To contemplate the Crib on the feast of the Epiphany is to contemplate the joining of opposites. The star points us to the skies, both to the universe and to heaven itself; the stable points us to the earth. The shepherds are the poor, the magi the rich; the magi are kings or rulers, the shepherds the ruled. Those in the Crib are the good, Herod and his friends are the bad. Jesus is man, and he is God. The animals, the hay, the wood all speak to material creation; the human beings and the angels (not far away!) speak to spiritual creation.
The Crib crosses boundaries and brings opposites together. That is because the Child in the manger is the One through whom all things were made, for whom all things were made and in whom all things hold together. He is the Reconciler, the Unifier, first by his Incarnation and ultimately by his Cross and Resurrection. “When I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all things to myself.” He draws them not into a stultifying sameness, but into the rich beauty and harmony by which he conceived of them in the first place.
The wholeness and healing brought to all levels and degrees of existence is what is meant by salvation and by the peace of the Kingdom. His will is that nothing and no-one be excluded from that peace. He shed his blood to this very end. Another way of speaking of this wholeness and universality is to speak of Catholicism. The word itself means “according to the whole.” Catholicism is not some sociological label. It’s not a pressure group or a club. Catholicism is not the religious justification for some herd instinct, for setting up enmity or contention of an us-versus-them kind. Sadly, the sinful hearts of men and women of Catholicism have historically exploited its holy name to feed irrational or sinful purposes. But to conceive of Catholicism in opposition to others is a contradiction in terms.
Catholicism is by definition inclusive, though we need to be clear what we mean by the term inclusive. Christ died for all. He loves all. He offers to all the free gift of eternal life. But not in any old sense. He proposes a way of life on earth coherent with the eternal life to come. He invites all freely to embrace that way of life and to live it faithfully until death. Inclusion does not therefore mean a free-for-all. It does not mean that any behaviour or personal outlook or “lifestyle” will do. He proposes salvation. We cannot then impose on it our personal version of what it means. His proposal requires our conversion if we are to receive what he promises. Our conversion cannot be on our own terms, but only on his. For it is he who is Lord; it is he who suffered and died to make our reconciliation possible. Catholicism, then, is open to all but not all are open to it. It cannot be “taken by violence”, by the clever inventions of our rationalised selfishness. It cannot be hijacked by the demand that it be “modern” as if modernity were the criterion of judgment of the Gospel and not the other way round.
The Epiphany manifests the Catholicism of God. “Come to me all ye who labour and are heavy laden and I will give you rest.” That first reading from Isaiah describes in beautiful poetry the coming of the nations to the new Jerusalem in the bliss of eternal peace. Catholicism embraces the nations, all of them, all languages and peoples and tongues. All that is good in the light of the Gospel prepares the Gospel even where it has never been proclaimed. Which is another way of saying that the Light of Christ shines beyond the “borders” of his Bride, the Catholic Church. God works in every heart in ways known only to himself. He gives everyone, even the barely conceived in the womb, the chance to accept himself as Saviour. God’s Catholicism is not limited to the institutions of the Catholic Church, just as the light of the star does not remain in the star. The Epiphany invites us to be open to the signs of his light shining deep in the lives and patterns of thinking of our times, just as it reveals the lies which so often present themselves with irresistible plausibility. Being open-minded does not mean being empty-headed. Catholicism does not come to the table with nothing to give. What it receives it can only receive in the light of what it already has, for what it has it does not have of itself but only of Christ.
So, just as we must reject an ivory tower notion of Catholicism, we must equally reject the notion that all we are and have is shameful or obsolete. It is said that Ian Paisley, on reaching the pearly gates, asked who was on the other side of the wall he saw in heaven. Peter answered him that the Catholics were over there “because they think they’re the only ones here.” For too long a triumphalist and even imperialist mindset has plagued the Catholic Church. The Church does not exist for herself, but is the servant of Christ for mankind’s sake. There will be no walls in heaven. By the same token, however, progress and development, openness and dialogue, outreach and exiting to the peripheries transmutes into dereliction of both grace and duty if we do not proclaim by word and example the name of Jesus Christ. The Star of Bethlehem cannot be hidden like a light under a bushel. We come with the deposit of faith, with the witness of the saints, with the tools and instruments of salvation. Yes, we come, too, sadly, with our heritage of nonsense and sin, of scandal and prevarication, beating our breasts, imploring divine mercy and proceeding with humility and kindness. But it is no service to those who seek the Lord that we would hide him from them out of some sense of ill-placed respect. We are sent by him to speak his name. Woe to us if we do not preach it!
The responsibility of reflecting the Light of the Epiphany falls more heavily on us who have been given the gift of faith by the Lord. If his light does not shine through us then the world is deprived of it. This requires that our Catholicism be integral, that is, embraced in its integrity and lived with integrity. It means that the integrity of who we are as human beings itself be open to the light of the whole Truth. We cannot separate dimensions of ourselves or of our lives as if they had more or less relevance to our faith in Christ. The Truth is Catholic, hence our commitment to it must also be Catholic, that is, holistic, whole and entire. We are weak human beings, inclined to sin and fragility of all kinds. And yet, it is precisely as such, trusting daily in his power which is enough for us in our weakness that the light of our Catholicism will be at its brightest.
In terms of our relationships with others, it’s the same. If there are to be no walls in heaven, we can’t have them here either! We can’t imagine ourselves to be fervent Catholics while harbouring resentments, holding grudges and looking askance at people we consider beneath us or as having offended us. Our hurts can often be very real and deep and justified. But the more justified the hurt, the deeper the hurt, the more we need to let it go. For it is only we ourselves who suffer from it, like a gnawing cancer within giving rise to badly concealed anger and irritation. Such barriers and walls necessarily keep the light out, or rather keep it in. I think, though, if we keep the light in ourselves, it will most likely destroy us. It demands to shine forth.
All of you here are trying so very hard, as I hope I am myself, to be faithful Catholics. What we do, what we receive inside these four walls of our parish church is comparable to nothing else on this earth. At Mass, we are in heaven, heaven is on earth. This means that, metaphorically speaking of course, as the Mass ends, these four walls must fall, and the light burst out across our towns. It is worth remembering that the magi were filled with delight when they saw the star. How about we allow the hearts of our wider community experience that same delight as they behold our Catholic witness to the Child in the manger, the man on the Cross and the One who now sits at the right hand of the Father?