CNN, MSNBC, Fox News, turn on any major news program, and the most common stories you will find early in this new year will, sadly, sound an awful lot like last year – the president and his advisors still trying to find a way to end the violence across America, the Israelis and Palestinians still trying to stop the bloodshed in Palestine, the leaders of African nations still trying to end the tribal violence and civil wars on that continent. If these reports tell us anything, it seems that the best kept secret in the world, eluding all of these people, is the secret of lasting peace and unity.
Well, today, on this feast of the Epiphany, a word which means “revelation,” our Gospel reveals to us what that secret is. The key to peace and wholeness for all people of every race, language, and way of life, and best kept secret in the world, is this: the love of God poured out in his son, Jesus Christ. Of course, it’s not really a secret. People have known it for centuries, and faithful Christians have revealed it to others through the ages. But many, maybe even most, of us, certainly treat it like a secret today.
We treat our faith as a strictly private, personal matter, as if it was something to be ashamed of or a cause for embarrassment. We can’t really be blamed for feeling that way. We live in a society that tells people of religious faith that they should be ashamed,
that religion, Christianity in particular, is, at best, outdated superstition, with no place in our contemporary scientific world, or, at worst, hateful intolerance that leads to discrimination and violence. Given that common view of religion, it’s really no wonder that many of us keep our faith a secret.
Even a brief look at those particular arguments against religion, though, reveals their flaws and helps ease our fear of sharing the secret of our faith. The science argument frames the issue as a case of “either science or religion,” but is that the only way to look at it? Why could it not rather be an issue of “both science and religion?” Science has one goal: the pursuit of factual knowledge. What it cannot, does not, and will never tell us is how to use that knowledge. Science can tell us many things about the nature of a deadly virus or disease, but it cannot tell us whether to use that knowledge to cure the disease with a vaccine or to spread it with a biological weapon. We need some kind of guidance and wisdom beyond what science can provide to make those decisions, beyond our all too human littleness – we need faith.
As for the argument that religion leads to discrimination and hate, yes, people have committed terrible acts of violence in the name of religion; that is true. People have also committed terrible acts of violence for their country, for land and wealth, and for their family; do the people who call for an end to religion also call for an end to all governments, personal property, or families? No, because they recognize that the bad a minority of people have done in the name of these institutions is the exception, not the norm, and that the good they lead to far outweighs the bad.
How much good has been accomplished by religion? How many lives have been saved or improved by the Catholic healthcare system, Catholic charities, Catholic orphanages, shelters and food pantries? How many young people, including the poor and needy, have been educated by Catholic schools and universities? And these are just some of the Catholic institutions. While nothing excuses it, does this not outweigh the bad that a minority of people has done in the name of religion?
Revealing the flaws in these arguments can help build our confidence to live our faith more boldly in a dark world, but the reason we live our faith boldly brings us back to today’s feast and the secret of God’s love for all people in Christ. The magi from the East in today’s Gospel are not Jews and have no earthly reason for seeking a newborn Jewish king. They are foreigners from far off lands. They are well educated, able to travel great distances and speak foreign languages, they are wealthy, as seen by their expensive gifts, and they are influential, with access to powerful people, like King Herod. They have everything the world says will bring happiness and peace, but for some reason they are neither happy nor at peace.
They are looking for something, something they haven’t found in the world and which the world cannot give. So they look beyond the world, to the heavens, and they find it, following the light of a star. Making the difficult journey over desert and mountains, they find the key to human life, the peace and happiness for which they have searched so hard, God among us, Jesus Christ, and they go back to their country by another route, symbolic of the new direction Christ has given their lives.
People today are still looking for peace and wholeness, and the light of that star still shines, in and through the Church, leading people to Christ. We, who are the Church and who have received that tremendous gift, have a grave responsibility to now share that light with others. To the extent that we hide our light under a bushel basket, keeping it a secret, we dim the light of the whole Church. We fail to lead the people of the world to Christ, and we deny them that peace and wholeness. Don’t be intimidated by the darkness. Make this year different, let your light shine, and reveal the secret of God’s love in Christ to the world.