Homily: Mass for the Solemnity of the Epiphany of the Lord
Recently I reviewed some startling photos. I was struck by the pictures of the small Christian community made up of a number of families including elders and infants all huddled in relative darkness and in imposed silence as they tried to celebrate Christmas – Nativity – the birth of our Lord.
What struck me was the fear that was necessarily a part of this clandestine Liturgy and what inspired me was the defiance of those who while frightened of the consequences were determined to hold on to and even celebrate their faith.
The photos were of a small persecuted Christian community in Syria but it could just as well have been almost anywhere else in the Middle East.
What a contrast to our celebration today in this magnificent cathedral full of light, heat, joy and freedom.
The liturgy speaks of light, a light that is come among us, the glory of the Lord that shines upon us. Just as the star of Bethlehem led the wise men, symbols of the Gentiles, to Christ so we are reminded every Epiphany that we are also to be a light to those around us, a light reflecting Christ by reflecting our discipleship – our commitment to him.
Today I would like to reflect with you not just on our challenge and obligation to be a reflection of Christ’s light in the world, but also our obligation to pray for those who are struggling to keep that light of Christian faith alive, even as attempts are made to see that it is extinguished in their lives.
We take for granted not only the great gift of faith that enables us to profess our discipleship in Jesus Christ, our acceptance of him, his Gospel and his way, but also the great gift of freedom that allows us to profess our faith, to live our faith, to practice our faith openly and freely, and to have recourse to the courts when we feel that our freedom is being compromised.
Today I ask you to reflect with me and pray for those who see the light of their Christian faith being challenged and in some instances violently extinguished.
In the fall of last year, September 2014, an ecumenical summit of Christian leaders, representatives of Churches and faith communities from all over the Middle East, the Holy Land, Iraq and Syria met here in Washington. Organized by an association of scholars and dignitaries called “In Defense of Christians,” this Inaugural Summit was to call attention to the gradual eradication of Christianity in the very land where it all began.
Representatives from the Holy See, the Maronite, Melkite and Syriac Catholic patriarchs, as well as representatives of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Church, the Coptic Orthodox Church, the Chaldean Church and the Patriarchates of the Armenian Apostolic Church, the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople and many others gathered to point out the plight of the ancient Christian communities in the Middle East.
Here it was noted that institutional oppression from governments and the violence of organizations such as ISIS, the self-proclaimed “Islamic State of Iraq and Syria,” have dramatically reduced the number of Christians in all of these lands, made them second class citizens, obliged them to forced conversion, and exhibited a violence manifested in beheadings and mass executions.
If it were not for the immediacy of the presence of these atrocities one would be tempted to think that reference was being made to something of a thousand years ago, when in various parts of the world some religious faiths were spread by the sword. But my brothers and sisters, we are speaking about today.
We must pray for and speak up on behalf of those whose light that began to shine at Epiphany is being forcefully but really and truly extinguished.
But in other parts of the world, the light of faith is also challenged as the ever present darkness that the light of Christ came to dispel threatens to encroach. In Nigeria we hear of Christian children being kidnapped by the classroom full and forced to reject their faith and accept Islam.
A recent report from the Diocese of Maiduguri in troubled Borno State in northeastern Nigeria pointed out how Catholic Nigerians displaced by violence and the threat of suicide bomb attacks by Islamist insurgents celebrated Christmas not knowing when they might return home. A veil of darkness descends over whole communities that once were alive in the light of Christian faith.
In Sudan, in West Africa, in parts of India regularly are Christian Churches and homes burned in the hope of putting out the light of faith.
The president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India recently criticized the forced conversions of Christians to Hinduism. Some Hindu leaders have said that India is a Hindu nation and thus forced conversion of Christians is justified.
In ancient Christian communities that have for centuries lived side by side with their neighbors who come from a variety of faith commitments the darkness of violence intrudes.
Pope Francis, in his Message for the World Day of Peace, which we observed last Thursday, speaks also of the “Many people [who] are kidnapped in order to be sold, enlisted as combatants, or sexually exploited, while others are forced to emigrate, leaving everything behind: their country, home, property, and even members of their family.”
For all of these we need to offer our prayers, our support and on behalf of whom we need our voices.
Brothers and sisters, Epiphany is the great celebration of light, Christ the light come into the world. We are called to be children of the light, to walk in the light, to live in the brightness of that light and to make every effort to reflect it and even share it.
Would that we could simply rejoice today in the great blessing of Epiphany, but as our Holy Father, Pope Francis, reminds us, to ignore the suffering and evil around us, to turn away from the efforts to envelope our brothers and sisters in darkness – to extinguish the light of faith is to act in a way not worthy of our calling.
This year when we rejoice in the light of faith, let us also remember that our brothers and sisters in various parts of the world are paying an extremely high price to keep that candle of faith lit. And let us simply remind ourselves of the words from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah that were part of the first reading today: “darkness covers the earth, and thick clouds cover the people,” “upon you the Lord shines, and over you appears his glory” so that nations might “walk by your light.”
As children of the light, let us never forget our brothers and sisters who attempt to walk in the light and who suffer so grievously for their faith. In this festival of the manifestation of our Lord, let us do our part, remembering our brothers and sisters, praying for them and standing in solidarity with them by speaking out whenever we can, reminding ourselves, our friends, our neighbors – everyone – that what they are suffering is simply wrong and that what they are enduring is an unjust violence.
Perhaps our faith, our prayers, and our words might help to lift a little of the darkness that covers these atrocities “so that nations might ‘walk by the light.’”