The Magi and the Tsunami
January 2, 2005
The general joy of our holidays has been shaken by the terrible news of the disaster caused by the tsunami in the Indian Ocean. Already the count of the dead is over 100,000 and still rising. The immensity of this disaster is only now sinking in to our consciousness, as the world prepares for what will most likely be the greatest relief effort of history.
As Christians, we should approach this disaster as we do all things in light of the gospel. Today’s story of the Magi on the feast of the Epiphany can be helpful to us. For the story presents to us with two truths that will not only help us understand this tragedy but also direct our reaction to it. The story of the Magi presents the truth of universality and the importance of action.
The story of the Magi proclaims that the good news of Christ is for all people—for the entire world. We do not know too much about the Magi themselves, but one thing is clear from the gospel: they were not Jewish. They came from another country, from the east. They were foreigners. This dimension of the story makes it clear that the good news of Christ’s salvation is not to be limited to any one nation, people, culture or race. Christ comes to every person. Christ comes to the entire world. This truth is so central to the story that, as history continued, the Christian imagination filled in the details. As representations of the Magi began to be created, it become customary to assign a continent to each of the three Magi, corresponding to the three continents of the world that were known at that time. So there was a black Magi representing Africa, a yellow Magi representing Asia, and a white Magi representing Europe. The clear message of this decision was that all people are connected to Christ and thereby all people are connected to one another.
This truth, then, has a direct relevance to the terrible disaster that happened on December 26. It tells us that the people whose lives were ruined by this disaster are connected to us. Even though many of us probably could not find Malaysia or Indonesia on a map, the need which those people are experiencing is a need to which we are called to respond. God’s love has no limits. Therefore, we should we place no limits on ours. God’s love is universal, and our responsibility to others is universal as well.
The universality of connectedness between all people is central to the Magi story. But there is another truth to that story that is equally important, and that is the necessity of action. The Magi in the story not only saw the star and realized its significance, they followed it. They chose to act. They left their comfortable homes, undertook an arduous journey, and came to pay homage to the Christ Child. In the same way, we are called to act. How easy it would be for us, having heard the news of this disaster, to turn back to our secure lives, to our holiday celebrations. The story of the Magi says we must not simply know and understand. We must act.
But what are we to do? The answer is clear: we are to give out of our abundance to those who are in need. We do not need to give a huge amount, but the gospel calls us to act, to offer something. Regina Brett in her column in the Plain Dealer this week shared a beautiful story about a woman who was standing on the beach in the midst of hundreds of starfish, which were dying because they had been washed out of the sea to the shore. She was picking them up and throwing them back into the sea. A man came by and shook his head and said, “You’ll never save all of them. What difference will it make?” She picked up another starfish, threw it into the sea, and said, “It just made a difference for that starfish.”
We don’t need to meet every need, but even a small gift out of our abundance might make the difference for one person who is battling starvation and death now in Indonesia. Moreover, this time of year provides so many opportunities. Return a Christmas gift that you don’t want to the store, and contribute the money to the relief fund. Take some of the money you were going to use for post-Christmas sales and divert that to those who are in need. As announced before Mass, both this weekend and next weekend we will be collecting monies to direct to Catholic Relief Services for the refugees.
The story of the Magi emphasizes the universality of our connectedness with people throughout the world and the necessity for us to translate our faith into action. God loves all people, and therefore our love must strive to be that universal. Any person in need has a claim on us. So let us resolve to act, to give whatever we can as a gesture that shows our connectedness to others and our desire to address this catastrophic need that has struck our planet. Let us choose to act in some way in the upcoming days to give from our abundance, to help our brothers and sisters on the other side of the world.
The Gift of Dependence
January 6, 2008
There are many lessons we could learn from the story of the Magi in today’s gospel. We could point to their courage for beginning the journey, for their perseverance in bringing it to completion, for their faith in seeking out the Christ child. But today I would like to focus on a quality that is every bit as important as the ones I just mentioned and also more relevant to our lives. That quality is the virtue of dependence. For all their skills and resources, the wise men were dependent on forces outside of themselves. They depended on the star, which led them to Jerusalem. They depended on Herod and his advisors who sent them to Bethlehem. They depended on the message they heard in a dream that sent them home by another road. As wise as they were, the Magi could never have made their journey alone. They would have never found the newborn King of the Jews if they did not have the virtue of dependence.
Now it might seem strange to call dependence a virtue. But what is a virtue? It is a good habit, a tendency to do a good thing. Dependence can be a very good thing. This may sound peculiar to us because we live in a culture that extols independence as the highest of good things. We all want to be self-sufficient. We all want to make our own decisions, care for our own needs, determine our own future. There is nothing wrong with any of these desires. Being independent is a value. But because we so extol the value of independence, it makes the value of dependence more difficult to see.
Frequently, people who are aging want to assert their self-sufficiency. They say, “I don’t want to be dependent on others. I don’t want to be a burden on my children. I don’t want to ask of others for the things that I need.” Now I sympathize with all those desires. I do not want to be a burden either. But when we only look at the value of being independent, we can easily overlook the goodness that is also present in dependency.
There is a value and even a beauty in realizing that we have needs and that there are people in our lives who are able and even eager to meet them. Often as I meet with families planning funerals, they mention how a spouse or a parent valued his or her independence. “Dad was always giving to others but he would never let us give to him. Mary was always doing things for others, but she was unable to receive what we wanted to offer.” As comments such as these are made, there is usually a certain note of sadness or regret. The speakers point to a lost opportunity. They realize how much deeper the relationship could have been, if only the deceased parent or spouse had been willing to be more dependent, willing to open themselves more to love.
There is nothing wrong with self-sufficiency but when that self-sufficiency is pushed to an extreme, it can lead to isolation. It can cut us off from those who wish to love us. Behind such extreme self-sufficiency lies a sinful pride that says, “I can do things on my own. I really don’t need anyone else.” This is why dependency is a virtue. The person who is dependent possesses an honest humility that knows, “I am not complete in myself. I cannot meet all of my needs. I need to have the freedom to ask others for help.” When that humble humility is exercised, it provides an opportunity for others to love us. It can deepen the relationships with our families and friends. It can lead us to a deeper sense of gratitude for the people God has placed in our lives.
In a society that sees independence as the highest of goods, the story of the Magi reminds us that dependence is a virtue. There is no shame in knowing our needs and asking for help. The three gifts that the Magi gave the Christ child were gold, frankincense and myrrh. If we follow the Magi’s example, they can offer us the gifts of dependence, humility and gratitude.
Old Grandma Babushka
January 2, 2011
Old grandmother Babushka was a holy woman. She read the scriptures, and she knew that the long awaited Savior was to be born in Bethlehem. So she gathered together all of her possessions and moved to David’s city. There she lived in a simple house and prayed each day that God would let her know when the Savior was born. She intended to offer her possessions as a gift to the newborn king. One night after a simple supper, she turned out the light and went to bed. But before she fell asleep there was a knock. “Who could it be at this hour?” she thought. She lit the lamp and opened the door.
There she saw three strangers with camels standing before her. “The Savior is born,” they announced, “and we have come from the east to worship him. We were told in a dream to stop here and to bring you along with us. We have gifts to offer and we know that you do also.” Old grandmother Babushka rejoiced. “The time has come, the Savior is born,” she thought. But it was late and the night was cold and so she decided that she would go and present her gifts tomorrow. She ascertained from the strangers the exact directions to the stable and wrote them carefully down. Then she sent them on their way. The next morning she arose with the sun and gathered together all of her gifts: food, clothing, and money. She followed the directions directly to the stable. When she entered, it was empty. The holy family had already departed. Old grandmother Babushka stomped her foot, “I’ve missed them,” she said, “I should have come last night!”
But she was a determined woman. “I’ll keep looking for them,” she decided, “they cannot have gone too far.” And so old grandmother Babushka began to look. She asked everyone she met. Did they know of a child, of a poor child, perhaps to be found in a manager, perhaps even living on the street. She wanted them to tell her all that they knew. And they did. Some people knew of a poor family who lived on the outskirts of the city. Other people knew of a young child who was sick. Others heard of strangers who were in town with no place to stay. Old grandmother Babushka visited them all. But she could never be certain whether this child and this family was the child and the family that the strangers had told her about.
So she continued to look, week after week, month after month. She found many children, poor children everywhere. She found many a cradle, many a manger, and many a mother nursing her child. In each place, she left a part of the gift that she was going to give to the Christ child: Here some food, to this family some money, to this child some clothes. In time, all that she had was gone. She returned to her own home empty handed.
That night, Jesus appeared to her in a dream. “There you are!” she exclaimed, “I have looked everywhere for you and have not been able to find you. I had gifts to give you but now they are gone.” “I know,” said Jesus, “and I have received every one. For whatever you gave to the least of my brothers or sisters you gave to me.” Old grandmother Babushka smiled. She was satisfied. She had not seen the Christ child in the manger, but she had lived his gospel.
Few of us here today have ever been to Bethlehem. Those who visited that holy place found that the manager was empty. But being a disciple of Jesus is not seeing him in the stable. It is living his gospel. Whenever we feed the poor, whenever we visit the sick or imprisoned, whenever we welcome the stranger, we are ministering to Christ himself. When we are patient with a relative who irritates us, when we are kind to the kid at school that everyone else mocks, when we listen to the person who is grieving or are generous with those who struggle, we are not only serving them. We are serving Jesus.
We cannot go with the Magi to Bethlehem but we can offer Christ our gifts. Not gifts of Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh but gifts of respect, compassion, and love.
The Twelve Days of Christmas
January 5, 2014
Isaiah 60:1-6; Ephesians 3:2-3a, 5-6
We all know the carol, The Twelve Days of Christmas. But what twelve days is it referring to? The Twelve Days extend from Christmas day, December 25, and run to the feast of the Epiphany, January 6. We are celebrating Epiphany today because in the United States we move Epiphany to the closest Sunday. But you get the idea. Christmas is not a feast that we celebrate on one day but rather a feast that we celebrate for twelve days. We do this for two reasons.
The first is when we look at the size of the gift that we have received at Christmas, the gift of the Eternal Word made flesh, that gift is enormous. Today’s first reading from Isaiah says that gift of Christ is a light to all nations. Today’s second reading, from the Letter to the Ephesians, talks about Christ being given to all humanity, both Jew and Gentile alike. So when we recognize how great the gift is that we have received, it takes more than one day to celebrate it. That is why tradition has given us twelve. But there is a second reason why we need twelve days at Christmas. It results from what we are expected to give. When we recognize how much we have received, the gift of God’s own son, then it becomes clear to us that we must give to others in light of that tremendous gift. That is more giving than we usually imagine. It is for this reason that both in tradition and in song, gifts are given not only on the first day of Christmas but on each of the twelve days.
That is a lot of gifts to give. In fact every year on-line someone goes around to establish the cost of three French hens and ten lords-a-leaping to total up all the gifts at current prices. This year the cost came out at $24,430. Surprisingly, the most expensive item was seven swans-a-swimming. Those birds are $1000 apiece. The cheapest gift was the maids-a-milking. For $58 you can get all eight of them. (I believe that is below minimum wage.) Even more importantly, if you take the song literally, on each of the twelve days of Christmas you are expected to give not only the gift for that day but also all the previous gifts over again. When calculated this way, the full cost of the gifts at today’s prices is $107,300. That’s a big number. But its very size makes clear how much we are expected to give. And, of course, what we are expected to give is not six geese-a-laying or a partridge in a pear tree. We are expected to give lives that are in conformity with the Gospel of Christ. We are expected to give the benefit of the doubt to the person who irritates us, comfort to those who are suffering, support to those who are poor, respect to those with whom we disagree, and forgiveness to our enemy.
