Perhaps you remember some months ago — I think it was probably toward the end of the summer, when Pope Francis was reported as preaching in a homily at the daily Mass that he celebrates in that residence where he lives. He was reported as telling the people during that homily, “Atheists will go to heaven. Atheists will be saved,” and the people began to be a little bit disturbed. “Atheists? They don’t even believe in God, and you’re telling us they’ll go to heaven?” Francis said, “Yes, atheists will be saved. They will go to heaven.”
The Epiphany of the Lord
Now that probably disturbed some of those people, maybe disturbs us a little bit, too. Atheists going to heaven? Well, that would probably have been the reaction of people at the time when Matthew composed this Gospel for the Christian community of Jerusalem. It was about 30-40 years after Jesus had died and risen and gone to heaven. And at this point, Matthew was trying to get those Jewish people to understand that God came, Jesus came into our midst, not just for a chosen few, but to enter into the human race, to enter into human history, to become the savior of all.
And the people of the Jewish community probably were disturbed because the term Magi refers to people who were astrologers, star watchers, who even worshipped the stars and the planets, and they were thought to be condemned. Now here Matthew tells the story of these three people that come and they search out Jesus, bringing gifts for him, worship him, and return to their home country blessed.
And that must have been very disturbing, because the Jewish people at the time had thought, “We’re the chosen people. Gentiles have no chance.” But in that, Matthew tells this story in order for them, and for us, to be convinced that God came for all — not for a few, not for some, but God entered into our human history for all.
See, that’s what St. Paul was referring to in our second lesson today when he tells us, “This is the good news. The good news; listen! This mystery was not made known to past generations, but only now through revelations, given to holy apostles and prophets. Now,” Paul says, “that non-Jewish people share the inheritance of Christ. In Christ Jesus, the non-Jewish, the Gentiles, are incorporated and are to enjoy the promise.”
That’s the good news. Now what do we base that good news on? Can we really count on getting to heaven, to be blessed forever with the fullness of life? And the answer is of course, “Yes.” See, isn’t it true we’ve been taught, and over the years we practiced the idea, “Well, we have to earn heaven. We have to merit heaven. We have to live in such a way that we deserve to go to heaven, to enjoy fullness of life forever with God, but we have to earn it.”
That’s not the case. We hear that this is the good news, and if we go to the first letter of St. John, and you find what I think is the most important message of all the Scriptures. John is telling us, “My dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves is born of God, and knows God. Why? Because God is love.” And John goes on to say, “And this is love: not that we’ve loved God, but that God first loved us,” and that’s the good news. God is love. And John says, “What I mean by that is not that we loved God, but that God loved us first.”
And once we really grasp that message, it can change everything in our lives — when we really begin to understand that God is love, and God’s love has called all of us into being, and God’s love supports us constantly, every instant of our existence. We don’t earn it; we can’t earn it. The good news is that God first loved us, and shares the life of Jesus with each of us so that we become sons and daughters of God, heirs of heaven. It’s there for us because God first loved us.
Now that is the good news. And if we can begin to let that good news really permeate into our spirit, you know, go deep into our hearts and into our understanding, what will happen? We’ll begin to love one another as we are called to do, as we respond in love to God’s love. We love God, but then we also love all those who God loves. It’s what will change our world.
Pope Francis just recently gave another interview. It’s marvelous how he keeps saying things that attract attention in the secular press even. But he gave another interview in which he says, “You know, the Catholic church isn’t about proselytizing, in making converts. That’s not it. We’re not going to be trying to shift everybody and change their understanding, the minds and hearts, to become Catholic Christians. No,” he says, “we don’t have to proselytize. We change the world by attraction.”
See, if we become the kind of people who understands that God loves us, and that God is always reaching, filling us with love and bringing us to fullness of life, we’ll be filled with gratitude and joy, and we’ll love one another. And that will make what we are called to be from this feast today — the real light of the nations. See, Jesus came into the world to be the light to all people. When he shares his light with us, and if we live according to his way, then we become the light that will draw people to God, that will transform our world.
And sometimes small things happen that make you realize that this love of God is present in our world and present in us, if we’re attentive to it and try to make it grow within us. I had a marvelous experience on Christmas Eve. I was celebrating midnight Mass, actually at midnight, which was a new thing for me for many years now, but it was at St. Albertus Church over on East Canfield [in Detroit, Mich.], and there was a large number of people there.
But among them, and they came up to greet me before and then stayed for the whole liturgy, were a small group of people who are exiles from Iraq. Now most of them were Muslim. Some of them were Christians, but they all had suffered the same persecution because of the wars that have gone on there since 1991, and the terrible destruction that is taking place, especially right now with the Christian communities in the north part of Iraq where almost the whole city of Mosul, a Christian city, has been emptied out because of ISIS, that Islamic group that are out to destroy all Christians.
These people came, Muslims and Christians together, because they believe in the same God who is love. They are loving one another, and they came to tell me, “We’re praying for those people in Mosul and in north Iraq, that they’ll be able to return, come back.” Now, this is a beautiful example of what can happen, whether you’re Muslim, Jew, Hindu, whatever.
If you really understand that God first loved us and that we now are called to love God and to love one another, things can begin to change. Muslims and Christians and Jews and Hindus — all of us who worship the same God have learned to love one another, and what a difference that will make in our world. And so today as we hear the story about the Magi, and how they go back to their own land, they don’t become Christians. They go back blessed and filled with the light of God.
And if we remember that story and what it means for all of us, and for all people, all the nations, we remember that — that the good news is that God first loved us. He loves all people and we must love one another. And when we live that good news, then we will be attraction. We will draw people to God, and gradually our whole world will be changed. It really is good news that we hear today. Now it’s up to us to absorb that good news and to live it, to be the light to all the nations.
[Homily given Jan. 4 at St. Philomena Catholic Church in Detroit. The transcripts of Bishop Gumbleton's homilies are posted weekly to NCRonline.org. Sign up here to receive an email alert when the latest homily is posted.]