January 6, 2018
Following Up on Divine Guidance
Gn 12.1-5, Mt 2-1-12
I have a QUIZ for you about the Bible stories we just heard: How old was Abraham when he pulled up tent stakes and followed God’s guiding to a destination God did not yet reveal? ANS: 75. It is more than 500 more miles from Haran to Canaan—Did Abraham own a 4-wheel drive Humvie or ATV?
How old were the Magi when they followed the guiding star to Bethlehem?
ANS: Old enough to be called wisemen.
“Epiphany” means to gain a new grasp of reality (usually through something simple and striking). Epiphanies happen when people are moved to search for possibilities where they had previously found very little new or exciting.
Ongoing “spirit of expectancy or hope” and active searching for possibilities open us up to amazing revelations. So what new insights can we grasp from the Bible stories about the wise men who follow a guiding star and Abraham who follows God’s command to go where God would lead him?
Their experiences were almost as simple as the childhood game of Simon Says: God says take three hops forward, so take three hops forward. If we move without Simon directing us, we have to return to start all over again. Most of us usually do not literally hear God telling us what to do. Even so, if we are spiritually attuned, we can discern God’s leading.
Given the time I took off for the holidays, I am relying on a far better source than me to interpret the Gospel story from Matthew. The wisemen came different cultures and distant countries and practiced very different Asian religions, so I turn to a Roman Catholic wiseman, Pope Francis. What follows is excerpts from last year’s brief Epiphany sermon by Pope Francis:* I hope we will take in the counsel of Pope Francis—for our own lives and for this church.
Three actions of the Magi guide our own journeys towards the Lord, who is revealed as light and salvation for all people. The Magi see the star, they set out and they bring gifts.
First: The wisemen see the star. Seeing is where it starts. But why did the Magi alone see the star? Perhaps few people raise their eyes to heaven.
We often make do with looking at the ground: it’s enough to have our health, a little money and a bit of entertainment. I wonder if we still know how to look to the sky. Do we know how to expect the newness God brings, or do we let ourselves be swept along by life, like dry branches before the wind?
The Magi were not content with just getting by. They understood that to truly live, we need a lofty goal and we need to keep looking up.
Why others did not follow that star, “his star”? (Mt 2:2) Perhaps Jesus’ star does not dazzle or overwhelm, but gently invites. We can ask ourselves what star we chose to follow. Some stars may be bright—like success, money, career, honors or pleasures. They may blaze quickly but their brilliance fades. Or, shooting stars that mislead may capture our attention. The Lord’s star is always there: it leads and accompanies us. It does not promise material reward, but ensures peace and grants “exceedingly great joy,” as it did for the Magi. (Mt 2:10).
The star also beckons us to set out. Embarking on the journey is essential
if we hope to find Jesus. His star demands a decision to take the journey.
Many of us may sincerely believe that we have already seen Jesus and rest in our comfortable chairs. We try to convince ourselves that it’s enough to listen to once-a-week re-runs of the story of Christ. Not so. The journey to find Christ is an ongoing adventure and challenge—no matter how many years we have known the Christmas story. The Christ star beckons us to free ourselves from useless burdens and unnecessary extras that only prove to be hindrances.
To find Jesus, we also need to get up and go, not sit around and contemplate. The journey entails taking risks. And, inevitably, we will have to adapt to circumvent unforeseen obstacles on the journey. Jesus makes demands. He tells those who seek him to leave behind the armchair of worldly comforts and the reassuring warmth of familiarity. If we want to find Jesus, we have to overcome our fears, our self-satisfaction and stop refusing to ask anything more of life. We need to take risks. Yet those risks are immensely worth the effort, since in finding that Child, in discovering his tenderness and love, we rediscover ourselves and a fuller potential for loving others. God offers freedom and joy—always and only in the course of a journey.
Setting out is not easy. The Gospel shows how a number of characters reacted to this challenge. Mary faithfully accepts the journey she would face. God called people from other cultures to follow his star—and the foreign wisemen saw the light and set out on the difficult journey to Bethlehem. And, there is King Herod, wild with fear that the birth of a king will threaten his power. So Herod organizes meetings and sends people out to gather information, yet he himself does not budge; he stays in his palace. “All Jerusalem” (v. 3) is afraid: afraid of the new things God is bringing about. They want everything to remain as it was – and the way it has always been. No one there has the courage to leave their familiar life.
The reticence of the priests and scribes is subtle: The story in Matthew discloses that they know the exact birth place and even tell it to Herod, quoting ancient prophecy. They know, but they themselves make no move towards Bethlehem. Their inaction is all too common for those who are used to being believers: those who have been believers for years can talk at length about the faith they know so well, but for the most part, longtime believers do not take personal risks for their faith. Many longtime believers do not ofpray, often; they too rarely engage in Christian study or spiritual practices besides attending worship. They often complain, but usually do little to actually promote faith in the world. In contrast, the Magi talk little and journey much. Ignorant of the doctrines, rules and details of faith, they are filled with spiritual longing and set out. The Gospel tells us: They “came to worship him” (v. 2): “they set out; they went in, and they fell down and worshiped him; and they went back” (vv. 9, 11, 12). They kept moving.
Bringing gifts. Having come to Jesus after a long journey, the Magi do as Jesus does: they bring gifts. Jesus is there to give his life; they offer him their own costly gifts: gold, incense and myrrh. The journey results in giving. To give freely, for the Lord’s sake, without expecting anything in return: this is the sure sign that we have found Jesus. Jesus explained: “The gift you have received, give freely as a gift” (Mt 10:8). This may mean doing good without counting the cost, even when unasked, even when you gain nothing thereby; even if it is unpleasant. Jesus asks us to offer something for those who have nothing to give in return: the hungry, the stranger in our land, the prisoner, and the poor (cf. Mt 25:31-46). We give a gift pleasing to Jesus when we care for a sick person, spend time with a difficult person, help someone for the sake of helping, or forgive someone who has hurt us. These gifts cannot be lacking in the lives of Christians. Jesus reminds us that if we only love those who love us, we do as the pagans do (cf. Mt 5:46-47). Today let us look at our actions, so often empty of love, and let us try to think of some gift that we can give without expecting anything in return. That will please the Lord. And let us ask him: “Lord, let me rediscover the joy of giving”.
Dear brothers and sisters, let us imitate the Magi: May we see to discern divine guidance, set out to follow that guidance, and freely offer our gifts.
Addendum: The whole tradition of Christmas presents began with the story of the wise men bringing gifts. Christina Rosetti captured the essence of what Christ wants from us:
What can I give him, poor as I am? If I were a shepherd, I would bring him a lamb. If I were a wise man, I would do may part. Yet what can I give him? Give him my heart.
A young boy added to that wisdom when he explained what the wise men brought to the baby Jesus: gold frankincense and humor. We could all use that!