“Do you know about this priest?” asked the man next to me in the pew, referring to Father Phien Van Pham, the Vietnamese celebrant. “He was persecuted for his faith — he spent quite a bit of time in prison.” Now here he was in Southern California, celebrating a standing-room-only Mass in an airy, flying-saucer style suburban church, all broad white planes trimmed with maple.
This being Epiphany Sunday, the worship team started in with “We three kings of Orient are/ Bearing gifts we traverse afar...” The pace was slow and stately, matching the approach of Father Phien to the altar, but the lighthearted combination of bass, flute, and tambourine was at odds with his solemn demeanor. After ascending to the Sanctuary, he bowed deeply before the altar and began to incense it all ’round, the pungent white puffs rising into the diffused sunshine that radiated from the great skylight over the sanctuary.
“My dear brothers and sisters,” began Pham, “today is the Solemnity of the Epiphany of the Lord. We celebrate the manifestation of Jesus as the savior of the whole world.” (That is, the arrival of the magi from the east: the wise men who followed the star to Bethlehem, where they paid homage to the newborn king. The sort of thing alluded to in the first reading from Isaiah: “Nations shall walk by Your light...the wealth of nations shall be brought to You.”)
I thought of a discussion I had recently, one that began with someone claiming, “Monotheism is just tribalism writ large” — our God vs. your God. I responded that Christianity had at least pulled an interesting variation on the theme: “Our God is your God, too!” As Paul put it in the second reading, taken from his letter to the Ephesians, “It has now been revealed...that the Gentiles are co-heirs, members of the same body, and co-partners in the promise in Christ Jesus through the Gospel.”
The Gospel told the story, but not before the ritual. Pham bore the golden book containing the text over to the pulpit; there, he was flanked by two acolytes bearing candles taken from alongside the altar. Another acolyte stood behind him, swinging the smoking thurible back and forth until Pham took it, bowed, incensed the book a full nine times, and bowed again. Again, his movements were slow and solemn.
“The gifts of the magi are considered very symbolic,” began Pham in his homily. “Gold is symbolic of Jesus’ kingship. Frankincense is symbolic of Jesus’ divinity. And myrrh is symbolic of Jesus’ death. These [gifts] of the magi show their very joyful acceptance of Jesus as the king of kings, the Savior of the whole world.”
From there, the symbols multiplied. “The star is a symbol of Jesus Christ,” who “came down from heaven and dispelled the darkness of the world.” Pham cited several passages from Scripture identifying Jesus with light, including the famous claim, “I am the light of the world, whoever comes to Me will have the light of life and will never walk in darkness.” “Like the magi, our life must be a journey of faith, searching for Jesus Christ,” with Him as our star.”
But that journey, said Pham, involved remembering “that Jesus asks all of us to be a type of epiphany for other people. Jesus tells His followers: ‘You are the light of the world,’ and St. Paul says, ‘You must shine among men like a star.’ Let Jesus shine through us by doing what He asks us to do. Every time we open our heart and hands to the needy, our star rises in the darkness and points the way to Jesus. This is what the Solemnity of the Epiphany is all about: it’s not just the story about a star leading the magi to the baby Jesus in Bethlehem. It’s also a story about Jesus Christ, the bright star leading mankind to salvation. And it is also a story about you and me, who must become stars, right here and right now, leading other people to Jesus Christ. Let us not be afraid to take this responsibility. Jesus will help us.”
The prayers of the faithful took up the theme, asking “For those who are poor and who need service to receive care from this community.” And after Pham incensed the gifts on the altar (and after the acolyte incensed the congregation), the prayer of dedication before Communion returned to the realm of the symbolic: “Lord, accept the offerings of Your Church; not gold, frankincense, and myrrh, but the sacrifice they symbolize, Jesus Christ, who is Lord forever.”
After Communion, the worship team returned to the old carols. “What child is this, who laid to rest, on Mary’s lap is sleeping?... This, this is Christ the king... Haste, haste to bring Him laud...”
When I asked Father Pham what happens when we die, he referred me to the pastor, who was unavailable at the moment.
— Matthew Lickona
8200 Gold Coast Drive, San Diego
Denomination: Roman Catholic
Founded locally: 1970
Senior pastor: Michael Robinson
Congregation size: 6000 families
Staff size: about 16
Sunday school enrollment: n/a
Weekly giving: n/a
Annual budget: n/a
Singles program: no
Dress: casual to formal
Diversity: majority Asian, but diverse
Sunday worship: 7 a.m., 8:30 a.m., 10:30 a.m., 12:15 p.m., 5 p.m., 7 p.m. (Spanish)
Length of reviewed service: 1 hour, 10 minutes