Divine Visitation, Divine Inspiration, Divine Invitation. Homily for the Feast of the Epiphany
During November 13-14 in Baltimore, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) gathered for their annual Fall General Assembly. During this time, Most Rev. Robert D. Gruss, Bishop of Rapid City rose to the floor to propose the cause for the beatification and eventual canonization of Nicholas Black Elk.
On his website, Word On Fire, Bishop Barron recounts the life of Nicholas Black Elk. Nicholas Black Elk, was a Native American and amember of the Lakota people. He died relatively recently in 1950, was related to Crazy Horse and was present at the Battle of the Little Big Horn as well as the tragedy of Wounded Knee. Thus he was a man deeply familiar and enmeshed in the culture of his people at that time.
Bishop Barron relates that he eventually converted to the Roman Catholic Faith and seemed to have a gift for healing – a sort of mystic, hence he was known among his people as a “Catholic medicine man.” In addition, he was a man who possessed a great mind but was nevertheless able to express and explain the tenants of the faith in an effective way, especially to the young people around him. Thus, according to the Catholic idea that “grace builds on nature,” Nicholas Black Elk, was able to take his natural talents, have them infused with the grace of the Holy Spirit and infuse them into the culture and situations in which he found himself at the time.
Why is this relevant to us today? Catholics in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia are leaving the church at the rate of 10,000 each year. Americans say that the Religious Aspects of Christmas Are Declining in Public Life. Young people, especially, are leaving organized religion in dramatic numbers. What is especially fascinating – and frustrating – are the reasons that young people mention for leaving their churches. They say things like, “Religion is incompatible with ‘real’ science.’” “People who practice religion are merely superstitious.” “Faith and reason are totally incompatible.” “You can’t sync God and evolution.”
Notice, young people aren’t leaving because “Sister hit them in grade school” or because of the “priest scandal” or because “Father yelled at them in Confession.” These reasons are intellectual, and hence, catechetical, in their nature and in that respect lies the tragedy. The Catholic Church has obviously failed offering a well-reasoned, cogent, compelling, scientifically-based catechesis of the faith.
In that regard, someone like Nicholas Black Elk is a compelling figure – a “passionate, smart witness to the faith who presents a model of effective contemporary catechesis, especially to our young people today. He was an Epiphany incarnated, sent to the people of his culture to address the pressing questions of his time.
Concerning the relevance of the Feast of the Epiphany to us today, back around the year 400 A.D. – 461 A.D., Pope Leo the Great wrote,
The gospel story specifically recalls the days when, without any previous teaching from the prophets or instruction in the law, three men came from the far east in search of God; but we see the same thing taking place even more clearly and extensively in the enlightenment of all those whom God calls at the present time.
(And so), although that day belongs to the past, the power of the mystery which was then revealed has not passed away; we are not left with a mere report of bygone events, to be received in faith and remembered with veneration. God’s bounty toward us has been multiplied, so that even in our own times we daily experience the grace which belonged to those first beginnings.
I would propose that today we are called to facilitate a new and contemporary Epiphany.
The first part is to understand what our role is in this new and contemporary Epiphany. God provides us the answer through the Prophet Isaiah 42:1-8. “I formed you, and set you as a covenant of the people, a light for the nations. To open the eyes of the blind, to bring out prisoners from confinement, and from the dungeon, those who live in darkness.” Thus we have been called to help open the eyes of the blind and to show them that a relationship with Christ can lead them out of dark places.
Once you begin to try and do this however, realize that you’re going to experience some pushback. People will mock and even vilify religion, the Church and people’s faith. It is not so much that God is hidden from them. They choose not to look for nor seek him. This has been going on for thousands of years, even before the time of Moses and the Jewish people. Isaiah 45:15-25 writes that “Truly with you God is hidden, the God of Israel, the savior! Those are put to shame and disgrace who vent their anger against him.”
So you cannot expect to do this alone. No one can. For this reason, you must come to Church weekly.
Come and assemble, gather together, you fugitives from among the Gentiles! Come here and declare in counsel together: Who announced this from the beginning and foretold it from of old? Was it not I, the Lord, besides whom there is no other God? I am the Lord, and there is no other. I have not spoken from hiding nor from some dark place of the earth. And I have not said to the descendants of Jacob, “Look for me in an empty waste.” (Isaiah 45:15-25)
People need to come and assemble together. Only in the community can the full power of God’s Word be realized and manifested. Like we read in Matthew 7:7, people who seek Him will find Him.
Before God “sets up the meeting” for you to encounter someone who is ready, God will first “set the table.” In some cases, God will use culture, nature, families, tradition, science, astrology, astronomy to reveal Himself in an epiphany of “normal, natural stuff.” Oblate Father Ronald Rolheiser writes that,
Jesus is born inside of a religious tradition, Judaism, and his birth is announced to that faith-community in a manner that befits religion, namely, by the angels, by supernatural revelation. But those outside of that faith-tradition need another way to get to know of his birth, and so his birth is announced to them though nature, astrology, through the stars. The wise men see a special star appear in the sky and begin to follow it, not knowing exactly to where or to what it will lead.
In other cases, God’s epiphany comes through miracles, supernatural events and mystic visions to get the attention of people. Scripture scholar Eleanor Stump writes, “Consider the shepherds. They lacked the money needed for education, and so they lacked the ability to use Scripture or stars to know the birth of the Messiah. They had no power to command others to share the fruits of their education with them either.” They were just minding their own business, doing their job and they received a visit from angels.
Thus, God arranges for a Divine Visitation, Divine Inspiration, Divine Invitation.
Are you called to glimpse the divine mystery in order to be naming grace for someone else?
Audio version of the homily is here: