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The Epiphany of the Lord
January 8, 2023
John Kavanaugh, SJ

Defending the Child

Rachel weeping for her children..
(Mt 2:18)

The feast of Epiphany has the makings of high drama. It features long journeys, guiding stars, ominous danger, holy dreams, great escapes, and a threatened baby.

Epiphany’s conflicts are boldly drawn. Light fights night. The joy of discovery ends long wandering. Truth foils deception.

The Magi symbolize our noblest human efforts. They are wise ones, star-gazers, people of philosophy, science, and treasure.

They go trekking for the truth. Finding it, they give homage, not to the high and mighty Herod, but to the child of the Most High.

Herod is not only a liar and a killer, he is afraid. He is threatened by the child, this defenseless babe who has no power other than the strength to engage our hope.

Why do the Herods of history fear the children of the world? Could it be the fear of love? Why does the Herod in us fear the child in us? Could it be that we are scared by hope? Could it be that we dread the love drained from us by the defenseless other?

In our own day, the child in our midst is at risk. The wonder and awe of the child embarrasses our utilitarian minds. The child’s vulnerability and dependency shame our inauthentic desires for control. And so we kill the child within.

Children torment the occupants of a self-indulgent culture.

The children outside of us are also under attack. They die of dysentery in Baghdad, as victims of a “clean” war, an ugly dictator, and indifferent nations. Children are the easiest of the enemy to slaughter: little Muslims in the Balkans, tiny Catholics in Sudan, toddling Hutu or Tutsi in Rwanda, the unborn ripped from the wombs of Algerian women. Since they are seen only as future soldiers, would-be enemies of the Herodian state, it is merely a pre-emptive strike to kill them.

Children torment the occupants of a self-indulgent culture. How could they not afflict a people bent on instant gratification, broken promises, and narcissism? True, we can mold our children into images of our own egos, but even that takes time and discipline. It is easier to abandon them, to terminate millions in our wombs, to strand the unwanted child, unparented, unattended, uneducated.

In our day we witness children drowned by their mothers, children used as vendetta (even to the extent of pulling the child from a murdered mother’s womb), children abused by those entrusted with their care and protection. One political party cannot even bring itself to admit that the so-called “partial birth” abortion is actually infanticide. How could we not think that children are expendable?

Herodian consciousness clings to deceit. It must repress the truth. It plots to seduce the seeker of wisdom.

The embracers of Epiphany resist. They search out the child. They exercise wisdom in humble homage. They dream another way.

And the dream is this: all our wisdom, our science, our gifts of human treasure, must not be pimps for the tyranny of tribe, class, nation, or ego. These oppressors survive on murderous lies. In the Epiphany dream, all our gifts will be laid at the feet of the child, not only in Bethlehem, but in all the cities of world.

Epiphany is not only a dramatic feast. It is a missionary one as well. Its message is for the nations. And if people of faith do not proclaim it, our children will be left to the Herods of the world.

John Kavanaugh, SJ
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Father Kavanaugh was a professor of Philosophy at St. Louis University in St. Louis. He reached many people during his lifetime.
The Word Embodied: Meditations on the Sunday Scriptures
Orbis Books, Maryknoll, New York (1998), pp. 15-17.
Art by Martin (Steve) Erspamer, OSB
from Religious Clip Art for the Liturgical Year (A, B, and C). This art may be reproduced only by parishes who purchase the collection in book or CD-ROM form. For more information go
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