You and I are pagans. You might be a bit surprised by this. Surely pagans are people who are NOT Christians, and you would be right because that’s how we use the term today, But when St Paul uses it in our 2nd Reading (Eph 3:2-6) he is actually talking about “foreigners” – anyone who does not belong to his race, and Paul would certainly have regarded all of us as foreigners wherever we come from in the world! But even the word “foreigners” fails to convey to us the important point he’s trying to make ; and that is that the good news of Jesus Christ – “the mystery” as he calls it is for everyone, not just for a select few.
The Epiphany story (Matt 2:1-12) of the wise men coming to see the baby Jesus is making the same point. You would have expected some of the holy people in Bethlehem to have recognised that this baby was special, but instead the only people, apart from a few scruffy shepherds who come to see Jesus are foreigners. Many of you will have heard me make the point before, that this is why the wise men (the 3 Kings as we often call them) have been represented for hundreds of years in traditional cribs with the three skin-colours of humans – one white, one brown and one black. Thus they represent for us everything that is foreign, that is different to us, whatever colour we happen to be.
But nowadays, when we live mostly in a happily multi-racial society the real challenge of this message gets a bit lost. I don’t mean by this that there are no challenges yet to be overcome – the Stephen Lawrence murder trial, and the unprovoked murder of that young Indian student in Manchester, are recent reminders that there is much yet to be done. But my hope is that no-one here at Mass today is actually a racist, that we all recognise and rejoice in the fact that we belong to a totally multi-racial family – the Catholic Church. Of course, if you do find this multi-racial idea difficult, then you must do something about the way you think, because it is simply not Christian to treat people of a different race differently. Indeed it is a sin that you should take with you to Confession!
Anyway, putting that on one side, I wondered, as I was preparing this Homily, if there was something else that I could use to get over more clearly how shocking and challenging St Paul’s statement is. In other words, who are the people today, that we find hard to accept into society, that we would rather not think about at all, except as people we really do not like and certainly would not want to be friends with? Then I got the answer from a very reliable source. I was reading the weekly paper from Rome that describes what the Pope has been doing and saying – most of which we never hear of on our News or in our Newspapers. – and there it was. On the Sunday before Christmas the Pope went and visited one of the toughest prisons in Rome where he spoke to the prisoners and answered their questions.
Now there is a group of people who we do find difficult to accept – people in prison! Most of us would rather not think about them at all. Few of us would choose to visit a prison as the Pope did, and yet, and yet, visiting prisoners is actually one of the things Jesus tells us to do. I found the Pope’s words to these prisoners quite moving. He said “I have come to tell you quite simply that God loves you with an infinite love, and that you are always God’s children.” And then he quoted from a recent official document of the Church which says:- “It is time to put a stop to… ill-treatment of prisoners.. which represents a violation of human rights… Prisoners are human persons who, despite their crime, deserve to be treated with respect and dignity.”
How easy it is to forget such people, or to be simply pleased that they are getting what they deserve, and if it is hard and undignified then it serves them right! The Pope made clear that this view is simply wrong, not just because God loves the sinner even more than the saint, but because unless prisoners are treated with dignity, then reintegrating them into society, when they have served their term, becomes much less likely to succeed.
As Christmas and the Epiphany end therefore let us remember that God came to us as a human baby to declare that all of us, every single human being, is loved by God. We must allow our vision of the Gospel to grow, to see God’s holy Church as a family where everyone is welcome whatever they are like. As Isaiah says “Lift up your eyes and look around.. the nations come to your light.”