This week's big news story was that an Ontario Catholic school board was found guilty of discrimination when it cancelled a contract with Raelians, followers of a fellow whose website proclaims him to be a singer-songwriter, race-car driver, and—third on the list—the messenger to earth of its creators, a group of extraterrestrials.
I want to make it clear to any Raelians in the congregation this morning that I mean no disrespect to them. None at all. We've spent a fortune this week trying to repair the heating system and we cannot afford to be sued. I am sure Raelians are very nice people.
All the same, I am glad that I belong to a faith that started nearly two thousand years ago, and not to one that began in 1973, when its founder "had a dramatic encounter with a human being from another planet."
Not that there's anything wrong with belonging to a 37-year old religion! Again, I'm sure it's a very nice religion. But there are some splendid advantages to being part of an ancient faith, and one of them is simply that we benefit from centuries of accumulated wisdom .
Christian thinkers, many of them saints, have been pondering the truths of our faith from the days of the apostles. We call some of the earliest thinkers the Father of the Church, and we still gain profound insight from their writings.
This is particularly true of today's feast. If I had a year to prepare this morning's homily, and a double doctorate in liturgy and scripture, I couldn't come close to seeing the riches that ancient writers have found.
In fact, some of the connections they make are so startling that I'm sure they'd never occur to anyone without the help of the Holy Spirit. It's easy to see the connection in time between Christmas and the Epiphany, but not so easy to link Christmas, Epiphany and the Baptism of the Lord.
Yet the ancient writers treat them pretty much as one. In the fifth century, St. Maximus of Turin wrote "Reason demands that this feast of the Lord's baptism, which I think could be called the feast of his birthday, should follow soon after the Lord's birth… even though many years intervened between the two events."
Maximus becomes poetic as he continues:
"At Christmas, he was born a man; today he is reborn sacramentally. Then he was born from the virgin; today he is reborn in mystery. When he was born a man, his mother Mary held him close to her heart; when he is born in mystery, God the Father embraces him with his voice when he says: This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased: listen to him. The mother caresses the tender babe on her lap; the Father serves his Son by his loving testimony. The mother holds the child for the Magi to adore; the Father reveals that his Son is to be worshiped by all the nations."
St. Proclus of Constantinople, also writing in the fifth century, saw the Epiphany and the Baptism as one feast, even more wonder-filled than Christmas.
At Christmas, he wrote, "the earth rejoiced because it bore the Lord in a manger; but on the Epiphany it is the sea that is glad and leaps for joy; the sea is glad because it receives the blessing of the river Jordan.
"At Christmas we saw a weak baby, giving proof of our weakness. In today's feast [and he means the Epiphany!], we see a perfect man, hinting at the perfect Son who proceeds from the all-perfect Father. At Christmas the King puts on the royal robe of his body; at Epiphany the very source enfolds and, as it were, clothes the river."
Is your head spinning a bit? There's nothing wrong with that—every once in a while we need to be reminded that we are just taking little sips from the gushing fountain. When we talk about the "mysteries" of the Christmas season we don't mean that they are mysterious or impossible to understand, but we do mean that God has revealed himself in truly wondrous ways, making known his plan for salvation.
Today we recognize that God has made himself known not only in the historical events we celebrate. He has also revealed himself in the sacraments. Through baptism "the believer enters into the mystery of God's saving plan and begins a life journey in, with, and through Christ crucified and risen to the fullness of eternal life."*
*Thomas D. McGonigle, "Mystery," The New Dictionary of Catholic Spirituality, p. 677.