Following the joy-filled and memorable activities of Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and the Feast of the Holy Family, and rested (sort-of) from my 3 days of touring around Hong Kong, we began preparing for the New Year.
Already in early December, I had the privilege of meeting a couple of ex-pats (the short name for all of us working here from overseas), a nice couple with the bride from Ireland and the groom from Australia. Their wedding was planned for New Year’s Eve, and thanks to the many weddings at which I presided in the US in recent years, I had a pen-drive filled with templates of wedding program booklets which this couple desperately needed.
After meeting with the couple once, and later a few times with the groom, I managed to help them create their wedding booklet in time to get it to the printers before their big day, as well as to organize instruments (an electronic keyboard from our choir) for the use of an ensemble they had hired for the wedding ceremony.
Our parish of St. Margaret’s in Happy Valley is considered one of the premier places to have a wedding. Not all parish churches in the diocese are designated by the government for weddings (something the government controls), and so we have weddings here not just for people from the parish, but from all over the island — and beyond.
The setting of our church is one of the principle draws that couples have for requesting a date here (the church, the stairs up to the church, the location, and the “wedding bell” all help). We average some 300 weddings per year in a normal year; for an “auspicious year” (dependent on the number such as this year have a “6” for 2016), the number of requests increases.
I already have a number of weddings on my schedule as we go into 2016 and so I used the opportunity of the Tovell-Wilson wedding on 31 December to take a close look on “how” we do weddings here.
Generally there are few variants from what we consider a western wedding, until we have the signing of the registry, here done generally with a parent on each side instead of the “witnesses” of Best Man and Maid (Matron) of Honor. They still are in the ceremony, but the official government registry is signed by parents, if possible.
Unlike many of the weddings I have already seen here, this one had a very limited wedding party — all children. 5 Flower Girls and 1 Page Boy (ring bearer), together with the brother of the bride and brother of the groom as the “family witness”.
They were blessed with a balmy day to close out the year, and their friends (some 140 people in all) seemed to be raring to go with a huge wedding party after the church service.
A RAUCOUS NEW YEAR’S EVE
Still a bit tired from the tour-guiding last days of December, I stayed up trying to usher in the New Year here in Hong Kong, but preferred to stay in rather than be out on the streets. Given the sights and sounds of midnight when the fireworks went off in the harbor, I may have been the only one ‘at home.”
Aside from the noise of these 20-minute long fireworks (so loud in my apartment which is two mountains and about 2.5 km away), the bright sky told volumes of what so many were witnessing first hand both in various vantage points around Victoria Harbor as well as from home.
Mary Mother of God
The parish community gathered again on the morning of January 1st for our celebration of Mass for this start of the new year. Since we had planned to have the Blessing of the Homes done the following Sunday, most of the priests used part of the time of their homily to explain the custom and what we would be doing in the parish.
Epiphany – God’s Self-revelation to the Nations!
The Epiphany this year was celebrated on Sunday, 3rd January 2016, and was marked by another overflowing turnout in the church for our Mass. We had announced the beginning of the new custom (for Hong Kong) of Blessing of the Home, and so many families turned out at all the Masses to receive the instructions and the packets made earlier (some 3,000) for the Blessing of Homes that were mentioned a few blogs back.
We thought the 3,000 packets would be enough, but having the last Mass of the morning, we ran out of them (completely ran out) before most of the families had a chance to come up and get one. I had to offer a second distribution of packets the following week, and we still ran out. Now we will be more organized for the coming year.
The Feast of the Epiphany has always been important for me as it represents the heart and soul of our missionary work ad Gentes (to the nations) represented by the three kings coming from the East to pay homage to newborn Son of God. I have had a fascination with this image of the kings worshiping before the Lord, and as I did it previous years, I posted on my Facebook page some photos of other cultural depictions of this event.
Homily for Solemnity of Epiphany of the Lord
St. Margaret’s Church, Happy Valley
Is 60: 1-6
Ephesians 3: 2-3a, 5-6
Matt. 2: 1-12
Pope Benedict XVI wrote that, “The Magi – the Three Wise Men – set out because of a deep desire that prompted them to leave everything and begin a journey. It was as though they had always been waiting for that star.”
Our own response to the gift that God has given us for salvation through his Son, Jesus, is the same as the gifts of these three men. “To offer gold is to proclaim Christ’s kingship; to offer incense is to adore the Godhead; and to offer myrrh is to acknowledge his mortality,” as another writer, St. Odilo of Cluny wrote centuries ago.
We gather today to follow in the footsteps of the Magi on this journey, following the Star of Bethlehem. Let us pray that our gifts will deepen our own understanding of God’s Epiphany, his MANIFESTATION.
Each year, the readings for this particular feast of the Epiphany has the same Gospel passage that we just read, as it is the only place where we find any mention of this wonderful, enchanting story of the three Kings who tradition has called Casper, Melchior, and Balthasar.
