? Our call to be God’s “certain sort of people”?

(1) Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), “Declaration on Procured Abortion,” 11/18/1974, paragraph 12 (emphasis added).
(2) ibid, paragraph 14.
(3) CCC 2267, as updated Aug 2, 2018.

I was invited to offer this Diocesan Respect Life Mass because of my privilege of working with the incredible people who offer Rachel’s Vineyard retreats, and the post-abortive men and women who are served and loved through that beautiful ministry. And I applaud Tom O’Neill, our diocesan Director of Family and Respect Life Ministries, for bringing the whole kit and caboodle of Project Rachel, the overarching response of the Catholic Church to the need for post-abortion ministry, into our diocese.

The Church will always be here to help people wounded by abortion. We will accept the broken pieces of men and women, and participate in God’s work of healing them back together again. But wouldn’t it be better to stop the thing that’s shattering people into broken pieces the first place? God love Abby Johnson! I mean, we’re working with men and women who have had one or two, maybe a couple of abortions. She’s working with former abortion industry workers, many of whom not only had abortions themselves, but participated in thousands of abortions. The level of suffering and guilt she handles in her ministry, “And Then There Were None,” is unfathomable. Her autobiography “Unplanned” was just made into a movie by the people that made “God’s Not Dead,” and is being released to theaters this spring.

The second reading, which I didn’t use in my homily, is actually very appropriate to the pro-life message! “To each individual the manifestation of the Spirit is given for some benefit. To one is given through the Spirit the expression of wisdom; to another, the expression of knowledge according to the same Spirit…Not every human “procreatve act” actually results in a new life. It takes more than man and woman. It also takes God putting a soul into the fruit of their act. And every soul God puts into a newly conceived human person, is given “the manifestation of the Spirit for some benefit.” Every conceived human being is a unique set of divine gifts to the world, with a mission to pour themselves out in divine love for others. Most of you know this apocryphal story: “Two women several years ago in Washington DC were attending the national prayer breakfast. One of the women, Hillary Clinton, said, ‘You know, I wonder why we have never elected a woman president?’ The other woman, Mother Teresa, said, ‘Maybe it is because you aborted her.’” There is an ancient Jewish phrase, which says in essence, “To save a human life is to save a world; to destroy a human life is to destroy a world.” Each person has the world of their own experiences, their own perceptions, their own thoughts, relationships, feelings, dreams, ambitions, their own destiny, their future accomplishments. Each of the millions of victims of abortion is a destroyed world. Those worlds came into existence, they were here, even if they never got to be greatly fulfilled. 

I also love Dr. Peter Kreeft’s (almost Chestertonian) comment connecting the words of Jesus’ self-giving sacrificing of himself for the sake of others, in diabolic contrast with the words of abortionists’ self-focused sacrificing of others for the sake of themselves:
Image result for kreeft abortion this is my body

Ben Shapiro had an amazing speech at Friday’s March for life. Watch it on YouTube. It will be the best 6 minutes you’ll spend today besides receiving Jesus in the Eucharist. He said, “Just this week, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said that pro-lifers were not in line with ‘where we are as a society.’ To which I say, GOOD. So were the abolitionists. So were the Civil Rights marchers. So were the martyrs in Rome and the Jews in Egypt. Righteousness doesn’t have to be popular, it just has to be righteous.

(The first video I used was taken down by YouTube. Let me know if they remove this one, and I’ll try to find a new one!)

The time of being lukewarm Catholic has to end. The time of punching the clock for the minimum required time in church has to end. Saint Catherine of Siena said, “Be who God meant you to be, and you will set the world on fire.” My brothers and sisters, we need to set the world on fire. Not to destroy, but to give life. Not with violence, but with the transforming power of divine love. Only light can scatter darkness. Only God’s love poured out can heal sin. We are the Church. We are the Bride of Christ. Not just to receive God’s love, but to receive it and pay it forward into the world. Christian life is so much deeper than just not committing sins. “We may think God wants actions of a certain kind, but God wants people of a certain sort.” And His people of a certain sort are those molded by his truth, responsive to his will, and on fire with his love. God bless you.

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Homily: Baptism of the Lord



Before performing a child’s baptism, the priest approached the young father and said solemnly, “The baptism of your child is a serious step. Are you prepared for it?” “I think so,” the man replied. “My wife has made appetizers and we have a caterer coming to provide for our guests.” “I don’t mean that,” the priest responded. “I mean, are you prepared spiritually?” “Oh, that. Yes. I also got a case of whiskey!”

I guess that’s probably an Irish joke.

So the obvious question about the baptism of Jesus is, “why did Jesus get baptized”?

First, it was a moment of identification with us sinners. John’s baptism of repentance was a human baptism, a baptism of the sorrow for sins. But it could not satisfy the desire it expressed. It was not sacramental. It was simply a voice crying in the wilderness, desiring that which it could not achieve. Jesus joined himself to the people who longed for communion with God, but as humanity, could not reach it.

Second, it was a moment of conviction about his identity and mission. He had heard the voice from the heavens, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.” Remember the final verse after the finding of Jesus in the Temple, “And Jesus advanced [in] wisdom and age and favor before God and man.” Now here, Jesus is a man, who had labored beside his father, prayed with his parents, and grew in holiness and virtue. He had been prepared by his life in Nazareth, and of course by his mother, the Immaculate Conception, for the identity she knew he was called to. He now had that affirmation from heaven for himself. And after all that preparation, he was affirmed and ready. He knew what his mission was: to be the suffering servant prophesied in Isaiah. To be the lamb who went to the slaughter that many might be saved by the outpouring of his blood. To be the Good Shepherd: to heal the sick, to seek and restore the lost, to give sight to the blind, to release captives, to feed the flock, to preach the good news of the Kingdom of God, to take onto himself the sins of humanity, that through him, humanity might be taken up to God. He wasn’t baptized because he needed the forgiveness of sins… but because we do. St. Maximus of Turin, in the 3rd century, said, “Christ is baptized, not to be made holy by the water, but to make the water holy… For when the Savior is washed, all water for our baptism is made clean, purified at its source for the dispensing of baptismal grace to the people of future ages.”

Third, it was a moment of equipment. At his baptism by John, Jesus saw the Holy Spirit descend on him as a dove. It is only in Luke’s gospel, that it is said so concretely: “the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove.” Saint Augustine says, “The Holy Ghost is said to have descended on Christ in a bodily shape, as a dove, not… by reason of His being united to the dove: but… because the dove itself signified the Holy Ghost, inasmuch as it descended when it came upon Him…” and then St. John Chrysostom said, “sensible visions appear for the sake of them who cannot conceive at all an incorporeal nature; … so that, though afterwards no such thing occur, they may shape their faith according to that which has occurred once for all. And therefore the Holy Ghost descended visibly, under a bodily shape, on Christ at His baptism, in order that we may believe Him to descend invisibly on all those who are baptized.” This is to say, that it wasn’t that the Holy Spirit became a dove. Rather, the Holy Spirit descended on Jesus appearing as a dove, so that we remember the visible reality of the Holy Spirit at Jesus’ baptism, so that we can know that the Holy Spirit continues to descend on us at our baptism, even though we don’t see it. In his baptism, Jesus was equipped with the power of the Holy Spirit in a new way to do the works of the Spirit, to preach the good news of the Kingdom, to heal and to forgive sins, in his earthly mission.

And fourth, it was a moment of decision. At his baptism, he knew fully who he was, he knew fully what he was supposed to do. He knew we needed him to do it for us, because we couldn’t do it for ourselves. And at his baptism, Jesus consented to this. Like his mother before him at the Annunciation, Jesus offers himself as a perfect and unconditional “yes” to the will of the Father.

Why did Jesus get baptized? To give us entry into his own life, his own mission, his own relationship with the Father. Did he have to get baptized? No. But this is the way the Father willed that it should happen: that humanity, whom the Father made as body and spirit, would receive and experience his salvation through the sacraments: through visible signs that we could experience with our bodies, of the true spiritual realities that we can experience only by faith.

