Reflection by Gene Schlesinger, based on of his sermon from Epiphany Sunday (Jan 4, 2014)
Epiphany: The Manifestation of God in the Face of Christ.
Mission: The Manifestation of Christ in the Face of the Neighbor
Epiphany, with the visit of the wise men, culminates the progression begun at Christmas. The magi, pagan/Gentile astronomers/fortune tellers come and worship the God of Israel present in the Christ child. At Christmas, Jesus is born into the world, one of us, God with us. And at Epiphany the purpose of his coming is made manifest. Epiphany is the time of mission. Christ hasn’t come just to be here, he has been sent, sent with a purpose, with a mission.
The original theological sense of mission didn’t refer to what human beings do, but to something God the Trinity does. The Son and the Holy Spirit are sent by the Father. These are the divine missions. Recovering this is important, because it helps us to see that the church’s mission (and the church is by its very nature, missionary [Ad Gentes, no. 2]) is not a human undertaking so much as it is a sharing in the divine missions.
In my homily this week, I noted that in the readings for Epiphany, we see mission motivated by a twofold love: love for God’s Son and love for God’s world. God loves the world, He loves the world, and so he gives them a light, so that they can see, and walk in that light, so that they can be restored to him. He gives them the cure for their darkness, for their despair, for the tragedy of the world. And he loves his Son, so he causes all of his glory and light to shine upon and in Christ.
And I think that it’s basically impossible to disentangle these loves. It’s all the more impossible, now that God’s Son has become a part of God’s world. The Word has been made flesh and dwelt among us. He has filled the human nature with his presence, Gaudium et spes from Vatican II puts it this way, “by his Incarnation the Son of God united himself in some sense with every human being. He laboured with human hands, thought with a human mind, acted with a human will, and loved with a human heart” (no. 22) In the mystery of Christmas, God has made his love for his Son and his love for the world one love, and this is what drives mission.
And our own participation in the mission of God must have this motivation too. A love for God’s Son and a love for God’s world. We love Jesus and so we want to make him known. We want the riches of the nations to come to him. And we love our friends and family and neighbors, so we want them to know Christ and rejoice with the same joy that overwhelmed the magi when they came to Christ.
As I said before, by the Incarnation, God has made these two loves one for himself. By the Incarnation they have been made one for us as well. In 2007, the Latin American Conference of Bishops, meeting in Aparecida, Mexico, spoke of the call for all Christians to be missionary-disciples. Missionary-discipleship is the life that results from the overflow of love that we receive in an encounter with the living Christ (nos. 1, 6, 11, 13).
Going further, though, the bishops remind us of Jesus’s statement in Matthew 25:31-46 that, in the poor, the oppressed, and the marginalized, we encounter him, and then write, “In the face of Jesus Christ, dead and risen, bruised for our sins and glorified by the Father, in this suffering and glorious face, we can see with the eyes of faith the humiliated face of so many men and women of our peoples, and at the same time, their calling to the freedom of the children of God, to the full realization of their personal dignity and to brotherhood among all.”
What this means then, is that our encounter with Christ drives us to go out beyond ourselves so that we can encounter Christ again in our neighbor, especially our poor neighbors. As our own baptismal covenant puts it, we are to “seek and serve Christ in all persons.”
We don’t engage in mission simply because we have something that the world needs (though that’s partially true). God is already at work in the world. We engage in mission because the world has something we need. We engage in mission because, by the Incarnation, we find in the face of our neighbor the face of Christ, and because we want the joy of knowing and loving him more deeply by knowing and loving all people.