“Nations shall walk by your light.” (Isa 60:3)
“Lord, every nation on earth will adore you.” (Responsorial Psalm, The Epiphany of the Lord)
“The Gentiles are now co-heirs with the Jews, members of the same body and sharers of the promise through the preaching of the Gospel.” (Eph 3:6)
“. . . Magi from the east arrived one day. . . to pay him homage.” (Matt 2:1, 2)
As should be obvious by now, the Solemnity of the Epiphany (celebrated in the Extraordinary Form and in all the Eastern Churches on January 6 and on January 8 in the United States this year in the Ordinary Form) is the day for the Gentiles at the Crib. In some sense, one can say that the Solemnity’s Gospel reading presents the entire Gospel in miniature, in terms of the reception of the message by different audiences. Mary and Joseph represent believing Jews; Herod, stiff-necked or faithless Jews; the wise men, Gentiles with open minds and open hearts. A charming, ancient legend says that these wise men actually became the first Christian missionaries, with their efforts meeting both success and failure as they encountered both belief and unbelief among the Gentiles to whom they preached.
Surely, the point of this celebration is that “the Gentiles are now co-heirs with the Jews,” but how does this happen? St. Paul gives the answer: “Through the preaching of the Gospel.” If the barrier between Jew and Gentile is to be broken down, it will happen as both are brought into contact with the saving truth of Jesus Christ. That occurs through the process of evangelization, the sharing of the Good News, the Gospel. Today’s solemnity, then, would have us reflect on the awesome task of evangelizing the world. Pope John Paul symbolized that endeavor in a beautiful and powerful manner by consecrating on this day new bishops from around the world, for through their work of teaching, governing and sanctifying, the Gospel takes hold in new places among new peoples, who are made “members of the same body and sharers of the promise.”
Therefore, a fundamental concern of the Church in every age must be the spread of the Gospel. For that very reason, the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council in their document on missionary activity, Ad Gentes (appropriately enough), taught: “The Church on earth is by its very nature missionary” [n. 2]. This truth was highlighted some years later in Pope Paul VI’s landmark exhortation, Evangelii Nuntiandi. It is important to keep that fact in sharp focus because it is one of the distinguishing characteristics of Catholicism. Judaism, for instance, has no interest as such in making converts; they will not be turned away, to be sure, but it is not a major thrust of that religious tradition. Nor is it so for the various Eastern religions, like Buddhism or Shintoism or Taoism. What makes us different? Nothing less than taking Christ at His word in His great commission: “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Mt 28:19f).
And from Epiphany’s Magi to the modern missionaries, the Gospel has been shared and taken root on every continent. Thus Germany has its Boniface and Ireland its Patrick. And 500 years ago, the so-called New World received the great blessing of being put into contact with the saving message of Jesus Christ through the selfless labors of dedicated clergy and religious. At times, the Gospel was not always properly preached and other concerns were allowed to get in the way; at other times, Gentile descendants of Herod in their stiff-neckedness tried to kill both the message and the messengers of the Good News, so that the blood of the North American martyrs, for example, watered the soil of New York State, while Uganda and Korea and Vietnam had similar experiences.
However, evangelization is not a work of the past; nor is it the responsibility of a chosen few; nor is it restricted to what we generally consider to be “mission territories.” On the contrary, evangelization is the obligation and privilege of every baptized Christian at all times and in all places. Indeed, Pope John Paul called for a “new evangelization” aimed primarily at those lands which were among the first to hear and accept the Gospel but who have regrettably strayed from it through indifference or secularization. Certainly, this theme has been stressed at all the continental synods of the John Paul era.
In 1990, the Holy Father gave the Church the gift of an encyclical entitled, Redemptoris Missio, on the permanent validity of the Church’s missionary mandate. There is nothing new in this document. Of course, there is never anything new in the Christian message; rather, there is the application of the truths of Christianity to new and different situations, which is exactly where that Pope really shone.
In that document, he takes the entire Tradition of the Church as his starting point, particularly Vatican II, which is the contemporary Church’s clearest expression of the Tradition. He goes to great lengths to demonstrate several things: 1] Christ as the only source of salvation for the human race; 2] The Church as the necessary sign and instrument of that salvation; 3] The theological and inner stimulus toward evangelization on the part of all believers from nothing less than the inspiration of the Holy Spirit; 4] The primary focus of the Catholic mission to the world; 5] The ways dialogue should be conducted with those not in full communion with the one true Church of Christ, with non-Christians, and with non-believers; 6] The mutually supportive roles of all Catholics toward the total missionary movement; and, 7] The meaning of a missionary spirituality for all.
Why was that encyclical needed? I think a look at the topics reveals the answer. Many people in the Church, through a confused and confusing form of ecumenism, had come to the position that one religion is as good as another and, therefore, that no one should attempt to bring anyone else into the Catholic Church. Most astounding of all, however, was that many full-time missionaries had bought into that mentality, reducing themselves, their work and the Church to mere conveyers of social services at best or political and even violent revolutionaries at worst.
Perhaps the most disturbing passage of the entire letter states that “the number of those who. . . do not belong to the Church. . . has almost doubled” since the end of Vatican II (n. 3). Imagine – double the number of those unrelated to the Church in just twenty-five years!
Sometimes people ask me what God will do with all the peoples of the world who have never heard of Jesus Christ. Are they damned? Are they saved in some other way? I leave those matters to God. I would rather ask how Christ will judge me because so many have never heard His saving Word – precisely because of my lack of enthusiasm or my desire to keep aloof from the missionary work of the Church.
Today the Magi bring the Infant Lord gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, and I am sure these pleased the Heart of God. But if those first seekers of truth in fact became the first Christian missionaries, the Heart of Christ was gladdened ever so much more. Do you want to offer “the new-born King of the Jews” a gift? May I suggest that you resolve to be part of the sainted Holy Father’s program of the re-evangelization of the First World, setting a two-fold goal for this new year: pray for and work with one lapsed Catholic to bring that person back to a vibrant practice of the faith; pray for and work with one person who has never been a believer to bring that person into the fullness of truth and life found only in Christ’s one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church. That would be a gift which would really mean something to the Infant King. That would tell everyone that you are a worthy heir to the evangelism of the magi.
Caspar, Melchior, Balthasar, pray for us, that we may be made worthy of the promises of Christ.