As we begin the season of Ordinary Time, it is not “ordinary” in the sense that it’s mediocre and blah (although it can be if you approach it that way). Ordinary time means it’s measured, it’s ordered; and it’s ordered toward our growing in holiness. The green liturgical color for ordinary time is the color associated with the virtue of hope, and the natural color of growth and life. It is time ordered toward our flourishing, which is what Christ came to invite us into. We can’t flourish if we’re bogged down in sin, if we’re trapped in patterns of sinful attachment, if we’re cut off from hope because we have no way to reconcile with God, if we’re stuck in the gloom of meaningless drudgery with no point.

That’s why Christmas is at the beginning of the liturgical year, with the four weeks of spiritual anticipation for it, for him, to come into our gloom, into our drudgery, and our hopelessness, and to set us captives free, to spread the good news of the kingdom of God, to seek the lost, to heal the wounded, and to give us the invitation to eternal life: to give divine meaning to our humanity, to open the gates of paradise to make all of our choices eternally meaningful, for or against our eternal salvation.

To the extent that we are attentive to grace, guiding us to do this and not do that; to the extent that we give God permission to shine his light in the darkness of our shameful sin, that he may free us; to the extent that we worship Him in the Mass, in our personal prayer; in our devotions; to the extent that we embrace our Christian call to be Christians (literally, “little anointed ones”) and witness to the truth and love of Christ (in the spiritual and corporal works of mercy), is the extent to which God will be able to use us for extraordinary things, and we will have a far from ordinary season of ordinary time. You will have a time of grace, a time of growth and hope, a time of flourishing… which is what God has sent Jesus to give us. This is why Jesus was baptized.

A Woman's ConcernThis is a shorter homily than usual, because our parish was honored to have a guest from A Woman’s Concern, Lancaster’s Pregnancy Resource Center, speak at the end of Masses to promote their annual Baby Bottle Blessings fundraising campaign.

The outline of the four reasons given for Jesus’ baptism is by Fr. Tony Kadavil. Fr. Tony recently retired as a priest of the Archdiocese of Mobile, AL, and serves as the chaplain for Sacred Heart Home in Mobile. His homily resources are widely distributed and beautifully pastoral, and I am appreciative of his generosity and support.

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Homily: Epiphany

magi at sacrada familia

 Sculptures of the Magi on the Basilica of the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona

While I was working in my office in Baltimore (in my previous life), the company had two 5-story buildings with a walled-in patio in between them. I would occasionally hit some technical problem I didn’t know how to solve. So after getting my head around the problem, I would take my cup of coffee, and whatever, and walk back and forth along the wall, talking through it, and then it would hit me, “A ha!” a solution! Sometimes people will call this a “Eureka!” moment, when the solution suddenly becomes clear. But another name for this, when a truth suddenly opens up before you, is an “epiphany,” from the Greek word meaning an unveiling, or manifestation: The solution manifests itself to you, it’s unveiled to you, and you see the light.

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Today’s Feast of the Epiphany celebrates the unveiling, the manifestation, of the light of the world. In an ancient Greek use of the word, an epiphany was the visitation or appearance of the king to a province of his kingdom. Here, also, we have the revelation of the true, eternal king of all creation visiting and appearing to his people.

In the ancient feast of epiphany in the Eastern Church, this feast celebrated not just the visiting of the magi, but also Christ’s baptism by John, with the Holy Spirit coming down and remaining on him, and also the Wedding Feast of Cana, which ends with the words, “Jesus did this as the beginning of his signs in Cana in Galilee, and so revealed his glory, and his disciples began to believe in him.” All three of these events manifest and unveil Christ’s identity and his glory, and his mission as the Holy Messiah. Today the Feast of Epiphany focuses just on the magi. So let’s look at the magi.

When Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, in the days of King Herod…

Ok, so who’s Herod? Well, there were four rulers named Herod.  The first was Herod the Great. He’s the one mentioned here, and we’ll come back to him. Second is his son, Herod Antipas, who had given in to the wiles of his step daughter’s slinky dance and got himself trapped into having St. John the Baptist beheaded, and also was the Herod in the Passion of the Lord Jesus. Related imageThe third was Herod Agrippa I, nephew of Herod the Great (so cousin of Herod Antipas), who executed St. James the Greater (the Apostle, brother of St. John) and imprisoned St. Peter. And the fourth was his son Herod Agrippa II, who St. Paul went before in Caesarea to be interrogated by Jewish accusers. Back to biggest and baddest, Herod the Great. He was at best half-Jewish, being an Arabian Idumite, descended from Esau (instead of Jacob, who was renamed Israel). Herod was chummy with the Romans, who installed him as a vassal king in Jerusalem. But he was excessively cruel, and excessively paranoid. He executed anyone who he perceived as a possible threat to his power and position, including his wives and children (He was played to the hilt by Ciarán Hinds in the 2006 Nativity movie!). So when it says “When King Herod heard this, he was greatly troubled, and all Jerusalem with him,” you can imagine the fear that struck people when Herod started getting paranoid. And knowing that he was only there as king because the Romans put him there, faced with the possibility of a true Jewish King foretold by prophecy? You can imagine he was more than reasonably troubled.

“…behold, magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem…”

Ok, so who are the Magi? There has been a lot of speculation, but little we can know with any sort of certainty. It suffices to say that they weren’t necessarily kings (we’ll come back to that, too), but philosophers, astrologers, scientists, seeking wisdom and truth. They were possibly royal court advisors, sought for their wisdom and their knowledge, as well as their ability to read the signs in nature and the heavens. Although tradition has given us that there were three, the Scriptures don’t tell us how many there were, or if women were among these seekers of wisdom. Some scholars have suggested that each of the magi presented three gifts as mentioned (gold, frankincense, and myrrh), not that three magi presented one gift each. But all of this is trivial, really, compared to their meaning in the story. And to do that, we look at some of the scripture verses being alluded to and fulfilled by our gospel reading. 

“We saw his star at its rising and have come to do him homage.”

Ok, so what’s the star? Again, a lot of speculation. The collusion of planets and/or stars, an exploding star, an angel, we don’t know. I think we should go with the angel theory, because stars would have a hard time suddenly coming to a stop over a particular little house in a little village of little houses.

So the first scripture verse being alluded to is way back in Numbers. In the Book of Numbers, the Israelites are passing through different kingdoms on their Exodus, and they send emissaries to ask permission to pass through their land. But the pagan kings instead send a military response, which the Israelites (with God’s help) decimate one after another. So Balak, the king of Moab, instead of sending a military response, sent a pagan prophet, Balaam, to curse Israel. Instead, God then spoke to Balaam, who then spoke the words God, oracles of blessing for Israel, much to the disappointment of his employer. That can happen when you hire a prophet. But in one of the oracles, Balaam says,

“I see him, though not now;
I observe him, though not near:
A star shall advance from Jacob,
and a scepter shall rise from Israel,
That will crush the brows of Moab,
and the skull of all the Sethites,
Edom will be dispossessed,
and no survivor is left in Seir.
Israel will act boldly,
and Jacob will rule his foes.”

This prophecy became part of the Messianic mythology and expectation. The scepter rising is a sign of kingly dominion, even over the foreign nations and enemies of Israel. And this kingly dominion will be marked by an advancing star. So this ancient prophecy of an advancing star marking the true king is manifest (epiphany!) in the Star of Bethlehem, which led the magi to the Christ child.

The second prophetic scripture being referenced in our gospel is 1 Samuel 16. Here, we meet “Jesse of Bethlehem,” whose eighth and youngest son was David, whom Samuel anointed as the future king. So while historically the “City of David” was always Jerusalem, the city David that ruled from for most of his reign, Bethlehem was the “city of David” in the sense that this is where David was born—and where the new Son of David, the Messiah and everlasting King of the Jews, would be born.

