February 17, 2017
By Judith Lancaster, SHCJ
Epiphany, the visit of the wise men to Bethlehem, was the feast that Cornelia chose as the most important celebration of the year for the Society of the Holy Child Jesus, ‘our great feast of the year’ as she called it.
We may wonder: Why? Why did she not pick Christmas itself, with the little family of Mary, Joseph and Jesus, in the stable, and the angels announcing the breath-taking news to the shepherds on the hillside – to the poorest people around?
Today, with our 21st century understanding of the feast, we might be inclined to say that it was because Cornelia wanted to emphasise the truth that Christ came to save all peoples, not just the Jews – and not just Christians, either; that the feast of Epiphany is indeed a Manifestation that Christ came to save us all without exception. But it doesn’t seem that that was at the forefront of Cornelia’s thinking.
What we know from written sources (which is all we have to go on now) is that Cornelia wrote a letter to all the members of the Society every Epiphany from 1851 to 1878. Before 1851 there was no need of a letter, because the Society consisted of a single community at St Leonards, and by January 1879 she was too ill, too near death, to write.
Sadly, we don’t have all the letters, but from the ones we do have we can see something of Cornelia’s thinking about the feast and what she wanted it to mean in the Society. What she emphasises is the giving and receiving of spiritual gifts. And it is for this reason that members of the Society renew their vows on this feast day – recalling to mind that God has given each of us so many gifts and that we are to dedicate ourselves again to living them as fully as we can in the year ahead. (The first letter, written in 1851 – less than five years from the founding of the Society – shows that the practice of renewing vows on 6 January was already established.)
In Epiphany letter after Epiphany letter, Cornelia suggests three gifts to reflect on – because, of course, the magi gave three gifts to the Christ Child. So one year she will speak of Faith, Hope and Charity, another of Poverty, Chasity and Obedience which, she hopes, ‘you may day by day understand more and more brightly, and love more intensely, and practice more diligently’.
In the letter of 1856 Cornelia chooses three gifts which are more personal to herself and more revealing of her hopes for the Society – ‘our old friends, though ever new, Vigilance, Humility and Fidelity’. We might want to reflect on these three gifts and what they mean to us and how we live them. Cornelia, expanding on her theme, gives us some pointers:
‘Be then like the Holy Child Jesus in your thoughts, in your words, and in your actions, cherishing diligence [that is, vigilance] and fidelity in what is called little by daily occurrence – and be persuaded that nothing is little with God, if it is the practice of virtue – God and I – Fidelity.’