The Catholic University of America

Solemnity of the Epiphany, 2006 -- John Carroll Society Mass
St. Patrick's Church, Washington, D.C.
Msgr. Kevin W. Irwin
The Catholic University of America
Jan. 8, 2006

In 1950 Ernest Hemmingway wrote, "If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a movable feast."

If being a "movable feast" can be true for Paris, the city of lights, in a very real sense it is true for the feast we celebrate today - Epiphany -- sometimes known as "little Christmas" but whose original meaning is manifestation, the active presence and work of God among us.

Time was the Epiphany was always celebrated on January 6th, marking a season of twelve days whose bookends were Christmas day and the Epiphany. But with the liturgical reforms after Vatican II the American bishops decided to shift Epiphany to the Sunday following January 1st. They did this in order to give it prominence since January 6th is not a holiday or holy day in our culture, the way it is to this day in some (especially) Latin American and European countries.

Epiphany then did become a movable feast. Which means that the popular song "The Twelve Days of Christmas" has to be rewritten every year to be fewer days or more, depending on the day of the week Christmas occurs. This year it took the Magi two more days to find the infant. And that was not because Mapquest gave the wrong computer generated directions or because their GSPS was not functioning. No, in the church's wisdom every year we need all the time we can get to unpack the Christmas mystery. This year we have fourteen.

Trying to prolong the celebration of Christmas is especially challenging in a culture like ours that anticipates Christmas by weeks if not months. When Christmas trees are already on curbsides on December 26th, when the January white sales are almost over and cruise wear has already replaced winter coats and scarves in the department stores it can be hard to realize that it is still Christmas.

What are we to make of this movable feast of Epiphany? I'd argue two things -- one is light and another is that salvation has come not just to the chosen Jewish people of God but to all peoples.

Both themes are reflected in today's scriptures, specially chosen for today because of references to light and to its prophecy that "the wealth of nations shall be brought" to honor the newborn Son of God.

And who are we but people who worship the "light of the world" as Christ calls himself in St. John's gospel (Jn. 9:4). A light that no darkness can extinguish. We need to hear that message again and again. Why? Because there is so much darkness, so much that needs light in our world.

The darkness of evil and personal sin that need the healing rays of Christ the light of the world to cure and heal. Yes, even we who come here to worship God who are believers know the moments of unbelief and we who profess the gospel as our creed and guide know only too well that we often do fall in living that good news. We need to begin again to live in the light that is Christ.

The darkness of despair that can overtake us as we watch family members grieve and mourn the deaths of twelve valiant coal miners who died looking for a light at the end of the tunnel. Sometimes we talk about the need for "a thousand points of light" when in fact in their grief all too many coal miners' daughters today would be satisfied with a glimmer of a figurative light at the end of their of tunnel of grief beyond telling, their tunnel of depression beyond measure and their tunnel of despair beyond compare..

The darkness that comes from knowing what is right and just and not living just and honest lives, especially in a society as just and free as ours. We gather in a great capital city which, like all capital cities, is a town of movers and shakers where important, life shaping and life changing decision are made and actions taken. We must be cautious however, because we have here no lasting city and that in the end in every town of movers and shakers, all the shakers eventually move. And what will have mattered would be how they and we lived while here according to the light of the world.

Yes, Christ is the light of the world and we need that light now more than ever. But that same Christ says to us as his disciples in St. Matthew's gospel "you are the light of the world" (Mt. 5:14).

We who receive the light of Christ at baptism are to be the light of Christ for others. We are called to be that thousand points of light. We are meant to be that beacon of hope for those "who dwell in darkness" (Lk. 1:79) and to be a light at the end of the tunnel for those who live in the shadow of death (Lk. 1:79) and on this Epiphany week-end as we are all in that shadow because of the events in West Virginia. We are meant to be epiphanies to each other of the light that Christ came to bring and to be for the world.

Salvation for all peoples.

Pope Benedict XVI spoke to this in his first World Day of Peace Message for January 1st. He observed that "all peoples are members of one and the same family. An extreme exaltation of differences clashes with this fundamental truth." Such a simple statement. Such a simple premise. And we make it so hard.

In point of fact the pope reminds us that the world is not divided up into "us" and "they." The world God made is all about our being "members of one human family."

God's intentions are for us all to be "one body, one spirit in Christ."

How often are our intentions about separating, not including, so that we presume a rhetoric of dividing and separating, sometimes to the point of name calling and caricatures. How often it is "we / they"

Dividing, haves and have nots...
Or our friends and our enemies…
Or rich and poor
Or North and South
Or liberal and conservative

And if this is true of anywhere and every place it is certainly in a town like Washington D.C. where divisions separating the aisle of Congress are often far more deep than alliances across the aisle.

The issue is our being one family. Gratefully in this past year there have been important international demonstrations of that.

Last year's meeting in Montreal about climate change and responsibility for our planet and all people on it now and for generations to come.

The important G8 summit about world debt. This was not just a political coup but a statement that dividing the world into haves and have nots is not the way to view the world, with the developing countries so hopelessly mired in debt that there is no capital to develop at all.

Steps toward democracy in the Middle East mean that unbridled and unfettered domination by unjust rulers and unjust rules can come to an end.

The challenge of this universal experience of salvation is to throw off the "me-ism" that can plague our culture and get us beyond an "us…them" mindset. One gift of Epiphany is that Christ came for all peoples. One challenge of Epiphany is to move from any hint of selfishness in our lives to self transcendence.

And that selfishness can plague us who regard spirituality as a great value. True Christian spirituality is going beyond the self so that we can be Christ for others. Sometimes we need to be attentive to the self and engage in self help. But true Christian spirituality has to go beyond this and ask what good is self help if the only one being helped is the self? True Christian spirituality is going beyond the self in communal self transcendence.

Light and salvation for all? Do we always "get it" right? Sadly, no. But that is why we need to be here at this Epiphany Eucharist. To share in God's light and salvation once again come to us in word and sacrament.

One day about five years ago at a Washington benefit dinner a table companion of Cokie Roberts asked her "are you really a practicing Catholic?" To which Cokie replied "until I get it right."

We are here to get it right. And if we do that then this will truly be a blessed New Year. Not the Paris of Hemmingway in the 1950's but the here and now Washington D.C. of 2006. Paris need not be the only city of lights. So can Washington, D.C.

This is the gift and the challenge of this Epiphany, this annual little Christmas, this movable feast of light and salvation for all.