And that leads into the third prophetic scripture being referenced in our gospel, Micah 5:1, which is the prophecy the scribes read to Herod about the birth of the Messiah, the “newborn king of the Jews”: “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.” Interestingly, Matthew tweaked the original prophecy from Micah, which originally says, “But you, Bethlehem-Ephrathah, least among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel; Whose origin is from of old, from ancient times.” There has been much speculation as to why Matthew changed Micah’s words, with no clear consensus. And to clarify, Bethlehem-Ephrathah is the same as Bethlehem of Judah, to distinguish it from another Bethlehem, which is in Galilee.

Now. Back to the magi and their gifts. Our gospel reading says, “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.”

There’s a footnote in the New American Bible (the English version closest to the Catholic Lectionary) for this verse (Matthew 2:11), that says to consult Isaiah 60 and Psalm 72, and that these Old Testament texts led to the interpretation of the magi as kings. Guess what our first reading and our responsorial psalm are for today! Isaiah 60 and Psalm 72.

From our first reading, from Isaiah 60: Jerusalem, “raise your eyes and look about; they all gather and come to you: your sons come from afar, and your [young] daughters in the arms of their nurses. Then you shall be radiant at what you see, your heart shall throb and overflow…

Jeremiah had earlier personified Jerusalem as a mother wailing the loss of her children: “In Ramah is heard the sound of sobbing, bitter weeping! Rachel mourns for her children, she refuses to be consoled for her children—they are no more!” Rachel was the wife of Jacob/Israel, who died in childbirth in Ramah on the way to Bethlehem-Ephrata (Bethlehem of Judah). So while she was dying, her midwife gave her the consolation that she bore a son. Rachel’s tomb is a pilgrimage spot in Ramah, and Rachel is something of a maternal intercessor for the children of Israel, the Jewish people (maternal intercessor… that sounds familiar… ). In that oracle, Jeremiah continues, “Thus says the LORD: Cease your cries of weeping, hold back your tears! There is compensation for your labor… they shall return from the enemy’s land.” Ramah was the staging area for the exiles from Jerusalem before they were marched off to Babylon. So while the mother-city of the Jews, Jerusalem, echoed the weeping of Rachel, God gave her the consolation that “There is compensation for your labor,” for your children will return from the enemy’s land. A few verses after today’s Gospel reading from Matthew, we encounter the Slaughter of the Innocents, in which Matthew makes use of Jeremiah’s reference to Rachel, this time as Bethlehem’s infant boys are slaughtered by the paranoid fear of Herod. Matthew quotes Jeremiah as if to say to the traumatized town of Bethlehem, “There is compensation for your labor,” for amidst all this sorrow and death, your king, your light, has come to you, the savior is born, and has safely escaped, and shall return.

So in our first reading today, from Isaiah, he tells Jerusalem to “Raise your eyes and look about; they all gather and come to you:” see the throng of her children returning from their exile! “Then you shall be radiant at what you see, your heart shall throb and overflow!

The rest of the first reading is the ultimate hope of Israel, that Jerusalem would be known among the nations as the center of the world, and the city to come to for worshiping the One True God. For only Jerusalem has the blessing of divine light in the darkness, of freedom from the thick clouds of sin and despair over the rest of the nations: “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, and over you appears his glory. Nations shall walk by your light, and kings by your shining radiance.” Ah, a reference to kings! “The riches of the sea shall be emptied out before 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.” Ah, a reference to gold and frankincense! So here we have this image of the fulfillment of Israel’s hopes for the future age when kings would be bringing the wealth of all the nations to Jerusalem, bearing gold and frankincense, and proclaiming the praises of the LORD (the name of the True God). This is part of the scriptural tradition that contributed to transforming the magi into We Three Kings.

Incidentally, the line in the gospel “they saw the child with Mary his mother. They prostrated themselves and did him homage” is related to this personification of Jerusalem. The holy city of Jerusalem, the mother of the children of God, is personified in a way with Rachel, the mother of the children of God. The kings were going to offer their gifts and homage to the king in Jerusalem. The magi are offering their gifts and homage to Christ in the presence of His mother Mary, who by extension, is the personification of mother Church, the mother of the children of God. The magi don’t bring their gifts to the heart of Mother Jerusalem, but rather to the heart of Mother Mary.