Over 125 years ago, a prolific writer and clergyman in the United States wrote a wonderful short story about the Magi with a twist: it was entitled “The Other Wise Man”. The author, Henry Van Dyke is also known to us through the lyrics of a hymn he wrote to the melody written by Beethoven to “Joyful, Joyful we adore Thee.”
Today, I want to re-tell Van Dyke’s story as a tale that also explains the true manifestation of Christ for us – the meaning of EPIPHANY.
The story – as created by Van Dyke – is of a fourth wise man, by the name of Artaban, who knew Casper, Melchior and Balthasar, and had agreed to join them on the journey to follow the Star of Bethlehem.
Artaban prepared for this special journey with high hopes and expectations. At great personal expense, and knowing the gifts the other three would be bringing, he gathered a bag of precious jewels to offer as his gift of homage to the newborn king. He then set out to the place where he would rendezvous with the others before they headed across mountains and desert to Bethlehem.
He was already running a bit behind schedule, and barely had enough time to meet them at the appointed place, when suddenly he comes across a sick traveler lying unattended on the side of the road. Artaban knew that stopping would jeopardize all hope of catching up with his friends before they set out, but passing by without stopping was unthinkable, unforgivable.
So he does something many of us might not do… he stops, knowing full well that in doing so he has possibly missed this chance of a lifetime to see the newborn king. Like the Good Samaritan, he nurses the man back to health, financing his care with a brilliant topaz he carries. Once the stranger is getting better, Artaban continues on his journey. But when he arrives at the place where they planned to meet, he is told that the other Three had already left and there would be no hope of overtaking them. So, he is now forced to sell one of his precious stones, a sapphire, to hire a set of guides and equipment to get him across the mountains and desert.
When he finally arrives at Bethlehem, his friends have already left for home by another route, and he is told that Joseph and Mary have fled with the child to Egypt because Herod had earnestly begun a search for the child to kill him. The town of Bethlehem is filled with soldiers doing house to house searches, killing all baby boys they can find. Artaban seeks shelter in an inn, but when the soldiers come banging on the door, he suddenly realizes that the landlady where he is resting is in terror – as she is hiding her own baby in a back room.
Artaban quickly goes to the door, taking out a priceless ruby that he offers as a bribe to the soldiers to keep them from entering. The child is saved but another gift for the newborn king is gone.
Artaban continues his search for some 30 years with no success. He hears of Jesus and of places where people have seen him, but somehow, he is never able to be in the same place. He now enters Jerusalem for the Passover, but by this point in his life he has only one gem left in his bag, an enormous pearl of great price.
He learns of Pilate’s edict to crucify Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews, so he rushes out following the crowd to a hill outside the city called Calvary to see if he can – at last – get a glimpse of the King and offer him this last gem, the pearl, that he has carried for so long.
Along the way he sees a young girl being carted off and sold as a slave as partial payment for her family’s debts. She pleads with all passers-by to save her, and Artaban, hearing her plea and seeing her tears exchanges his last gem, the precious pearl, for her freedom.
Suddenly, with no warning, the sky grew ominously dark and the earth shook violently as never before. The sharp quake sent tiles crashing down from rooftops, and one struck Artaban a mortal blow on the head. As he lay dying on the street, bystanders heard him say – as if in a dream – “But Lord, when did I see you hungry and give you to eat; or when did I see you thirst and give you to drink; when did I see you naked and clothe you?” Then a beautiful and peaceful smile came over his face, his body relaxed, and he died in perfect peace.
This story is – of course – only fiction, but it is similar to many stories in real life each day.
Think of mothers who set aside their careers and chances for professional advancement to take care of our families and of us. Think of mothers who go out to work to provide for their families and juggle two careers. As a result, they often do not advance as far, as fast, or as high as their talents permitted because they selflessly and consistently placed their children before their careers, choosing family life before their professional lives. One day they too will ask the lord, “When did we do it for you?”
And think of fathers of families who work long and hard hours to provide the best for their families, often to offer them opportunities they never had themselves. We know of men who courageously step off the corporate ladder of success to spend time with their children or to avoid being caught up in corruption of a company or agency. Their careers are stopped, stalled, or sidetracked as a result, but one day they will hear the Lord say, “What you did honestly and faithfully, you did for me!”
In our world surrounded as we are by so many scandals and stories of corruption, greed, jealousy and disputes, we often overlook the many good stories of self-sacrifice, selflessness and self-giving that are all around us – stories of lives inspired by the story of the Star of Bethlehem
Today we will begin a new year with a new Catholic custom celebrated at this time of Epiphany, the Blessing of the Home! It is in the home that we learn the true meaning of the gifts of the Magi. As we take the blessed packets today and gather our family this evening or some other evening and say the prayers and mark our homes with the symbols of this day (20+C+M+B+16), let us pray that we can be like the Fourth Wise Man, helping others to find Christ, the King, and joining with them and all nations falling prostrate before the LORD!