Shortly after my priestly ordination in Nigeria, I was assigned to the Cathedral in my home diocese as Assistant Cathedral Administrator. I invited an older priest to direct a retreat for the young adults of the Cathedral. While preaching on the first day of the retreat, he pointed out that there are four groups of people in the Catholic Church who must work harder if they must make it to heaven. I became very concerned when he listed the four groups, I found myself in two of them. He listed the following as the four groups: Altar servers, Choristers, Church Wardens/Ushers/Hospitality, and Pastoral Council. Altar Servers (I became an altar server at the age of seven), Choir (I joined the choir from my mother’s womb. She was pregnant with me and kept going to the choir, so I had no choice but join her. All through my Seminary formation, I was also a member of the choir. Two years before my graduation, I became one of the Choir Masters, and a year after my priestly ordination, I became the Diocesan Music Director of my diocese).
The four groups according to him are so close to the altar that they can easily end up being far away from God. For the altar servers, when they come to Mass, they are usually so preoccupied with what they had practiced that they do not listen to the readings, they do not pay attention to the homilies, and they do not pray. Their goal is to avoid making mistakes while serving.
Similarly, choristers can easily forget that they are to lead the congregation in worship. It is not uncommon to see choristers flipping through their singing sheets or books while the readings or homilies are going on. At other times, while prayers are going on, they keep on whispering tunes into the ears of one another or running commentaries. The instrumentalists use moments of readings, homilies, and prayers to continue their private rehearsals in low volume. It is also not uncommon to find members of the choir escaping from Mass at any point during the Mass that they are not “performing”, only to come back when it is time for their next “performance,” like the Mass is a concert.
The third group is made up of Church Wardens/Ushers/Hospitality. In Nigeria, in addition to welcoming and ushering worshippers to their seats, the ushers also help to maintain order during Mass by going round the Church to watch out for those who distract others at Mass and to wake those who sleep at Mass (I would like to say – for the record – I never allowed ushers to wake people up at Masses I celebrated. I always told them that if people fall asleep during the homily, it is a signal to me that I need to step up my game). They also direct people to the offering box in front of the altar. The priest who preached at that retreat observed that while moving around in the Church to make sure that people pay attention at Mass, these ushers themselves do not pay attention. He observed that while directing people to drop money in the offering box/baskets, they themselves do not drop any money from their pockets.
Finally, for the Pastoral Council members, they know how the Church should be run, and they make all the policies. They are quick at pointing out how the youths are not dressing properly to Church, but their own children would not even come to Church so you can’t talk about how they dress. When such council members come to Mass, rather than pray, or listen to the word of God for their own edification, they spend more time evaluating the priest, his style/length of homily, his style of administration, and to see if there is need to call the attention of the bishop to him.
Reflecting on these four groups, I have added a fifth group to the list; it is a group I glaringly belong to right now, namely the priests or the preachers. From my experience, it can be very tempting to be very preoccupied with thinking about what to preach to you that I forget to think of what to preach to myself. That is why, after the Mass, when I go back to my room, I quickly run to my mirror, I look at the “young man” in the mirror and I say to him, “I hope you heard what the priest said at Mass today.”
My Dearly Beloved in Christ, today is the solemnity of the Epiphany of the Lord. It is the day we celebrate the revelation of the Lord to the Gentiles. On this day we reflect on the visit of the magi to the newborn King. We also reflect on their gifts to the king. They brought three gifts; the gift of gold to honor his Kingship, the gift of frankincense to honor his divinity, and the gift of myrrh to honor his humanity, which was destined for death.
From today’s Gospel passage, we see three different reactions to the birth of Christ. The first reaction is that of Herod, which is characterized by fear, hatred and hostility. Herod was afraid that this little child was going to interfere with his life, his place, his power, his influence, his comfort zone, and so his first instinct was to destroy him. We still have people who are all out to destroy Christ in the family, in Schools, in offices, even in the Church because they feel he interferes with their comfort zones. What kind of homilies do we enjoy listening to, the ones that tell us to remain in our comfort zones or the ones that challenge us to grow in the way of Christ?
The second reaction is that of the chief priests and scribes characterized by complete indifference. They answered correctly the question posed by Herod about the child to be born, but it made no difference to them. They were so engrossed in their Temple ritual and their legal discussions that they completely disregarded Jesus. He meant nothing to them. Like the four or five groups we talked about at the beginning who can be so involved in the life of the Church yet having nothing spiritually to show for it. The Jews, who had the scriptures and the prophets foretelling them plainly about the birth of the Messiah, did not hasten to find the Messiah, but the Gentiles who only borrowed the scriptures, found the Messiah, and worshipped Him.
The third reaction is that of the magi characterized by adoring worship. They were driven by the desire to lay at the feet of Jesus Christ the noblest gifts which they could bring. In the magi, we learn the lesson that those who live at the greatest distance from the means of grace often use most diligence and learn to know the most of Christ and his salvation.
The four or five groups we talked about at the beginning was not meant to attack any group, but to draw our attention to the risk of losing out even though as Catholics we have got all the means of grace, namely the Word and the Sacraments. This challenges us to take more seriously the Christ in our spouses that we have taken for granted, the Christ in our parents, children, or siblings that we have taken for granted. This is the challenge to take more seriously the wonderful gifts we have in our country recognized by other nations, but which we have taken for granted. It is very possible to be a minister, who leads others to Jesus, and yet not find Jesus ourselves. Jesus Christ was born in Bethlehem, but today, he continues to be born in our lives and various circumstances. Christ is our Lord, who has come to reveal the glory of God. I pray for you as I pray for myself for the grace to always recognize him, and to come to him in sincere and constant worship and adoration until we come to our heavenly inheritance, through the same Christ our Lord. Amen.