Psalm 70 is a psalm by David, praying for his son, Solomon. The opening stanza says, “O God, with your judgment endow the king, and with your justice, the king’s son; He shall govern your people with justice and your afflicted ones with judgment.” This clearly affirms that it is being written by “the king” (David) in favor of “the king’s son” (Solomon). But it’s also clearly prophetic of far more than what Solomon or any of his immediate successors would accomplish. No, the fulfillment of the prophetic words of this psalm would have to wait for a future Son of David, in whom would be fulfilled this hope:

Justice shall flower in his days, 
and profound peace, till the moon be no more. 
May he rule from sea to sea, 
and from the River to the ends of the earth. 

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.”

So here we have the other half (the rest of the story) on why we have three kings in all our nativity sets: the Messianic expectation of the future king, the future son of David, who would rule an everlasting kingdom, to the ends of the earth; that it will be to him that foreign kings would offer gifts, would bring tribute, and pay him homage… like the magi did.

Before we leave the magi, I just want to add one more aspect for us to consider. These magi were pagans, intelligent, wise, and skilled at discerning truth in the natural world. They followed truth where it led them. And where did it lead them? First, to Jerusalem, to inquire from the scribes, the theologians, what was written in the Holy Scriptures. Then, to Bethlehem, to come face-to-face with Christ, the incarnation of God. Sacred Tradition says that God has composed two beautiful books: The Book of Nature and the Book of the Holy Scriptures. The purpose of nature is both to surround us with joy and beauty (of which we are holy stewards), but also to teach us about the nature of God, for everything God has made has his fingerprint. And as such, when humbly taught by the observable nature of Creation, it leads us to the more explicit revelation of his Word, by whom nature was created. The magi could only get so far by nature, then they needed the scribes to help them decipher the final leg of their journey. Then they met the manifestation of their longing: Christ himself, God-with-us. Their humble but determined search for Truth led them face to face with the One Who is (the) Truth (the Way, and the Life).

Now, we do need to take a moment and include the second reading, because it unlocks a key theme to our feast for today, and of our readings: “The mystery was made known to me by revelation… which was not made known to human beings in other generations as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit, that the Gentiles are coheirs, members of the same body, and copartners in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.”

I’ve mentioned a few times before that the heart of the Messianic expectation was the restoration of Israel. But because the Northern Kingdom, ten of the twelve tribes, had been dispersed among all the nations by the Assyrians, that for the new covenant of God to bring all of Israel into the covenant, the new covenant would necessarily include all nations, all the world. As it does. As St. Paul is teaching us in this letter. The New Covenant is not for Jews only, and not for Jews over the gentiles, but rather Jews and gentiles as coheirs and copartners in the promise of Christ Jesus. As Paul wrote one chapter earlier in Ephesians, the gentiles and Jews have been reconciled in the blood of the cross, and Christ has made the two into one (how nuptial of him!) thus establishing peace, for through him both have access in the one Spirit to the Father.

King Solomon, the Son of David, was hailed as supernaturally wise, and foreign kings brought gifts (including frankincense and myrrh!) when they came to seek his wisdom. “There is something greater than Solomon here!” Here is the infant Christ, less than two weeks out of the womb, and already kings, magi, the wise and influential of the nations, are bringing him gifts and paying him homage. A key aspect of today’s’ theme is that the magi are a first installment of what Christ would accomplish on a universal scale: the inclusion of the gentiles into the mystery of Christ, the gentiles coming to acknowledge Christ as King, and God the Father as the True God, as St. Paul describes in the second reading.

So what about the gifts? Gold, frankincense, and myrrh? Matthew names them in particular. We already saw that gold and frankincense are mentioned together in the two readings above, from Jeremiah 60 and Psalm 72. Myrrh appears in quite a few places in both the Old and New Testaments (sometimes together with frankincense), for anointing, or for its aromatic fragrance, or for numbing pain. But what about a theological significance?

