Solemnity of the Epiphany
Isaiah 60:1-6; Ephesians 3:2-3, 5-6; Matthew 2:1-12
At the end of the Mass on Pentecost Sunday last year, a couple came up to the front of our church to look at the display in front of it. Father Oscar, who has a great eye for visual representation, had wanted seven candles placed before the altar, one each for the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit. Maybe you remember memorizing them from your confirmation. Six of them are: wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, and piety. The seventh is usually known, especially in old Catechisms, as fear of the Lord. However, the couple looking at the altar noted that the candle was labeled as “wonder and awe.” I had heard this variation before, but it made me curious, so I did some checking on this, since the two, although not completely different, do carry a superficial difference in emphasis.
The gifts of the Holy Spirit are found from the eleventh chapter of the book of Isaiah [Isaiah 11:2-3]. So the original list was in Hebrew, and translations being notoriously tricky things, both translations of the gifts are accepted by modern theologians. My admittedly less-than-thorough research quickly demonstrated to me that even those commentators who listed it as “fear of the Lord” admitted that it was the most misunderstood of the gifts. The fear that we should have is not that God will punish us, but a fear that we have not lived up to our obligations to God. For example, if we say something about a friend that is seen by some as cruel, it is more a fear that this friend will have their feelings hurt and not a fear that this friend will punch us in the face. In both circumstances, I used the word “fear,” but that fear was very different in the two instances. If we truly profess a love of God and neighbor, we should fear our own inadequacies in living up to that commitment and not a fear that we will be held accountable. Scott Richert of Our Sunday Visitor wrote, “The gift of the fear of the Lord, Fr. John A. Hardon notes in his Modern Catholic Dictionary, confirms the virtue of hope. We often think of hope and fear as mutually exclusive, but the fear of the Lord is the desire not to offend Him, and the certainty that He will give us the grace necessary to keep from doing so. It is that certainty that gives us hope. The fear of the Lord is like the respect we have for our parents. We do not wish to offend them, but we also do not live in fear of them, in the sense of being frightened.” [ https://www.ltrr.arizona.edu/~katie/kt/misc/CCCC/7-Gifts-of-Holy-Spirit/... ]
This is the sense captured by the term “wonder and awe” that I think the celebration of the Epiphany is all about, and what the readings today are speaking to. In the first reading, Isaiah, this time in chapter 60, speaks to the wonder and awe that the people of God have: “Upon you the LORD will dawn, and over you his glory will be seen.” [Isaiah 60:2b NABRE]. Israel is not living in fear of a wrathful God but instead is living in the splendor of God since they live in covenant with him. Then in the Gospel, the Magi from the east are not coming to placate a God that could inflict vengeance on their land but instead come to honor a sacred event that they don’t fully understand. Not being Jewish, they would not have understood the concept of a Messiah, but they are able to discern the miracle of the star and understand its importance, and therefore travel to find out what is going on, in that sense a fear that they might miss a divine sign. They came to show respect and honor a new-born king. We know what is going on, since we understand the rest of the story, and like the Magi we come today, as we do every Sunday, to worship with wonder and awe our great God.
Also at every Sunday Mass we say the creed. We usually say the creed that was formulated at the Council of Nicaea in the year 325. Before this time, Christianity was not legal in the Roman Empire, so the various churches around the Mediterranean region had grown separate from each other, and since a unified New Testament canon had not been established, they had over time different understandings of the teaching of Christ. So the bishops at Nicaea made a creed which has all of the basic tenets of Christianity, those that must be held if one is to call oneself a Christian. These beliefs are so important that the Church wants us to say them every week, that we might know them by heart. The Church also wants us to do something else as we say the creed. The Roman Missal instructs that all of us bow at the words “and by the Holy Spirit was incarnate of the Virgin Mary, and became man.” It instructs that it be a profound bow, which is to say from the waist and not just a head bow. This is done to honor that which we just celebrated two weeks ago: the fact that our God came to earth and dwelt among us – the incarnation, God made flesh. This is the most profound thing in the history of the world, that which makes Christianity different, which makes us different who believe, which shows in the most intimate way that God does indeed love us. At the statement of this belief, then, we bow and show homage, as the Magi did, to that glorious event which starts at Bethlehem.
As we continue with the Mass, let us pray confidently that we always stay on the road marked by the star that is our Savior, the path that is outlined in our creed which we will say in just a minute. May the Eucharist we receive be the communion which binds all those that believe the creed into one Church, one body of Christ. May we always maintain a wonder and awe for our God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and always have a healthy fear lest we not live up to our commitments to the new Covenant we have in Christ.