7 January 2018

Jacopo Tintoretto’s “The Baptism of Christ”. Source: wikimedia.org.

We have seen His star in the East and have come with gifts to adore the Lord (Communion Antiphon, Epiphany of the Lord, Mass during the Day).

     The Epiphany, or manifestation, of the Lord is one of three liturgical celebrations in which we commemorate Jesus’ presentation, as it were, to the world in a unique way. Each of the three manifestations reveals something particular about who Jesus Christ is and what His mission is in this world. All three presentations foreshadow Jesus’ suffering, death, and resurrection. In fact, His very Person is so inexorably tied to Jesus’ mission as Savior of the world that a trinity, so to speak, of epiphanies are unmistakable signs from God the Father that we ought to listen to and follow His Son.   

     We are familiar with St. Matthew’s account of the Magi who arrived from the East to offer Jesus gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. They were paying homage to the newborn king of the Jews as was their custom in the ancient world. However, what can we bring Jesus today? Certainly, we cannot offer similar gifts as the Magi, and fortunately for us, He does not ask us to do so. Instead, Jesus desires something much greater from us offered to Him as our homage: our very selves.

     An interesting parallel to the Magi is found in Jesus’ life later as He nears Jerusalem to enter into His Paschal Mystery. Formerly, He had received as a baby the expensive gold, the fragrant frankincense, and the burial ointment of myrrh. Thirty-three years later, when He was in Bethany at the house of Simon the Pharisee, Jesus encountered a sinful woman from the town who offered gifts similar to those former ones, but this time, her gifts were more personal (see Luke 7: 36-50, Matthew 26: 6-13, and Mark 14: 3-9).

     Whereas this unnamed and uninvited guest came to the dinner as an outcast, she was, nevertheless, treated by Jesus in a welcoming manner while the other partygoers treated her only with contempt. While the woman did not bring Him gold, she nonetheless brought “an alabaster jar of perfumed oil, costly spikenard” (Mark 14: 3). Because she was bringing expensive oil with a fragrance similar to incense, or frankincense, this anonymous woman would understandably transport the oil in an expensive jar. Furthermore, alabaster was known to be an expensive carbonate in the ancient world. 

     In addition, the Greek word for “alabaster” was translated as “stone casket.” Herein lies the connection with myrrh. Myrrh was used in the ancient world as part of the embalming process to make the body fragrant after death. The woman here lavishly emptied the fragrant oil on Jesus’ head and feet despite the protests among the audience. Jesus’ response pointed to His Paschal Mystery: “Let her alone. Why do you make trouble for her? She has done a good thing for me…She has anticipated anointing my body for burial” (Mark 14: 6, 8).   

     Whereas the woman performed this ritual action with gifts that mirrored the Magi, she went beyond them with one important action. Formerly, the Magi did Jesus homage simply by presenting gifts. Now, the woman did Him homage by not only bringing her gifts, but also by bringing her contrition to Jesus as “she stood behind Him at His feet weeping and began to bathe His feet with her tears. Then she wiped them with her hair, kissed them, and anointed them with the ointment” (Luke 7: 38-39).    

     What was the result of her gift of sorrow and her desire to change her life which she so lovingly presented to Jesus? As is usual of Him, Jesus gives us back more than what we could possibly ask for or expect when we turn to Him sincerely. While many guests at the dinner scolded the woman for her action, Jesus instead imparted His forgiveness. In the midst of the Pharisees, knowing that He would receive nothing but criticism Himself, Jesus declared, “I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven; hence, she has shown great love” (Luke 7: 47). Just as Jesus would give the Apostles His peace immediately on the night of the Resurrection, so He anticipated this gift from God as He then turned to the woman and said, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace” (Luke 7: 50).

     The importance of this episode in the life of our Lord, connected with His Epiphany, is a reminder to each of us now, since the Christmas season officially concludes on Monday with the Baptism of Christ, of what Jesus’ manifestation to the world is all about. As the Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches, the Epiphany shows the world that Jesus is the Messiah King of Israel and King of all nations for all time (see no. 103). As King, Jesus exercises His dominion in service to us rather than domination, as many earthly kings often impose themselves upon their subjects. Instead, Jesus’ service was explicitly shown to the disciples when He washed their feet on Holy Thursday night, similar to how the woman bathed His feet earlier. However, while her action was accomplished out of love and personal contrition, Jesus’ washing of the feet symbolized His service to us as an example to follow in His footsteps and to be willing to die to ourselves even to the point of doing the most menial service. 

     Conversion to God is not something that is reserved only within holy seasons like Christmas or even Lent. The sinful woman here in the Gospel gave a superior gift compared to the Magi because she gave the gift of a life now transformed in Jesus, and because of this great love in being willing to die to her old life and to begin living a new one, Jesus gave her the greatest gifts of all: His forgiveness and His peace. Are these not what everyone desires in life? We have those gifts available to us every day in the holy sacraments of Penance with a sincere Confession and at every Mass by receiving Holy Communion. May we offer our life to Jesus each day, and having come before Him in humility and great love, may we then use the gifts He gives to us for His greater service among our neighbors.  

     May you have a most blessed and holy week!

     Fr. Shawn William Cutler

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