Bishop Anthony B. Taylor delivered this homily Jan. 11 for the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Mass in Little Rock.
One of the things I was surprised to learn in seminary is that there were three epiphanies of the Lord, three “manifestations” that revealed early on something of who Jesus is, what he came to do and what that means for us.
Last Sunday we had the first epiphany, the visit of the Magi at the beginning of his life. That was the feast that actually bears the name “Epiphany.” Their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh revealed Jesus to be the messianic king (gold), the eternal God (frankincense) and a mortal human being (myrrh for his burial).
Today we have his second epiphany on the day of his baptism by John the Baptist when the mystery of the Blessed Trinity is revealed for the first time: the Holy Spirit descends like a dove and the Father’s voice declares Jesus to be the Son with whom he is well pleased and hence the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity.
The third epiphany takes place at the wedding feast at Cana, which is when Jesus’ public ministry begins. By changing water into wine Jesus reveals his divine power to work miracles, and the excellent quality and abundance of that wine reveals that in him the messianic age has begun, at which point Jesus begins to proclaim the Kingdom of God, a kingdom of justice and holiness that will be sealed eventually by his sacrificial death in atonement for our sins — a kingdom already present among us, but not yet anywhere near being fully realized. There remains much for us to do.
During this month of January we Americans have two additional commemorations which reveal something of who we are and what we are called to do as a nation: today’s celebration of the birth of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and next Sunday’s March for Life on the anniversary of Roe v. Wade.
Both of these secular epiphanies remind us — on today’s feast of the baptism of the Lord, and for that matter, every time we pray “thy Kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven” — we remember our obligation not only to proclaim the Kingdom of God, of justice and holiness, but also to do all in our power to build up the Kingdom of God here and now. Not just to speak but also to do. To let our light shine in today’s world, which continues to be a very dark place.
Dr. King will seal his struggle for human rights (like Jesus) with his own sacrificial death. And 57 million Americans killed in the womb since 1973 give eloquent witness (like the innocent babies of Bethlehem murdered by King Herod) to the fact that God can use the most horrific evils to open our eyes to the truth about the dignity and worth of every human person.
As Pope Francis writes in his apostolic exhortation “Evangelii Gaudium” (The Joy of the Gospel), the “defense of unborn life is closely linked to the defense of each and every other human life,” including, obviously, the civil rights for which Dr. King gave his life. And then Pope Francis adds, “Every violation of the personal dignity of the human being cries out in vengeance to God and is an offense against the creator of the individual ...” (E.G. 213)
One of the most inspiring parts of Dr. King’s legacy was his commitment to non-violence. His oppressors deserved vengeance, but Dr. King knew the power of courageous, sacrificial, non-violent resistance to evil to unmask the evil of an unjust system and thereby change hearts, and he knew that only conversion of heart could produce the more just society he sought. The same was true, by the way for Nelson Mandela. He learned this from Dr. King.
On this feast of the baptism of the Lord, we recall our own baptism into the mystery of Jesus’ death and resurrection. We emerged from that water reborn as citizens of the Kingdom of God, a kingdom of justice and holiness. Inspired by Jesus our Lord and people like Dr. King who gave their lives for that Kingdom, Jesus seeks first of all to convert our hearts and then to send us forth today as agents of change today. As missionary disciples who proclaim the kingdom of God and work to bring it to fulfillment.
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