In our first reading today the Prophet Isaiah declares, “See, darkness covers the earth, and thick clouds cover the peoples.” At times we truly seem to be the people living in darkness. Just this week, while on vacation, I heard a news report about a man in Italy who has filed charges accusing the Catholic Church of committing fraud and swindling people because it teaches that Jesus Christ is the Son of God. This atheist contends that not only is Jesus not the Son of God, since he denies the existence of God, but he even denies that Jesus existed as a historical person. He claims that the Church just made up the person of Jesus in order to con people out of money.
The denial of Jesus is nothing new. At the time St. Matthew wrote his gospel, there was a massive effort by the religious leaders in Israel to reject Jesus as even being a good religious teacher. Yet at the very time the religious leaders in Israel were rejecting Jesus, He was being welcomed by an increasing number of people in the Gentile world. Now, however, it seems as if Jesus is being pushed out of all aspects of public life. “Darkness covers the earth, and thick clouds cover the peoples.”
Yet despite all this darkness we must exclaim with Isaiah, “Your light has come.” The word “epiphany” means “manifestation,” and during the Feast of the Epiphany of the Lord the Church celebrates the manifestation of Jesus as the Christ to the whole world. The very first line of the Second Vatican Council’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium, proclaims, “Christ is the Light of nations. That this may be so, this Sacred Synod … eagerly desires that the Gospel be proclaimed to every creature” (LG #1). Lumen Gentium goes on to say, “The Feast of the Epiphany moves all the faithful to share the concerns and labors of the Church, which prays and works at the same time so that the entire world may be incorporated into the People of God, the Body of the Lord and the Temple of the Holy Spirit” (LG #17).
These statements from the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church formed the foundation for another document from the Second Vatican Council, the Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity (Apostolicam Actuositatem). This decree noted that due to secularization and anti-clericalism, priests and religious often do not have effective access to many areas of society in many countries. Therefore, if the Church is going to be present there, lay people would have to do the job. The Council Fathers pointed out that from our baptism there arises a duty to participate in the mission of the Church, each according to our state of life.
Unfortunately, in the years following the Council, this call to the laity to participate in the Church’s mission became largely confined to activity within the Church’s institutions. Large numbers of the laity became Readers and Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion at Mass. Others took jobs in their parishes or diocesan centers. Now please do not misunderstand me, lay ministry and activity in the parishes and diocese is a good thing – A VERY GOOD THING. It is because of the many wonderful lay volunteers at so many of the sick and homebound receive the Eucharist, and are reminded that they are still part of our parish family. However, lay ministry is no substitute for the apostolate of the laity. “Apostolate” comes from the word “Apostle” which means “to be sent.” The Second Vatican Council makes it overwhelmingly clear that the primary apostolate of the laity is to carry the Gospel out into the world. You are called to evangelize the workplace, the marketplace, and the public square. If this is not done darkness will continue to cover the earth.
This might sound rather scary, but imagine the risks that the Magi took as they left their comfort zones: ridicule from family and neighbors, dangers on the road, uncertain moments. The perseverance of the Magi is due in part to their interior fortitude, a virtue that ensures firmness in difficulties and constancy in pursuing the good. Fortitude enables us to embrace sacrifice and renounce comforts for a good and just cause. Fortitude reminds us of Christ’s admonition, “In the world you have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).
“The Epiphany reminds us that we should use every available means to bring our friends, relatives and colleagues close to Jesus. This may begin by lending someone a book of sound doctrine, by giving to others encouraging words which help them to start on their way; by speaking to an acquaintance of the need for spiritual formation” (Fernandez, In Conversation with God, Vol. 1, p. 333). If we live this apostolate we can make the today’s Psalm response a reality, “Lord, every nation on earth will adore you.”