The Epiphany of the Lord
– On the Mercies of God in Jesus Christ
By Rev. H. G. Hughes
Even under the Old Law, dear Brethren in Jesus Christ, the Law given amid the lightning and thunder of Sinai; under the dispensation in which God’s just wrath visited men with terrible chastisements in the temporal order – in all that time before Christ came, the period of man’s hard and stern up-bringing and painful education in righteousness and justice, when his rebellious nature had to be broken to the yoke of God; the period which saw Adam and Eve driven forth from Paradise; which saw the race of men destroyed by the awful punishment of the flood; which saw fire and brimstone rain down upon the wicked cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, wiping them out from the face of the earth; when disobedience, even to ceremonial laws, was punished with instant death by the stroke of God’s justice, when Core, Dathan, and Abiron, with all their followers, who stood up against Moses and Aaron, the ministers of the Most High, were suddenly swallowed up, the earth “breaking asunder under their feet” at the word of Moses, “opening her mouth, devouring them with their tents and all their substance; and they went down alive into hell, the ground closing upon them, and they perished from among the people” (Num, xvi, 31 ss.). The days in which Oza was struck dead because he put forth his hand to hold up the Ark of God, not being an anointed priest, and the men of Bethsames were smitten with a great slaughter because they looked irreverently into that holy symbol of the Divine Presence – even in those days when the awful visitations of God’s just anger fell upon sinners for a warning to all mankind – even then the sweet Psalmist of Israel uttered those words of consolation and of trust in God, “The mercies of the Lord I will sing forever”; even then inspired prophets and writers could not refrain from telling men of the loving kindness, the compassion, the merciful indulgence of God their Father, so that the Old Testament is full of praises of God’s wonderful and unspeakable mercy and pity for His poor creatures. So again, the Psalmist sings, “Many, O Lord, are thy tender mercies; quicken me according to Thy Judgment (Ps. 118, v. 156); and “The Lord is gracious and merciful, patient and plenteous in mercy; The Lord is sweet to all, and His tender mercies are over all His Works” (Ps. exliv, 8,9).
Yet the severe aspect of those days of old, when men’s proud and wayward hearts needed that the fear of God should be struck into them by terrible acts of the Divine Justice, has still a lesson for us – even for us who live under the New Law of Love in Jesus Christ. For God does not change: He is still our Lord and Master; still He hates sin; still the holiness of His Divine Nature must reject evil from before His Face; still it is true that nothing defiled can enter into His Holy Presence.
Nor has the nature of sin changed; still is sin an act of unjustifiable rebellion against Him Who has the right, the absolute right, to our perfect obedience; still an act of sin, as much now as ever it was, is a mad uplifting of our puny wills against God, and deserves the most terrible chastisements of His just anger; still sin, all sin, must be expiated, either in this life or the next, by pain and suffering, and punishment; still, the obstinate and unrepentant sinner who goes on to the end in his rebellion, must inevitably draw down upon himself the eternal effects of his rejection of God, and, with God, of all good and all holiness, his miserably foolish refusal of God, and God’s Love, and God’s Holy Grace. But though God has not changed in His necessary hatred of sin and evil; and though the hideousness of sin has not become any less than ever it was – nevertheless something has happened since the times of Israel by which God’s great mercy has been more gloriously and more triumphantly, far, far more wonderfully exhibited towards mankind than in those days of old.
It is – to express it in the faltering concepts of our poor human intelligence – it is almost as if God Himself had feared the dire effects of His just anger upon the sinful race of Adam; as if He feared that the claims of His justice and righteous vengeance should overbear the yearning tender pleading of His compassionate pity on our behalf. And so, He has raised up on it a barrier against the lawful demands of His so justly kindled indignation at our constant willful trespasses against His Most Holy and adorable, and most sovereign Will and Law.
Nay, He took that task upon Himself. He, the offended God, has become the barrier against His own most lawful anger. To tell the truth, the most marvelous and most blessed truth, He has taken upon Himself our transgressions, and Himself has paid the penalty for our sins; Himself He has disarmed His rigorous justice – but not before the weapons of the anger of God had by His own hands been turned upon Himself to pierce His Sacred Heart. “Surely He hath born our infirmities, and carried Our sorrows; and we have thought Him, as it were, a leper, and as one struck by God and afflicted. But He was wounded for our iniquities, He was bruised for our sins; the chastisement of our peace was upon Him, and by His stripes we are healed. All we, like sheep, have gone astray, every one hath turned aside into his own way: and the Lord hath laid on Him the iniquity of us all (Is. 1iii, 4-60.
Ah, dear brethren in Jesus, dear redeemed ones for whom He shed His Blood – if the Psalmist of old sang the tender mercies of our God, must not we? If He had cause to praise and to wonder at the compassionate indulgence and tender pity of the heavenly Father, have not we much more? So surrounded are we and encompassed by the mercies of the Lord, that there would seem to be danger of forgetting that He is a God of Justice at all. I speak to Catholics – to you, chosen children of God’s pity and love, favorites of your Heavenly Father; to you whose dear and precious souls are to Him a most cherished treasure, clear to Him as the apple of His eye, objects of His most tender solicitude and care, for they have been bought back to Him from sin and evil from degradation and exile by His Son’s own precious Blood. Who is there like you who ought to sing the mercies of our God?
If His wrath does not fall upon this evil world, why is it? If we, who ourselves, alas, Catholics and children of His Church though we are, have often and again deserved it – if we have not been struck down by His instant anger for our violation – not of the ark of the Covenant – but of our bodies and souls that are the living Tabernacles of His Holy Spirit and consecrated Temples of God – why is it? We can trace it all to the Crib at Bethlehem; to the “Epiphany,” or manifestation of God to men, made to men when the Eternal Word was born in human nature: we can trace it to that day when the Eastern sages, representative of the Gentile world, worshipped in the Babe of Bethlehem their Savior – Savior not only of the hews, but of all the nations. In that sweet Infant were summed up all the mercies of God: He was Divine Mercy Itself Incarnate. And God’s wrath is withheld from us because He was made Flesh and born; because He lived and died for us; because He still lives and works and is manifested – has His continual Epiphany - in His own mystic Body the Catholic Church; because in that Church day by day the adorable Sacrifice of His own Body and Blood, which is the continuation of the all-atoning sacrifice of Calvary, sends up its daily plea for mercy from our altars to the very throne of God; because now, as when He died, Jesus, our dear Savior, takes upon Himself the iniquities of us all.
When we think of the omnipotence of God – upon His Almighty Power, we think of that Power as working mighty works; we think of the Almighty One as creating the millions of worlds beyond our power to number; as ruling the hosts of Angels who adore in fear and trembling about His throne; as crushing His enemies with His Mighty Hand; as punishing those evil angels who defied Him in the beginning, and fell from their high estate under the stroke of His lightning anger.
Yet what does He Himself tell us? There is a wonderful prayer in the Missal – the prayer in the Mass for the tenth Sunday after Pentecost – the public prayers of the Church express the infallible teaching of the Church, so that it is God Who teaches us His own truth in this wonderful and consoling prayer of His Church:
“O God, Who dost show forth Thy Omnipotence chiefly in sparing and having pity, multiply Thy mercy upon us; that hastening toward Thy promises Thou mayest make us partakers of the good things of heaven.”
“O God, Who does show forth Thy Omnipotence – not in mighty works – not in the destruction of Thy enemies – not in punishing and taking vengeance – but in sparing and having pity.”
And there is one time above all others when the mercies of God our Father come home to us – when we see the Omnipotence of God exercised in undoing the mischief – the terrible mischief, the fatal and irrevocable mischief we have done to our souls by sin. It is a time when we thank God not merely for His mercies to all mankind in general- but for His repeated mercies to us personally and individually.
Brethren, it is when we have sinned, when we have lifted up our impious hands against God and our own souls.
And what happens?
Jesus our dear Lord draws us back to Him; He puts around us the arms of His compassionate mercy; He speaks to us, not words of reproach and anger; but of pity, of loving invitation, and of forgiveness, pouring out upon our souls the streams of His most precious Blood in the Sacrament of Penance.
All is due to the happy Birth of Christ our Savior, which we are celebrating at this time; all is due to that first manifestation of God in the Flesh to which our thoughts naturally turn to-day.
Dear brethren, shall these great mercies of God appeal to us in vain? Shall we let the easiness of pardon make us despise this great mercy of our Lord? Oh how mean, how ungrateful it would be of us, having been cleansed and restored and so fully pardoned, again to rush into the ways of sin.
Shall not our dear Lord’s great love appeal at last to our hard hearts? Ah, the very least we can do is to resolve with all the force an energy of our wills, that we will turn our backs upon the loathsome evil of sin – sin that killed Him, sin that takes away from us the lively life of grace – that now we will be His for life and in death. And should we fall again – God forbid it; but we are weak and vacillating – and He is so compassionate, because more than any other He knows our weakness, “He knows our frame: He remembers that we are but dust,” Should this happen to us again, oh let us quickly, eagerly come back to Him with truthful and humble confession, with renewed and stronger resolutions than before, more and more throwing ourselves upon Him in Whom in very deed and truth we can and we shall find strength to resist every temptation that can assail us.
Brethren, let us come to-day with the wise Men, to fall at the feet of Mercy Incarnate: to offer Him, like them, rich and precious gifts of God, and frankincense, and myrrh; the gold of pure love, more precious to Him than all else, because it is our hearts that more than all else He covets: the incense of true prayer and praise; prayer and praise, which both are a worship of His love and good-ness” the myrrh of true sorrow and repentance; loving sorrow and the repentance of a heart that grieves that it has done so ill to One who is so good. Let us come to-day in Spirit to Bethlehem, where all our Salvation was begun: there we shall find “The Child, with Mary His Mother”’ Jesus, source and fount of mercy, of life, of Salvation; Mary, whose pure hands are ever lifted up in loving intercession for us Her children. So, by His great grace and unimagined mercy we shall praise Him for ever in our heavenly home.