For many today appears to mark the end of Christmas - the Epiphany, Twelfth Night, yet we still have a week to go: the Christmas Season lasts until the feast of the Baptism of the Lord, which this year falls on the 13th January. So we have another week to feast and we can stave off the diet for a little longer, and yes, contrary to common practice, we can still wish each other a "Happy Christmas". I think the time has come for us Catholics (and all Christians) to resist the secularisation of our feasts and seasons, and the best way to do that is to be true to liturgical time. The secular world celebrates Christmas before Christmas and then rushes back into ordinary time after the day itself. We should not rush into Christmas nor rush out of it, but rather linger in preparation (Advent) and then enjoy at leisure the festivities of the Lord's birthday.
Christmas can be divided into various parts, all of which have a great deal of meaning for us. We have Advent (the mini Lent) to prepare us, to rekindle the soul (lose a few pounds in anticipation for the feasting!) and reflect on the Jewish people's faithful waiting for the Messiah. Then the great feast breaks out upon us on Christmas Eve evening and the Day itself which lasts for eight days - the Octave. This solemnity is so important one calendar day is not enough for its commemoration - we need eight! So Christmas Day lasts a week in calendar time.
Then the Season continues as we revel in the birth of the Lord and prepare for his Epiphany. You could say that as we feast we also accompany the Magi on their way to Bethlehem. Today we celebrate that great Epiphany as we fall down with the magi before our Infant King, our Divine Messiah. Then, in the days after Epiphany we may reflect on the Lord's hidden years - the Incarnation in our midst, as we prepare for the feast of the Lord's Baptism and the beginning of his public ministry. All this time we continue to feast (mince pies, Christmas cake and the turkey curry!). For the real diehards who just can't let go, we have the "Christmas outpost feast" - the Presentation of the Lord on the 2nd February - our feast of lights, Candlemas. And then we are all ready for Lent! Perhaps at that stage, we will need it!
There are people who think we Catholics are killjoys, dreary and no fun at all; well, if Catholics actually entered into the liturgical seasons they would realise that nothing could be further from the truth. Traditionally Catholics were known for their revels (hence one of the reasons the Protestant reformers broke away from us - they wanted a more penitential approach to faith). Now there were times when things got out of hand, and that was not good. However a true living of the Christian faith is one where both fasts and feasts are kept and honoured. As our Holy Mother Foundress once said: "there is a time for penance and a time for partridge". Wise words indeed.
And speaking of wise words, today we turn to the wise men, or the Magi and their encounter with the Divine Child. What an encounter that must have been. These scholars who spent their lives looking for signs in the sky see the star and are led by it to that Divine Child prophesied by their philosopher Zoroaster. The Scriptures tell us that they fell down and did the Child homage - they did not discretely bow, nor nod or do the liturgical hop, but rather fell down before him. Such humility. And what an insight - they have come to him whom they sought all their lives and they throw themselves before him, worshipping him, perhaps even thanking him. Our Lady must have been astonished by their devotion - these were pagan men and yet they believed. We think of the Lord's words about the centurion: "I have not found such faith in Israel" - I wonder, when he said that, if he was thinking of the Magi who came to see him as a baby: no doubt Our Lady, who "pondered all these things in her heart", would have told him of their faith. Our feast today teaches us than God can work even in pagan lands and in other religions, planting a seed which is to lead the adherents of those religions to Christ. That is what Vatican II speaks of in its documents.
We too must fall down before him and do him homage: worship and adore Christ. Yes he became a man to be one with us, to speak to us and redeem us. But he is also our God and our Lord and we must pay him that homage that is due to him. I remember when I was a seminarian we were told by a liturgist that we must not kneel for the Liturgy of the Eucharist: "We are a liberated people, so we do not kneel, we stand before God". We are indeed a liberated people, but surely do we not kneel before our Liberator, to thank him if for nothing else? And when our Liberator is the God who made the universe and us, well, then we must kneel, as do the Elders in the Book of Revelation. I think the Magi, those wise men of the world provide us with a good example.
On this day our thoughts are, of course, on Bethlehem as we meditate on this event, but we should also pause and go in spirit to Cologne where, we are told, the bodies of three of the Magi are venerated. Traditionally called Caspar, Melchior and Balthazar, they are honoured as Saints in the Church, and if you go to Cologne you will see the tremendous devotion pilgrims have for these men. The reliquary in which the relics of the three are preserved is the biggest reliquary in the world, and on this day, it is opened to reveal the three bodies, each one wearing a crown. All of this points to the Epiphany as a historical reality, as discussed by Pope Benedict in his recent book, and that is no harm at all. There are times when we need to be reminded that heaven has touched earth, that miracles do happen, that God became man and the story of his birth is no mere fantasy, but wonderful and true. Some will say only a child would believe such stories, well then, let us be children - after all, as the Lord tells us, the kingdom belongs to little children. So here we are: back to the humility and faith of the Holy Magi.
St Caspar, St Melchior, St Balthazar, pray for us; bring us to the Divine Child, the King of Love, and there let us fall down before him and adore.
The Reliquary Shrine of the Holy Magi in Cologne Cathedral
The Reliquary opened to reveal the crowned heads of the Magi