Homily of Bishop Kevin for the Feast of the Epiphany
Epiphany – a Celebration of the Nations
Homily of Bishop Kevin
Friday 6th January 2017, Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception
Ireland and Israel have a good deal in common. They are both small countries with a history of emigration. Like the Irish, the Jewish people are to be found in every corner of the earth. Israel was occupied by foreign powers for much of its history, and the whole Jewish nation was taken into exile on a number of occasions. (The first reading makes some reference to that experience of exile and of home-coming).
When it comes to religion, it’s interesting to note that the three great monotheistic world religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) all had their origin in the same little corner of the earth. It’s the point where Africa, Asia and Europe meet. The area has been a cross-roads for trade for nearly three thousand years. Some people have suggested this is why these three religions have spread so widely and had such an influence on the world.
The strange thing is that the Jews, like the Irish, have a habit of thinking of themselves as special and even unique. They are often referred to as “God’s chosen people” but there are different ways of understanding this. From time to time, the prophets explained that being God’s chosen people meant that they had a kind of “missionary” responsibility to bring God’s word to the other nations. But quite often they acted as if God’s love for them was exclusive.
Up to now, our celebration of Christmas has focussed on Bethlehem and how the good news of salvation was revealed to the shepherds of Judea. It’s all very local, and it could also have been very cosy and narrow. The arrival of the three wise men stirs things up a bit. Herod, the local tyrant, was uncomfortable with these foreigners coming into his territory bringing gifts. He knew, instinctively, that they would be looking for something to take home with them.
We’re told that the wise men were following a star. Perhaps there was a bright light in the sky; but it could be a symbol for some interior light, something in their hearts, which drew them to Bethlehem. It’s not entirely clear where the wise men began their journey. There is a suggestion that they may have come from different directions and simply met on the road because they were all attracted by the same thing. The important thing is that the good news of Christ’s birth was revealed to them, just as it was to the shepherds. That’s what the word Epiphany means. The wise men were filled with joy, and they worshipped Jesus.
The love of God is not exclusive. The Feast of the Epiphany seems to be a good occasion for giving thanks to God for the gift of faith which God intended for all people, in every age, including people we have never met and people we may never meet. It is also a good occasion to give thanks for the way in which our society has been enriched, in recent years, by the arrival of many people from far away. We always knew they were there, but now they are here, and many of them – like the wise men – have brought gifts to share, not perhaps gold, frankincense and myrrh, but gifts of culture, faith and service. For generations we have been more accustomed to emigration, but now the focus has changed a bit. In our own diocese, we have been blessed in particular with families and individuals from the Philippines, from Poland, from India, Brazil, the Congo and Latvia, just to mention the larger groups.
We have been blessed too by that gift of service which has come to us in the form of priests from Poland, the Philippines, Nigeria, India and Sri Lanka and a deacon from Brazil and religious sisters from India and the Philippines. It is my hope that, in the near future, young people in all of these communities as well as those who history is more local, will hear the call of God and offer themselves in service as priests and sisters.
We have heard the news today that a party of Syrian refugees is about to arrive in Ballaghaderreen and I must say my reaction to that news is thank God that, at long last, the wheels are beginning to turn. It is difficult to be delayed for a few hours in a foreign airport; most of these people have been in limbo for years. I have heard some people complaining that the government did not consult with local people. I’m not so sure that consultation is the issue, but I do think that, if refugees are to become members of the local community, then the local community has to be allowed to play a part. Otherwise, invisible walls of ignorance and fear begin to build.
Wouldn’t it be a good idea if children and adults alike could learn a little about the culture of Syria, ancient and modern, and perhaps even learn to say a few simple words in Arabic; Salam (hello), Shukran (thank you). It would be a way to show respect for people who have not seen much respect in the past few years.
Difference challenges us. Sometimes we feel uncomfortable with it, or even threatened by it. But diversity also helps us to become more open rather than becoming narrow and insular. We don’t have to stop being ourselves, but we can come to realise that the whole world is not focused on us and our priorities. The three wise men understood that, but Herod, unfortunately, seems to have missed the point.