Already in the second century, Saint Irenaeus of Lyons (France) would identify that gold represented royalty, the kingship of Jesus. The frankincense was used in the tabernacle for worship, and symbolized the divinity of Jesus. And myrrh, which was an ointment used in burial (it was used by Nicodemus to prepare to anoint the body of Jesus), pointed forward to Jesus’ Passion and death.

I’ve written a number of times of Jesus manifesting the triple role of priest, prophet, and king. The application of the gifts are similar to that by St. Irenaeus: gold for his being a king, frankincense, incense, for his being a priest, and myrrh, anointing oil, for his being a prophet.

A different schema from St. Gregory the Great: “Wisdom is typified by gold; as Solomon says in the Proverbs, ‘A treasure to be desired is in the mouth of the wise.’ By frankincense, which is burnt before God, the power of prayer is intended, as in the Psalms, ‘Let my speech come before you as incense.’ In myrrh is figured mortification of the flesh. To a king at his birth we offer gold (if we shine in his sight with the light of wisdom); we offer frankincense (if we have power before God by the sweet savor of our prayers); we offer myrrh (when we mortify by abstinence the lusts of the flesh).”

Another interesting association is that frankincense and myrrh are only mentioned together in the Song of Songs, where they are nuptial perfumes employed by the Lover and his Bride to prepare for their marriage. And as we said, gold and frankincense are only mentioned together in the readings above, where they are presented to a king. We’ve talked before (2 Sam 5:1) about the nuptial covenant of Israel’s kingship, that the people use the Genesis language of “bone and flesh” to represent a nuptial covenant where the people become the Bride, and the king the Bridegroom. And of course St. Paul in Ephesians 5 applies this to Christ the Bridegroom and his covenant of love with His Bride, the Church, the people. So there’s the royal bridegroom connection.

So to bring this home– We see in the gospel reading three groups of people, in their orientation, or their response, to the newborn king, at his birth, and ever after:

A. The Destructive Group: At first symbolized by Herod, who asked the magi to tell him of the newborn king’s whereabouts, not to adore him, but to dispose of him. Herod’s response was the Slaughter of the Innocents. This group also includes the religious leaders who rejected Jesus throughout his earthly ministry, ultimately orchestrating the injustice that led to his suffering and death. This group also contains those who have persecuted the Church, through unjust laws, and through torture of the faithful. We can, unfortunately, add to this group those within the Church who cause scandal and damage to the mission and credibility of the Church, and cause distress and division to the faithful, as well as personal wounds to victims.

B. The Indifferent Group: The Scribes and Pharisees knew of the multitude of prophecies associated with the Messiah. When Herod asked them, they could pinpoint exactly what town the Messiah was to be born in. The Messiah that they’ve been awaiting for centuries! But they didn’t even bother to go! They tended to their temporal affairs, and even argued against Jesus during his mission, as he unsuccessfully tried to call them to repentance and conversion. This is the lukewarm semi-faithful, who lack fervent, passionate devotion. Their religious identity is not their primary self-understanding, and their values come more from secular culture than from their Catholic faith.

C. The Devout Group: This is the group of those who not only hear the word but do it, who not only humbly recognize their need for a savior from their sin, but seek him out and with gratitude does what he says. This group was The Blessed Mother, and Joseph, Elizabeth, the shepherds, the magi. This group was the lepers, the blind, deaf, and crippled, the tax collectors and prostitutes, the Apostles and other disciples. This group is the saints and martyrs, the holy people who live and share their faith with wisdom and love.

The magi encountered Jesus, and returned differently than they had come. That is the call to us as we have prepared throughout advent to encounter Jesus in a new way at Christmas, and to go home differently than we had come. Like the shepherds, they returned home with more joy and love, spreading the good news that they had heard and seen.

The magi didn’t return to Herod. At the end of the gospel reading, the magi encountered Jesus, and returned differently than they had come. That is the invitation: to go home differently than we came, transformed by the encounter. The magi were following their search for wisdom. Love is the ultimate wisdom. These seekers of wisdom bowed before something greater than themselves: the Love of God. And they went home differently than they had come. That we might do the same.

And just for fun… Enjoy!

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