The Missing Magi
January 4, 2004
Moving things is risky. Whenever we start shifting things around, there is always a chance that something will be misplaced, or broken, or lost. Our parish offices went through a major move this year. They had to be relocated with all of their contents into our new administrative wing. Records and items which had been in storage for years, were carefully repackaged and carried to their new locations. The entire move came off without a hitch. Or at least that is what we thought, until Christmas came. Because as we began to unpack the pieces for our church Nativity scene, we discovered that one figure was missing. Somehow in the move, one of the Magi was either misplaced, or lost, or stolen. We searched everywhere, several times over. But despite every effort, the missing Magi was nowhere to be found. Now a replacement is already on order, but it will take months for delivery. So if you visit the manger scene today on this Feast of Epiphany, the day that we remember the arrival of the three kings, you will notice that one of them has not shown up.
Now this could either be construed as a misfortune or as an opportunity. I choose to see it as an opportunity, an opportunity to ask, “What does it mean to celebrate Epiphany with only two kings? How is the absence of the third king connected with the truth of the gospel?” Here’s my suggestion. An incomplete manger scene might well stand as a symbol for our lives. Because it is true that none of us finish life with all of our pieces intact. Every one of us at one time or another discovers that something we value has been misplaced, or stolen, or lost. Now this is a sadness when it concerns some material thing. But it can truly be a crisis if it is our dreams or our relationships that go awry.
All of us have expectations. Expectations of what a complete life would be. We expect that we will be able to live in faithful commitment to our spouse and our close friends but then discover that our relationships are disrupted by divorce or death. We plan that our family will be harmonious and unified but then are forced to admit that there are resentments between us, because of jealousy and hurt. We imagine that we will be productive in our work and enjoy the leisure of our retirement but find ourselves facing unemployment or sickness. We expect to be successful and to have others hold us in high regard. Yet the mistakes that we make, the addictions that trip us up, reduce the respect that others give to us and make us doubt our own self-worth.
The longer that we live, the more likely it is that something we value will go missing. The more we mature the clearer it becomes that our perfectly imagined life has not been realized. Like an incomplete manger scene, expected pieces of our lives are missing, figures we were counting on do not arrive.
When the enormity of such loss sinks in, it is important to remember what is essential to a manger scene. We have a manger scene, we have Christmas, not because there were Magi or shepherds and sheep or loving parents like Mary and Joseph. We have Christmas because a child was given to us. We have Christmas because of Christ, because he chose to become a part of our humanity and remain with us as Emmanuel, God with us. Therefore, as long as we have Christ, we have Christmas. As long as Christ is present in our lives, we have reason to believe that our lives are good, even if pieces are missing. As long as we know Christ’s love then we can see that the missing parts of our lives, though important, are not essential. If Christ is with us, we can live, we can find the courage to continue.
After mass today, you might want to visit our manger scene. If you do, you will clearly see that one of the kings is missing. Let that king stand for what is missing in your life. For the things you expected to have but do not, for the things you once had and now are lost. Then, as you sense that absence, look in the manger and see that Christ is still here. If Christ is here, then Christmas is here. If Christ is here, then two Magi are enough. If Christ is present in your life, then you have a future. Then there is hope. Then, even though pieces are missing, you still have a life to live.
Living Gold, Frankincense, and Myrrh
January 6-7, 2007
The most foundational truth of the Christian life can be located in today’s gospel of the Epiphany. But it is a lesson that we often miss. We miss it because we are not looking in the right place. In today’s gospel, it is difficult to keep your eyes off of the wise men. They are foreign and mysterious. They come from the East in their exotic robes, riding their peculiar camels, following the star. But when we focus on the wise men, the theme of the gospel is about searching, finding, and the giving of gifts. These themes, however, are not the deepest truth of today’s feast. To find that truth we must not look at what the wise men do, but at what Jesus does. And what does Jesus do? He receives the gifts that the wise men offer. This action is arguably the first action of Jesus ever recorded in the gospels: to accept the gifts that are given. It is an action of profound significance, because it is an illustration of what is most fundamental about the Christian life: that being a Christian is not about what we do, but what we accept; it is not about giving but about receiving.
Now this is a difficult lesson for us to learn because we persist in the misconception that our faith is primarily about us, about what we do or what we fail to do. But our faith is not primarily about what we do, but rather about what God does. God has made us and saved us. God’s actions are the actions that are at the heart of the gospel. Therefore, the stance of a Christian is primarily a stance of openness, a stance of receptivity. It is only when we can receive the gift that God offers that we know what salvation is truly about.
So what is it that we are called to receive? The three gifts help here—gold, frankincense, myrrh—value, mystery, pain. The first gift is the gift of gold, a gift of great value and worth. It points to the value and worth of our own lives. We are persons of great worth. God has made us so. God has instilled in us a dignity that is a part of who we are. That dignity is nothing we can earn and nothing that we can lose by failure or sin. We are called, then, to believe in our worth and dignity even when we doubt ourselves, even when we mess things up. The value and worth of our own being is the first gift that God gives us. We must be willing to receive it, if we are to be followers of Christ.
The gift of frankincense is a mysterious perfume, and it points to the mysterious action of God in our lives. God has a plan. God has a plan for us and for the world. God is always working to unfold that plan through all the relationships and opportunities of our lives. Our life is much more than the decisions we make, the plans that we form. Beneath our actions and our decisions is the mysterious impulse of God, blessing us, changing us, leading us forward. It is a mystery we cannot control. We can only accept it and cooperate with it. That mysterious presence of God’s loving action in our life is the second gift which God offers us. We must receive it, if we are to understand the gospel.
Myrrh is the ointment of death, and it points to the unavoidable pain which is a part of all of our lives. None of us can avoid evil or pain, whether that comes from hurt, rejection, failure, sickness, or grief. But in faith we believe that such pain, as real and as deep as it is, cannot negate our worth and dignity as people. Nor can it frustrate or derail the mysterious plan of God that somehow moves forward despite all that opposes it. Pain in our life is unavoidable, but the reality of that pain need not destroy us. Believing that God’s plan will succeed even in the presence of pain is the third gift that God offers us. We must be willing to receive it, if we are to understand the gospel.
Being a faithful Christian is not about doing. It is about receiving. This is why the first action of Jesus in the gospels is to receive the gifts of the wise men. Jesus receives gold, frankincense, and myrrh to remind us that we need to receive the value of our own person, the mystery of God’s action in our life, and the reality that pain and evil cannot stop the plan of God. Those are three gifts we need to receive, for it is only by accepting them that we can follow Christ and fulfill the promise of Christmas.
Mud or Stars
January 3, 2010
Matthew 2: 1 – 12
I entered the seminary when I was in the 9th grade. That might seem premature and perhaps even reckless by today’s standards, but the 1960’s were a very different age. I decided I wanted to be a priest, and so I threw myself into preparation at the seminary with all the confidence and bravado that only a 15 year old could muster. It was not long however, that I began to have doubts. The seminary was not what I thought it would be. I missed my family. The studies were much harder than I anticipated. The food, well the food was terrible. I began to wonder whether this was the right choice, whether this is what I really should do. Now it those days, we could not have visitors, and we were only allowed one phone call home a week. So I ended up writing lots of letters. I remember writing to a friend and saying that I was thinking of leaving the seminary. I received a letter back encouraging me to stay. It included in it a little poem which I still remember it. It goes like this: “Two men looked out of their prison bars. One saw mud, the other stars.”
Now the poem is very simplistic, and maybe even a little corny. But it got me thinking. I new what the issues were in the seminary and what I didn’t like. But I had not focused on what might be good in my situation. If I could find the good things in the seminary, focus on the stars rather than the mud, perhaps it would make a difference. I followed that advice, and here I am today.
I thought of this poem on the feast of the Epiphany because it is certainly true that the wise men had all kinds of reasons to stay at home. If they would have chosen to focus on how difficult the journey would be, how others might make fun of them because they were dreamers, or the possibility that the Christ Child would not accept their gifts, they would have stayed where they were in the East. But the Magi set their sights higher than their fears and their doubts. They looked to the star, and the star led them to the Christ Child. These strangers from the East became among the first ones to worship the Jewish Messiah.
Now the point of this homily is not simply we should be positive thinkers. That is much too simplistic. There are bad things in this world and sometimes those bad things happen to us. At times there is no amount of perspective or attitude that can protect us from evil. Yet having said that, it is also true that we usually see the things upon which we focus. We usually find the things that we are looking for. So why not look for the things that are good rather then the things that are bad? Rather then centering on all the things that are wrong, why not look and search out those things for which to be thankful, for which to be joyful.
I think we all know people who are examples of this kind of living. I remember a man from our parish, an elderly man but full of life and energy. He was always the center of the fun, always the one who would make others laugh. One day he came and shared with me that his health was failing and he would need to check himself into a retirement home. For many people moving into that kind of facility would have been the end of life, a reason to give up, a reason to despair. But not this man. He told me, “Father, it’s going to be good. I am going to meet some new people and I am going to have some new opportunities.” I watched him as the months passed by. It was good. He made new friends. He became involved in new activities. He came to that situation expecting goodness and he found it. He brought joy, and the joy be brought he shared with others.
On this feast of the Epiphany the Gospel challenges us to look for the positive things in our life. Where should we look for goodness? Who are the people, the situations, the issues that are pulling us down? Can we not ask God to help us see them differently? Is there the possibility that there might be some goodness that we are overlooking? Yes, there are things that discourage us, but are there not also reasons for hope? On this feast of the Epiphany let’s pray that God will guide us to what is good, that God will give us the light that we need. God led the Magi to the Christ Child. God did not lead them astray. I believe there is every reason to trust that God will do the same thing for us. But first, we need to move our eyes off of the mud and onto the stars.
Fleeing as a Virtue
January 3, 2016
Today’s gospel is a beautiful story. It contains the Magi, precious gifts, and a guiding star. But we would be remiss not to admit that these beautiful elements take place in a dark context. And that context is violence. The violence is connected to King Herod, a noted character of the ancient world, known for his cruelty and his willingness to slaughter even members of his own family in order to retain his hold on power. The violence of King Herod impacts the characters in today’s gospel, and we would be wise to pay attention on how they respond to it.
When we are confronted by unjust, violent power, there are two options. We can fight that power or we can flee from it. The characters in today’s gospel choose the second option. When the Magi realize the deceit of King Herod, they understand that returning to him as he had ordered them to do might result in their imprisonment or death. So they flee. They return to their own country by a different road. In the next scene of Matthew’s gospel Joseph discovers that Herod is planning to kill the Christ child. So he takes Mary and Jesus and flees to Egypt.
Normally, we might consider that fleeing from evil is something weak, a kind of failure. But today’s gospel makes clear that there are times where fleeing is a virtue. Sometimes fleeing from violence is the only way to protect our families and ourselves.
I wish that I could tell you that in the two thousand years since Jesus’s birth, violence had been eradicated from our world. But, the truth is that millions of people face violence on a daily basis. The latest statistics tell us that 30% of American families face domestic violence at one time or another in their relationship. Thirty percent—that’s a big number. Almost one-third of American families must face the threat of verbal or physical abuse in their most intimate setting. It may be possible to fight such violence, to confront it through communication and counseling. But if that violence remains, it could well prove a virtue to flee it, to leave the abuse behind.
Nor is violence limited only to our homes. Since 2011, over 9 million people have fled the violence in Syria. This movement of people is the greatest migration since World War II. We should not conclude that those who made that choice were somehow weak or lazy. It takes great courage to leave what you know behind, take what you can carry, and begin an uncertain and dangerous journey. There is every reason to believe that those who made that choice did so in order to protect their own lives and the lives of their family.
It is because of this migration of people in Europe and also, I believe, because of this week’s gospel, that the American bishops have named this week as National Migration Week. They do this to remind us that fleeing violence is a basic human right. Moreover, we who are willing to welcome refugees are welcoming the stranger, who later in Matthew’s gospel we discover is Jesus himself.
So during this National Migration Week, we should be thankful if we live in families and in a country where there is no violence to flee. At the same time, we should support those in our families and in our world who decide that fleeing is the choice they must make. Fleeing is not necessarily failure. It can be following the example of the Holy Family, who left their home behind in order to protect the child Jesus.
Politics and Religion
January 6, 2019
Some people would say that you should never discuss political issues in church. Is this a rule we should accept or not? It depends on what we mean by political. If, by political, we mean promoting a particular political party or extolling or criticizing a particular politician, then this kind of dialogue is inappropriate to a church setting. But if what we mean by political is the way that certain moral values are either supported or diminished by our government policies, then that kind of political dialogue is not only acceptable but necessary when we come together to pray.
You see, Jesus did not come into this world simply to show us how to get to heaven. Jesus came into this world to show us how we are to live with one another in this world according to justice and to love. So when our government, or any government, adopts policies that are contrary to Jesus’ teaching, then we, as followers of Jesus, should not only know about it but discuss it. In this sense, being religious is always political.
This truth is on display in today’s gospel. Although we usually focus on the magi offering their gifts to the Christ child as represented in our Christmas crib, the story of the magi takes place in a context that is profoundly political. In fact, the majority of the gospel passage is not about the magi but about King Herod who was the political ruler at the time of Jesus’ birth. Herod’s political agenda was to keep his power and to eliminate the Christ child whom he saw as a threat. We learn from another place in the gospel that Herod ordered the execution of all the children in Bethlehem under two years of age. His agenda forced Joseph to take Jesus and Mary and flee to Egypt. Thus, the holy family became a refugee family, fleeing from the oppression of Herod. It is hard to get more political than that, and it’s right there in the gospel story.
So, like Jesus, we live in a world where religion and politics overlap. We are also fortunate to live in a democracy where we have a voice and a vote to influence the policies we believe are just. Whether you are Democrat or Republican, if you are a follower of Jesus, you respect the value of human life, whether that is human life in the womb or providing education and nourishment to the poor. Whether you believe that we should or should not build a wall on our southern border, if you are a follower of Jesus, you recognize the human freedom to begin life in another country through immigration, and you should insist that our government officials develop a just immigration policy that not only protects our borders but also treats those who would try to live among us with respect. Whether you are for or against Obamacare, if you are a follower of Jesus, you realize that there is a human right to adequate health care, just as there is a human right to food.
The church is not a place for partisan debates or political campaigning, but the church is a place where the followers of Jesus come to recommit ourselves to seeing that his teachings have an impact on our society. When the magi realized that the political agenda of Herod was violent and unjust, they refused to cooperate with it. Whenever we recognize that governmental policies are opposed to the teaching of Jesus, we should have the courage to speak out against them with all our strength.