Epiphany, January 8th
Where do we see the face of Jesus today? I want to begin by sharing two recent experiences. First, just before Christmas, I read an article about Catholic education in the paper. I can’t remember the article itself; I'm not sure what it was about, but I know it was about Catholic education. In any case, there were a few online comments about it, including a few comments that were critical of the value of Catholic education, as one might expect whenever catholic education comes up. But one particular comment caught my attention because it accused Catholic education of promoting an “ancient and irrelevant superstition.” Really? Is that what people think Catholicism is? What do they think happened here on Christmas Eve when we had over 400 people in attendance, including many children from our Catholic School? Were you here because of an ancient and irrelevant superstition? I hope not. But to be honest, and this is just my opinion, I think the view that Catholicism is irrelevant and superstitious is the minority. For many, our faith has deep meaning.
Consider this second story. Most of us know what happened last week during Monday night football. It was a critical game between the Bills and the Bengals, and one of the Bills players, Damar Hamlin, 24 years old, collapsed - it turns out he his heart just stopped beating. They had to do CPR on the field; it was a complete and utter shock to everyone. Including myself because I watched it happen. He just tackled someone, stood up, fixed his helmet and collapsed. The poor commentators had no idea how to handle this or keep the conversation going
But here's what's interesting to me: They kept referring to the need to pray for the young man on the field. And then the Bills team got around in a circle and took a knee, it looked like they were all praying for him, and as it turned out, they were. I wanted to make sure I didn't see things, so the next day, I typed in “bills’ in Google, and the very first article that came up was this: "Pray for Damar: Public prayer blitz follows Hamlin collapse." I quote from the article:
The intersection of prayer and sports has been especially prominent in the aftermath of Damar Hamlin’s frightening collapse during an NFL game. All 32 NFL teams have included “Pray for Damar” on their Twitter avatars. ESPN’s Dan Orlovsky prayed for the Buffalo Bills’ safety on live TV. Countless fans and other concerned observers said on social media they were praying, and dozens linked arms outside his Cincinnati hospital.
To me, there is only a tiny minority of people who believe that Christianity is a naive superstition. You are here because you believe differently. This is what we celebrate during this feast of the epiphany - the discovery, the realization, the reality, that Jesus Christ is real and he is here for us, and we can pray to him.
Where do we see the face of Jesus today? We see him in the face of the other. We saw him on Monday night in Damar Hamlin. As he lay there literally dying on the field in front of thousands of spectators, it was Jesus drawing us to him in prayer because even though he was a stranger, he was one of us. He united us in prayer, even for a brief moment.
One of my favourite philosophers is Emmanuel Levinas. He writes beautifully about the face of the other. He refers to this as an ethical foundation. He cites a Russian novel written by Vasily Grossman. In the novel, set in Stalingrad, their enemies are defeated in a fierce battle that cost thousands of lives. The enemy soldiers were tasked with the gruesome assignment of removing the bodies from a building that they had attacked and destroyed. A young girl was watching this horrifying scene play out, and she watched a soldier bring a dead child out of the building. So she reached down in her rage, picked up a rock from the ground, and started toward the soldier, intending to strike him with it. She was so filled with anger and with rage. But when she came up to him, she looked at him and saw his face. And when he saw his face, she dropped the stone, reached into her pocket, pulled out a small piece of bread and offered it to him.
Levinas point is that there is something about the face of the other that draws the best out of us. Maybe this happened when those wise men from the east saw the face of the baby Jesus - they offered him gifts of Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh. Our epiphany happens to us every day when we encounter the face of the other. We don’t bring gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh; we bring gifts of compassion, forgiveness and generosity. No, Christianity is not some naive superstition; it is the truth of what it means to be human, to live in the light of faith, hope, and love.