The Epiphany of the Lord


Francis J. Caponi, O.S.A.
Villanova University
Villanova, Pennsylvania

Is 60:1-6
Ps 72:1-2, 7-8, 10-11, 12-13
Eph 3:2-3a, 5-6
Mt 2:1-12

Some years back, my brother Matthew had solar panels installed on his house. It is an impressive set-up: 36 panels, each with a 225 watt capacity, for a total of 8.1 kilowatts. It is also an expensive set-up. However, the first year of its operation provided my brother and sister-inlaw with a savings of $1,543 on their utility bill; and in 20 years, it is estimated that this system will generate a total utility savings of $45,945, and add $32,507 to the value of their home.

There is a substantial value for the environment as well. In the first year, the energy this system produced offered a “green benefit” equivalent to the planting of 176 trees. Over 30 years, the solar energy produced will be equivalent to 1.1 railcars of coal not burned, 71 tons of waste recycled rather than landfilled, and 2.7 tanker trucks of gasoline not burned.

Technologically marvelous, economically advantageous, and environmentally friendly. What’s not to like?

But what makes my brother happiest is that the utility company, PECO – formerly the Philadelphia Electric Company – has to pay him for the excess electricity his system produces. As he puts it, this means he is at last able to “stick it to the man.”

According to their website, “PECO is the largest electric and natural gas utility in Pennsylvania, serving approximately 1.6 million electric customers and more than 511,000 natural gas customers in southeastern Pennsylvania.”1 It employs approximately 2,400 people, owns more than 29,000 miles of power line, and in the last fiscal year made almost 5ó billion dollars. Apparently, all of this makes PECO “the man.”

And so, as the Founding Fathers had a vision of freedom and iron resolve, as the French mob storming the Bastille had ungodliness and pitchforks, my brother has solar technology as the sword and shield of his revolt against the evil empire of the Philadelphia Electric Company.

His wife, Laraine, also has a vision, one in which she is not married to the man the neighborhood children call “crazy Mr. Caponi.” But that’s for another homily.

My brother’s portrayal of his solar panels as a victory of the people over the powerful is somewhat extreme, yet understandable. Although I do not share his view of PECO as the company most likely to build an actual Death Star, utility companies do tend to be large, impersonal, and bureaucratic. They literally have the power, and for a long time they were the only game in town. Solar technology enables families to become small utilities – something unimaginable 50 years ago. Even if it is only a small victory, and not quite the pushcart war my brother makes it out to be, it appeals to the love many of us have for the underdog. We admire the unexpected winners, the people who beat long odds: the Spartans at Thermopylae, Robin Hood, the ‘69 Mets, the Mighty Ducks.

God loves the underdog, too.

Let’s start with Abraham and Sarah. The Book of Genesis tells us that Abraham was seventy-five years old when God chose him to be the sire of a great nation. Seventy-five! And Sarah was sixty-five! This elderly, childless couple pull up stakes and move hundreds of miles away, to the land of Canaan, at a time in their lives when most people are well-settled and content to be so. God could have picked a couple who was younger, stronger, fertile, more easily uprooted and better matched to the demands of a long journey. Instead, he chooses a husband and wife who in our day would be retired.

Then there is Moses, the son of Hebrew slaves in Egypt. One day he killed an Egyptian who was beating a Hebrew. When he realized that everyone knew, he ran away and hid in the land of Midian. Then God enlists him to lead the Hebrews out of bondage. This child of slaves, a killer and a coward, hardly seems prime material for a great leader. But God sees things differently. God says, “I choose you.”

The list goes on and on: God called Jeremiah, who said, “No, not me, I’m too young!” When the mighty Assyrian army was prepared to invade Israel, and the leaders of the people had given up hope, God chose a young widow, Judith, as the instrument of Israel’s protection. When God needed to save his people from famine he chose Joseph, the youngest of Jacob’s sons, sold into slavery in Egypt. When God chose a king to take the place of Saul, he picked the youngest son of Jesse, the son no one even bothered to call in from the fields, so unlikely a choice was David.

Again and again, God chose those who were too old, too young, too frightened, and too weak.

Again and again, God chose underdogs and longshots, the most unlikely and the most unexpected.

This Christmas season, the pattern continues. God calls John the Baptist, who is living in the desert, eating locusts and honey, and dressed in camel’s hair. Mary calls herself a lowly servant. Shepherds parley with angels, wise men bow before an infant and defy a king, a nighttime star becomes more precious than the noonday sun, the center of power moves from the eternal city of Rome to an undistinguished village called Bethlehem.

It is the day of the Christ child, and all bets are off.

To live as a Christian is to struggle at very long odds against powerful opposition, from within and without. Spouses trade fidelity for cheap gratification; parents swaddle their children with cell phones and Xbox but leave them naked of the truth; gossip is big business; fame is a goal in itself rather than the byproduct of talent, virtue, and hard work; the vulgar are lionized and the modest are dismissed; purity is ridiculed and chastity is deemed unhealthy, while pornography is never further away than a few clicks of the computer; the unborn are disposable, and the sick are treated as political props.

But the King of kings is the king of the contrary. Eternal, yet he is born as one of us. Allpowerful, yet he becomes weak. Holy, yet he dies for sinners. And so we must reevaluate everything this world says is good and everything our sinful hearts claim will make us happy.

Now is Satan greatly troubled. The rejected stone becomes the cornerstone. Common birds and roadside lilies are loved by the Father. Every Goliath, every Herod, every Caesar is revealed as dust and chaff. Unremarkable men and women become heirs of grace. Those who feed the poor have their sins forgiven. Those who give without counting the cost lay up treasure in heaven. Those who act with justice are shown mercy. The last shall be first.

Is there a relationship that seems hopelessly broken – a parent for whom we have only anger, a child who brings forth only disappointment, a spouse to whom we are indifferent, or spiteful? Now Christ is come, and bears healing with him. Do we despair of peace at home and in the world, of the triumph of truth, of the protection of the unborn and the refugee? Now the kingdom of Christ draws near, and hope is no longer a fool’s bet.

So if you look in the mirror, and see no one special by the world’s standards, rejoice!

If you take stock of yourself, and find more mistakes and missed opportunities than awards and applause, rejoice!

And if you examine your life, and find an unworthy sinner struggling to follow Christ, greatly rejoice!

Because you are exactly the kind of person God chooses to shame the wise, to console the sorrowing, to strengthen the weak, and to carry His light to the broken hearts of your neighbors. This comes only from Christ. He is the new dawn, the herald of joy beyond all telling, the artist of restored beauty. We put no trust in princes or presidents, we do not seek hope in human craft or wisdom. Christ alone is our light. But we have our part in his work. Fire must be carried, light must be reflected, eyes must be opened. Because God has promised us victory does not mean that victory will be easy. God favors the underdog, yes, but in the same way the farmer favors the earth by clearing stones, plowing hard soil, sowing seed, weeding and watering. We are the instruments of his harvest grace. Our cheerful sacrifices are His pick and plow, our daily crosses are His seed and water, our fidelity and compassion are His sun. Our forgiveness, our works of mercy, our penance, our worship – these are the seasons which make the world fruitful. We cultivate humility and patience that the Father might harvest Christ from us, and feed our starving world with the bread of angels.