We Catholics venerate our traditions. So important is the role that tradition plays in our faith that we often posit that we are a faith founded upon both Scripture and Tradition. In the many years that I was privileged to teach about the faith, I would invariably make a distinction between what I would call, big ‘T’ Traditions, and little ‘t’ traditions. Big ‘T’ Traditions touch upon the very foundations of what it is we believe about the nature of Christ and his Church. The creedal formulations of our belief, such as the Nicene Creed, would be one of the big ‘T’ Traditions of our faith. Innumerable little ‘t’ traditions, down through the centuries, frame what we believe in lesser ways but, nevertheless, hold an endearing place in our life as Catholic Christians. Such customs as ‘genuflecting’ before the Blessed Sacrament reserved in our Churches would be an example of a little ‘t’ tradition or custom of respect and honor given to the sacramental presence of the Lord in the Eucharist. Fasting and abstaining from meat on the Fridays of Lent would be another small ‘t’ tradition of our Church.
As we continue to reflect on the meaning of the great mystery of the Incarnation during this Christmas Season, we mark and celebrate today the Solemnity of the Epiphany of the Lord, a feast rich with tradition. The traditional images that take center stage today are, of course, the legendary three Kings who come from the East to present their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh before the newborn King, cradled in the arms of Mary his mother. Only St. Matthew records this charming story for Christians of all ages, undoubtedly based upon the oral traditions that sourced Matthew’s recollections of this pivotal moment in the history of salvation.
These stories, biblical scholars tell us, are filled with symbolism to inspire and encourage Christians of all ages as we strive to ‘unpack’ the meaning and significance of the Incarnation.
God’s particularity in selecting the Jewish people to be a people ‘peculiarly his own’ is a theme that is reinforced by one story after another in the Hebrew Scriptures. With the longed for coming of the anointed one, a monumental break occurs in this traditional understanding of Jewish self-identity. That break is dramatically and symbolically portrayed in the scene that is the focal point on this Feast of the Epiphany. Wise men (Magi) from the East come to adore the Christ who has come to us in the vulnerability of a newborn infant.
The narcissistic notion of ‘Israel first’ is forever shattered by the highly charged symbol of non-Jews, wise men from the East, Gentiles who were not part of the Mosaic covenant, being one of the first to behold the manifestation of God’s glory, clothed in human flesh and ‘lying in a manger.’ They were not the first, however, to behold this startling moment in history’s salvation. No, the first to be drawn to wonder and adore were the shepherds and the sheep, cows and oxen – those that held no power and lived on the margins of society and the animals that they tended.
Herein, my friends, lies the power and meaning of the mystery of the Incarnation that cannot be safely contained and controlled by mouthing defiantly ‘Merry Christmas’ to a world and a society that is hungering for more than platitudes.
God’s unearned and unfailing mercy and love has been made manifest to all of creation in Jesus who has now made his home with us. That home particularly beckons with hospitality, the poor, the disenfranchised, the powerless, the nameless, the stranger, the alien and the widow. Down through the centuries, we Christians have done our best to obscure the real meaning of Christ and his good news by siding with the cheap grace of reducing the good news to slogans that insulate us from the messiness of what it truly means to live the costly grace of the Gospel. Whenever the gospel is subverted by worldly politics that gives only lip-service to Christ and his good news, we settle for cheap grace. However, when we let the searing light of the Gospels, tear down the walls that separate God’s family from each other and we have the courage to forge greater solidarity among God’s holy people, then, we have paid the cost of true discipleship.
May this New Year that is upon us, be a time for all of us to be a people of the Epiphany as we manifest the all-embracing love of Christ to a world that longs to see his face.