One cannot put a price on that kind of giving. But it certainly costs us. The demands of the Gospel that are placed upon us are significant and real. So how are we to give on this high a level? How can we afford to pay the price? Only by stretching the payments out over time. We are not sure why the early Christians set the dates for Christmas and Epiphany twelve days apart. But the most attractive explanation is that the twelve days were meant to reflect the twelve months of the year. In this way, the Christmas season tells us that we do not have just twelve days to do what Christ asks us to do. We have twelve months. And if we have a whole year to give, then we can pay in smaller installments. We can give in simpler ways.
We might not be able to eliminate prejudice from our hearts in one fell swoop, but we can decide to resist the temptation of making comments and telling jokes that denigrate other people. We might not have the resources to eliminate the poverty around us, but we can choose to offer some contribution on a regular basis that will make a difference. We might not be able to forgive our enemy, but we can choose to pray each week for him or her and ask God to give us the strength to forgive.
When we look at how much we have received, the amount that we are expected to give is enormous. That is why Christ gives us time to make the payments. So choose today to take a small step in the right direction, and let Christ guide you. The twelve days of Christmas are now over. But the twelve months of 2014 have just begun.
The Last Six Miles
January 8, 2017
It takes courage to follow a star. You do not know where it is leading you or how long the journey will take. But if we have faith like the Magi in today’s gospel, we will trust that wherever the star takes us is God’s will. Having said this, we can be sure that the Magi had expectations of what they would find at the end of their journey. After all, they were searching for a newborn king. So it only made sense that they would find the child in some royal setting. This is why, when the star leads them to Jerusalem, they go immediately to the palace of King Herod. Where else would you look for a king? But Jesus was not there. Then Herod sent them to Bethlehem, and they understood that Jerusalem was not the end of their journey.
The Magi had traveled hundreds of miles from the east to reach Jerusalem. Bethlehem was only six miles more. Yet it was the last six miles that were the most difficult, because during that last part of their journey, the Magi realized that the child that they were seeking was not the king that they expected. You see, there is a big difference between Jerusalem and Bethlehem. Jerusalem was a capital city with a hundred thousand inhabitants. Bethlehem was a small village of a thousand people, one hundred times smaller than Jerusalem. In Bethlehem there was no palace, no royal court, no wealth of any kind. It was no place to find a king. This is why the end of the Magi’s journey was the most challenging. In those last six miles they had to lower their expectations. It is to the Magi’s credit that they succeeded in doing so. When they arrived in Bethlehem and found only a baby in a barn, they nevertheless continued to believe that the star had led them rightly. Then they presented their royal gifts, even though they were out of place in so lowly a setting.
The story of the Magi is a reminder that God may ask us to lower our expectations in the journey of our lives. You may have always imagined that your son would grow up to be a famous neurosurgeon or your daughter would marry a guy you admired. Then one day your son tells you he wants to be a forest ranger, and your daughter shows you an engagement ring from the girl you thought was only her best friend. In such circumstances, any of us can wonder, “Will I be able to settle for this?” The Magi tell us, “Turn your back to Jerusalem and journey to Bethlehem.”
You may have planned carefully for your retirement so that you could be financially secure and perhaps have a winter place in Florida. But then some investments go bad and your children need your financial support. You begin to realize that retirement will involve watching your budget so that you can make ends meet. As you take this in, the Magi say, “We understand. The last six miles are the most difficult.”
You may have imagined that you will grow old with your spouse, with your children and your grandchildren around you. Then divorce divides your family. As you wonder how this could have happened, the Magi say, “Don’t be afraid. Keep following the star.”
The Magi presented the child Jesus with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. But the gift that they give us is the faith to believe that God is always leading us, even to places we never expected. And the promise of the Magi is that even if we arrive at a poor and lowly place, Jesus will be there, and we will still have gifts to give.