What are you all about?

The Feast of the Epiphany (C)

You won’t find the story of the Magi anywhere except in Matthew’s gospel. And what a colorful tale the gospel writer weaves.

The Magi, astrologers from distant lands, observed the rising of a new star, a sign of such significance it compels them to embark upon a journey to locate and pay homage to the new king whose birth the new star announced.

Thanks to imaginative stories and songs of Christian tradition (and the Fontanini figurines in our crèche), we envision three (although there is no account of the number of Magi) brocaded and crowned, educated and worldly noblemen, each perhaps from different parts of the Orient, traveling with their well-appointed, gift-laden camels, all following the same star, their paths merging on the way to their destination.

For the Magi, an event presaged by the appearance of a great star in the sky would be known by all, so upon their arrival in Jerusalem they ask, “Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We saw his star at its rising and have come to do him homage.” [Mt 2:2]

The Magi were motivated by faith to understand the meaning of the new star. They possessed the wisdom both to forge on until they stood in the presence of the infant Jesus, and to heed the warning in their dreams to take a different route home.

Today many would call the Magi “new-agers.” Followers of organized religion generally look askance at those who come with their astrology, dreams, and visions. We want them to know that we have all that we need in the Scriptures, the teachings of the Magisterium, and Canon law. We don’t want any of their weird interpretive phooey. And yet, these “new agers” were the ones Matthew tells us saw the sign and believed.

They packed their camels, left their homes, and committed themselves to paying homage to the Greatness—regardless of personal risk. They did not have access to the words of the Prophets or organized religion to assure them they were on the right track. They didn’t know how long their journey would be, or where they were going. And yet, they found what they were looking for and stood in the presence of the manifestation of God in the person of the newborn infant, Jesus.

What are you looking for? In the gospel of John, Jesus posed this question to the two disciples of John the Baptist, who were following him. They responded, “Where are you staying?” which is better translated as “What are you all about?” [John 1:38].  Moments earlier John pointed Jesus out to his disciples, saying, “Behold, the Lamb of God,” meaning, the one who will take away the sins of the world. As seekers, the disciples of John the Baptist recognized in Jesus something so compelling, they immediately began to follow him.

Like the Magi they were drawn by the light.

Naturally, King Herod, who actually was the appointed King of the Jews, found the Magi’s question about the whereabouts of the new King of the Jews disturbing. In contrast to John the Baptist, whose deference to Jesus—like the star that pointed to the new King of the Jews—Herod sought to destroy anything that might diminish his power and influence. The King Herods of the world believe it is better to dismiss or destroy people and ideas that threaten their certitude of how the world works, and how God works. The wisdom that newcomers bring is often deemed to be dangerous because it leads people to contemplate the questions residing deep in their hearts, and to do so in a new way.

We are not very different from the Magi, though, are we? Spiritual seekers desire the same thing: an experience of God, a profound insight into the workings of God, and some level of comprehension as to how we fit into it all. What we discover along the way is our Epiphany.

The disciples who followed Jesus asked him “Where are you staying?” (“What are you all about?”). This is what we want to know. What is Jesus all about? What is God all about? What is the Holy Spirit of God all about? Why do we continue to seek and to seek and to seek? And for the Magi, what is the meaning of this star in the sky that so forcefully compels them to follow it? What is the meaning of this helpless infant born to poor parents in a stable, a child whose crib is a feeding trough? And what are we to do with this?

Consider the epiphanies that have occurred throughout your life that might have been squashed had you been closed to them.

Be opened. Come, one and all. Seek the truth. Turn away from fear and other obstructions. Don’t be an obstacle yourself. Be small. The first to recognize Jesus’ greatness were Gentiles—pagans—who traveled from the East where the light begins. In Luke’s gospel, the first to visit the newborn Jesus were shepherds, the lowest of the low. [Luke 2:15-20]. Seek not through the eyes of certitude, but through the eyes of one who observes, who listens, and who ponders—like Mary. When newcomers arrive with information that points to the truth, and which exposes love, don’t be so quick to dismiss them. Jesus said, “Whoever is not against us is for us.” [Mk 9:40].

Happy Feast Day, all you Magi!

Today’s readings can be found here.

I’m the greatest!

25th Sunday of Ordinary Time (B)

When I was a kid my younger brother had a maddening habit of sneaking up behind me and whispering, “I’m the greatest!” He’d repeat this claim multiple times, driving 13 year-old me to, on occasion, throttle his little pencil neck. Sorry about that, brother, but what you didn’t understand was that I, your older and more fabulous sister, was the greatest. Ha!

But, seriously, the whole “I’m the greatest” thing and the need to prove it is not limited to sibling squabbles, it lies at the heart of every human conflict. Think about any one of the myriad disagreements surrounding what identifies a people, a nation, a culture, a political party, or what distinguishes an economy or power. Even in the adult family dynamic the need to be “number one” is responsible for conflicts that continue for generations. My theory, my religion, my politics, my needs, my suffering, and my personal goodness: no matter what it is mine is greater than yours.

This claim to greatness is connected to our sense of self-worth and as such, is fragile; it is easily threatened by external events and the needs or perceived greatness of others. How will this new thing or new, potentially better person affect me? What about my needs? I must prove my worth and stake my claim! Clearly, the general understanding of greatness is backward; it lacks justness, humility, compassion, and love.

The traits of true greatness, which also include self-awareness and empathy, create a culture of righteousness, of living in right relationship with others—the exact kind of righteousness the writer of the Letter of James exhorts his community to embrace. The passage begins, “Where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there is disorder and every foul practice.” [James 3:16] He goes on “Where do the wars and where do the conflicts among you come from? Is it not from your passions that make war within your members?” [James 4:1] Yes. Wars and conflicts do come from our self-serving passions.

Jesus attempts to teach his disciples about true greatness. When he predicted his death to his disciples Jesus told them, “The Son of Man is to be handed over to men and they will kill him, and three days after his death he will rise.” [Mark 9:31] The scripture goes on to say the disciples did not understand and were afraid to question Jesus. But when I read this, I can imagine the disciples thinking to themselves: “This can’t be. If what Jesus is saying is true, what will become of us?”

Theologian, John Shea, explains the disciples’ lack of response this way,” Since their focus was completely on themselves, they naturally were afraid for themselves.”*  I wonder if they even heard the part about “and three days after his death he will rise.” It’s like a case of selective listening; they jumped over it because their primary concern was “what about us?” Jesus was inviting them into a higher consciousness, but they, like us, were not yet ready to accept it. Instead, they began to argue amongst themselves who was the greatest, and perhaps, the most likely one to carry on Jesus’ ministry after he was gone.

But then Jesus makes the meaning of true greatness clear to the disciples: Greatness is not about you.

Earlier this week I was standing in front of my house talking to a good friend and neighbor. We were talking about flu shots. He and his wife had just gotten theirs. The conversation turned to the fact that in some known cases, the protection offered by childhood immunizations diminishes. My friend commented that he used to have mixed feelings about inoculations, but what he said next really struck me. He said he chooses to get annual flu shots and inoculations not so much to reduce his own chance of sickness but to help prevent someone else who is weaker from getting ill.

Now, who’s the greatest?

Jesus said, “if anyone wishes to be first, he shall be the last of all and the servant of all.” [Mark 9:35b]

Today’s readings can be found here. 

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*John Shea. 2005. The Spiritual Wisdom of Gospels for Christian Preachers and Teachers: Eating with the Bridegroom Year B. Year B edition. Collegeville, Minn: Liturgical Press. Page 230