On the Feast of the Epiphany the scene at the Crib is completed, with the arrival of the wise men, or Magi, in Bethlehem. We should all make an effort to visit the Crib. It can be tempting to think of the Crib as something primarily for children. In a sense it is, but Our Lord tells us all: “Unless you become like little children, you will never enter the Kingdom of God.”
At the Manger, we all become like children, and at the Crib, our own eyes should sparkle with wonder as we behold the tenderness and the intimacy of the Holy Family, as Jesus, Mary and Joseph bid us to come closer. At the entrance to the Crib, we are invited to leave behind the encumbrances of worldly sophistication, and to rediscover simplicity and meekness.
The first outsiders to arrive on the scene were shepherds, summoned by an angel. This is a reminder to us to make room for the needy and the heavy-laden in our lives. The shepherds have privileged access to the manger, showing us who are the real V.I.P.s in the Kingdom of God. At Epiphany, however, we celebrate the arrival of dignitaries – wise men or Magi. And these grandees also have a lesson for us, because in our contemporary age, when piety is often considered to be outdated and unsophisticated, and when the adjective ‘pious’ is more often than not used in a pejorative sense, these elegant gentlemen of learning and wisdom set us a beautiful example of piety. Seeing the star that leads them to the King of Kings they rejoice exceedingly. Arriving at the place of His dwelling they fall down on their knees and they adore Him.
This adoration that the Magi offer to the Christ Child leaves us in no doubt about His identity. This child is no mere human child, however great. The adoration which the Magi give to the Christ Child is the highest form of worship which can be given to God alone. It is the same sort of worship – adoration – that we offer to the Blessed Sacrament. And we should imitate the piety of the Magi whenever we come into a Catholic Church. When we see a light burning that indicates that the Sacred Host is in the Tabernacle, we should always genuflect, if we are able to, before taking our place. If the Blessed Sacrament is exposed for adoration, we make a double genuflection, on both knees. These outward signs of piety are important. The fact that Our Lord’s real and bodily Presence remains hidden under the signs of bread and wine means that through carelessness we may easily become forgetful of this wondrous mystery. Cultivating the habit of piety in His Presence helps us to maintain the proper interior dispositions.
Over Christmas, there were many thousands of people attending the various functions celebrated in the Oratory Church. It is always a joy to welcome visitors. Sadly, every Christmas there are also instances of irreverence involving the Blessed Sacrament when it comes to time for Holy Communion. The cause of these incidents never seems to be malice, but rather carelessness and ignorance. And the truth is that when the people have lost their sense of the sacredness in relation to something as awe-inspiring as the Blessed Sacrament, then it is probably we priests who should shoulder the blame. If we clergy cease to be pious, the we can hardly be surprised if the laity end up losing sense of the sacred.
So please pray for your priests, that God will increase our piety. A priest spends so much time in proximity to the altar that there is always the peril that he will be become overly familiar with the mystery of mysteries that takes place within his own hands, and lose sight of its majesty. No doubt this has always been a danger. At the Crib we find shepherds and wise men adoring, but where are the priests? Perhaps they are too busy with their politics in Jerusalem to accompany the Wise Men and adore the Word Made Flesh.
As we kneel at the Crib this Epiphany, we should pray, all of us – priests and people alike – for the gift of piety. It is piety that makes this universe beautiful. When the nonbeliever looks at the cosmos, he might well feel hopelessly dwarfed and crushed by its magnitude. When a pious man looks at the stars then he, like the Magi, is filled with wonder at the work of God. When the pious man observes the material universe in its splendour and complexity, he is inspired to praise the Creator Who humbled Himself to unite Himself with the frailty of our human flesh. For the believer, the magnificence of the cosmos is an invitation to commune with the God who created it and who gave us the capacity to appreciate His work.
As we kneel at the Crib, we should reflect on the gift of Himself that Our Lord gives to us in the Blessed Sacrament. May we always make sure that when we do receive Holy Communion it is in a state of grace, restored to us if necessary in the Sacrament of Penance. And may we always approach the altar with the utmost humility, awe and wonder.
Fr Julian Large