Name something good that’s come out of the COVID-19 pandemic.  Working with college students and trying to engage them in a variety of different ways – one of the things we like to do is have some open-ended questions that can generate some reactions and be a conversation starter.  When I suggested that topic as a possibility, the individuals I shared it with had a variety of reactions.  None of which were “oh that’s a good one, let’s use that.”  In the brain-storming session that we were in, honestly, it was pretty quickly dismissed and with a lot of work to do, I didn’t let my bruised ego get the better of me to fight for it.

Thanks so much for stopping by to read my homily for the SOLEMNITY OF THE EPIPHANY OF THE LORD – January 8, 2023, for sharing it on your social media posts and your feedback and comments…  I’m also grateful for all those who’ve asked for the audio version and share them as well at SOUNDCLOUD click HERE or from ITUNES as a podcast HERE.  May the Lord be glorified in your reading and sharing Sincerely in Christ – Father Jim

Wondering if I was that far off in even proposing the subject, I did an internet search and found a bunch of articles that different news sites had offered with their lists of “positives” that came from the pandemic.  They had ranged from everything like “we learned we don’t have to go into the office anymore” and “less traffic” to “we’ve re-decorated our homes” citing statistics of increases in sales of paint and furniture and my favorite, “the library doesn’t charge fines for overdue books anymore” (this last one showing someone clearly scraping the barrel for something).

When I mentioned the whole episode to a priest friend, he asked me if I was serious about this as a topic.  When I said that I was, he pointed out that perhaps it was too soon (since this was over a year ago), and knowing how many people suffered some tremendous losses, I can imagine for some that this time and experience will always bring to mind difficult thoughts and feelings.  But it was interesting because very quickly my friend and I found ourselves discussing this topic as he said “I don’t even want to think about that whole time” as he started recounting legitimate stuff that went from frightening to things that were and remain infuriating about the pandemic, our responses, and actions to it.  Believe me, I have my own list.

But I think that our ability to see something good even in the midst of difficult, tragic, painful times is pivotal in our life as disciples of Jesus Christ and is meant to be part of our identity as Christians.  And that doesn’t mean simply being pollyannaish or fake and phony about things like “well yes there was this global pandemic, but Alleluia and golly gee the library doesn’t charge fines anymore!”  Nor is it to ignore the painful and difficult realities we face or are dealing with…  or pretend that we’re not afraid of certain things.  But at the same time, not letting that steal our Joy.

This has been a continual theme throughout the Christmas Season, which starts to come to its conclusion with today’s feast of the Epiphany.    On Christmas, we focused on the fact that Shepherds were able to see and hear the angels singing the praises of God announcing the birth of Jesus in the midst of the night watch.    Today we recount the story of the “Magi.”  They’ve been dubbed “wise men” but what does that mean?  It means they were the intellectual heavy-weights of their day… Academics, studying the signs of the times, and scientists who were keenly curious about the workings of the universe.   They were also not Jewish, so they are coming from these studies from the perspective of outsiders.   What do they observe?  What do they see? As they look out into the darkness of the night, this light captures their attention that announces the birth of the newborn king of the Jews.

Shepherds and now Magi, wise men… the poorest and least educated and now these individuals on the opposite end of the spectrum are the ones who are able to receive the news of joy and not the rest of the world?  What is it that makes it possible for them to see light in the darkness?

It’s that desire for something more than can ever be fulfilled by the things and pursuits of this world.   It’s that humility to look into the vastness of the world and see something greater than myself, or ourselves as human beings. It’s that openness to those things that allow us to come to know and love God, to welcome Him anew, and to experience and receive that true gift of Christmas, which is Joy.

On Christmas, I shared that too often we treat “Joy” and “Happiness” as synonyms.  Happiness can be a state of mind, it’s something we associate with pleasurable things.  And so it’s easy to see how those things get lumped together.  But think about this – the Shepherds after they saw and heard the angels and entered the nativity – eventually, went back to the fields with their sheep.  These Magi, who as the carol goes “we three kings of orient are bearing gifts we traverse afar.”  They traveresed afar back by a different route – why?  Because they’re warned about the reality of a maniacal, paranoid, lunatic named Herod who is unhinged that his earthly power might be threatened by this newborn king.

The point is that this encounter wasn’t their winning a lotto jackpot which somehow instantly changes all their daily lives and experiences by removing everyday threats, making things easier in the here and now.  I think so often we kind of imagine that’s the case.  We can treat our life of faith as pursuing, waiting for that moment when our winning ticket is pulled that immediately fixes things.  That all that robs our happiness is arrested – all our enemies are eliminated- all is finally set right.

Yet that’s never been the case.  For these individuals who first encountered Jesus at Christmas, what’s so special about this is remembering how simple but profound the meeting was for them.  Jesus’ ministry, his teachings, his healings – they would be 30 years in the future from this encounter with the Shepherds and the Magi, but they had Joy.  And what is the source of that Joy that came from this encounter with a child?  It came from knowing God was real.  Knowing God was with them – Jesus was and is Emmanuel – which means God is with us.  Knowing God was able to be found and that He saw them, He smiled at them as a child.  The God they had been longing for, and looking for in the cosmos had come that intimately small.  Even though at this stage, the young Jesus wouldn’t preach a single word, with His very presence they heard that God loved them and desired them.  That was what gave them joy.

So even as the Shepherds had to contend with the hard labor and struggle of their work, continued to be shunned and denigrated by the betters of the world… Even as the Magi returned to their homelands surrounded by people who didn’t even believe in God and returned to their academic works and pursuits – their lives were changed by the Joy of that encounter.  This was an unforgettable sight and experience that registered deeper than their senses of sight and sound.  It was with the eyes and ears of their souls that they recognized the truth of God’s presence.  And that brought a joy that would animate the happiest and saddest moments of their lives and every moment in between.

As the Christmas decorations are packed away for another year and the highs and lows and everything in between of this holiday season becomes a memory – we are reminded of this true gift of Joy that is ours.  In our Baptisms, Jesus claimed us as His own and made us his brothers and sisters… we have become God the Father’s beloved sons and daughters.  In the Eucharist we receive, Jesus lowers himself again and is as real and present and silent in that host as he was in that manger – and makes himself vulnerable to us to be taken and eaten.  How much closer could He come to us?

And as He does – He promises to walk with us.  To be with us through all that we face in our world and our lives.

That was the thing that I saw as a good that came out of the COVID pandemic in my own life.  In all that chaos, with the anxiety, the frustrations, the unsettledness of any and everything – it caused me to dig deeper… to see how many things that I thought were important or the word that was thrown around so casually “essential” and realize how many of them weren’t.  To remember what truly was and to be moved to gratitude.  And in that my Joy was renewed.  It didn’t mean I wasn’t frustrated or never complained again – I mean I am an Italian American who lives in New Jersey…  But that Joy of Jesus’ presence in the midst of that mess and chaos brought me a peace that I didn’t anticipate and a confidence in Him despite each and every unprecedented development that followed.

That was an Epiphany for me which I continue to give thanks to God for to this day.   Where I could begin to understand and experience the Joy that the shepherds and the Magi experienced. The Joy that the Lord wants each of us to experience and hold onto in every season of our lives.