“And behold, the star that they had seen at its rising preceded them, until it came and stopped over the place where the child was. They were overjoyed at seeing the star, and on entering the house they saw the child with Mary his mother. They prostrated themselves and did him homage.”
My Dear Friends in Christ,
It is a fantastic story: a powerful and vicious king in his palace insecure now that he is hearing hints of a usurper. Wise men led by a star in search of the new king have come from across the known world and make the politically incorrect move of stopping and asking the current earthly ruler where one might find his eternal successor. The chief priests and the scribes, the cognoscenti of the day offering up the location of Bethlehem, some backwater town to the south east of the mighty Jerusalem. Palace intrigue as the earthly king plots to keep his power and destroy any who would rain on his parade. And at the heart of it all, what sent the star skyward, what drew the wise men from their distant land, what caused Herod to quake in his fashionable boot, at the heart of it all is a small child, wrapped in swaddling clothes, protected by his mother in a little hut, perhaps even a cave.
It IS a fantastic story. But fantastic as it is, this story is not without lessons for us today, as disciples, right here in Frederick County at the start of the new calendar year of 2021. While I am sure that there are more, I would like to offer you five lessons that this ancient but fascinating story keeps relevant for us today.
- The wise men are astrologers. They study the stars and in the course of their learning and work, in the midst of their daily lives, they discern a message from God. A new star has appeared in the sky, a message from God that there is something beyond what they can see. That’s Number 1: in the course of our daily lives, God sends us messages. God wants us to know, not only that He is with us but that He wants us to draw us ever closer to Himself, moving us far beyond what we can see or discern with the senses. God offers us a gift to stop us in the midst of the daily grind and help deepen our faith. This message, this hint, was a star for the wise men but it will be different for us. It may be as mundane as realizing that you have just made all of the traffic lights between here and Frederick or it may be as profound as a newborn baby lifting his head for the first time. Perhaps it is a moment of fulfillment and peace in prayer. Perhaps it is a successful surgery or quicker than expected recovery. Whatever the message, we are called not only to relish the moment but to look beyond and allow ourselves to be drawn closer to the One who sent it.
- So the second lesson follows quickly on the first. The wise men, now aware of this hint of God, seek to go further.They want to know more. But they know that they can’t satisfy this longing where they are, so they head out on the road. That’s the second lesson. God has offered us the gift of faith and sends us hints to deepen that faith. But God will not force us to follow, nor mandate that we accept his gift. We have to do that on our own. Like the wise men, we must go in search of Jesus, attempting to go beyond what the message and draw closer to God and God’s love, closer to the very person of Jesus Christ.
- But, most likely it will not be an easy search which brings us to lesson three. The wise men brook no obstacles in their search and let no one deter them. Distance won’t deter them. They pack for the trip and come across the known world. Ignorance won’t deter them. They are not of the faith, they do not know Scripture or the prophets, so they head for the city of David, of whose line the Savior is promised and to the palace. After all, when one is looking for a king, one starts at the palace. The conniving of Herod and the incompetence of those who serve him won’t deter them. Despite all of that the wise men continue to be guided by the star beyond Jerusalem to that little town of Bethlehem. Even their own expectations don’t deter them; expecting the great warrior king, they are not led astray when all they find is the little child and his mother. The parallel lesson for us is obvious. We live in a world that either ignores our faith or attacks it as irrational and out of date. We live in a time where the internet gives every voice equal weight; the pope, the Church and her traditions, have no more say than the New York Times or CBS or You Tube. With our I-phones and I-pads and androids and e-mail and g-mail and wi-fi and 4G and 5G and High Def, we live at a pace that refuses us time to think let alone stop and smell the roses. We live in a world filled with suffering and meanness and pettiness and that’s just in our own hearts let alone across town or the nation or the globe. But like the wise men, we must persevere in our search for Jesus. Like them we can let no obstacle human or otherwise deter us. The journey will be long and difficult, but we are not unprepared. Find out what helps are available and cling to them: I think first of family and friends who love us and support us and strengthen us, who not only share our values but lift us up us on the journey, I think of the Church and the community here and the celebration of the sacraments, especially the Eucharist wherein God has promised not only to come to us but to remain with us: food for the journey. I think also of the teachings of the Church about life and justice and morality and marriage; these are rooted in the gospel and maintain their relevancy. Allow each of these all of these, to help you reach Christ.
- And when you reach Christ, you’ll need the fourth lesson. When they find Jesus, no matter the small hut, no matter the smallness of the outward trappings, no matter the size and age of the gurgling child, despite finding nothing of what they had expected, when they find Jesus they fall down and worship, without hesitation, no questions asked. And they offer him not only their worship but the finest gifts they have to offer. So too with us. We have fall down and worship Christ with our whole being, fully prostrate, humbled before the Lord of love. And then we have to offer the best gifts we have: Not Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh but these gifts, given to Jesus who was priest, prophet and king tell us something about our relationship with Jesus. Gold is the gift given to our king and so we return the treasure we have received to King of Kings. God has gifted it to us and now we return a portion of it to him. Frankincense is the gift given to a priest and used when he offers sacrifice. It symbolizes the time and efforts we offer in sacrifice to God, our time in public prayer such as coming together at Mass and also in quiet prayer which is necessary every day. And Myrrh is the gift given to the prophet. Now, it is not a very appropriate gift given at birth since its primary use is for embalming a dead body, but it speaks of the total sacrifice of the prophet who is called to proclaim the gospel not mere in speech but in action as well. We are called to proclaim the gospel by the way we reach out and help others, by the way we share our faith living and active in our world. In all of this, we must offer the gift of our whole self, our own will included, allowing God to lead us and our hearts where God wants them to be. This is true of where I am and what I believe. This is often the hardest to offer.
We don’t worship Jesus only in church, although that will certainly be part, but we must also worship Christ as we find him in one another even those who are challenges for us, especially those who are challenges for us. The appearance of the wise men: foreign, Gentile, wealthy, educated, cultured, sophisticated, socially connected, politically astute complements the appearance of the of the shepherds: indigenous, impoverished, uneducated, marginalized, socially distant, naïve, Jewish. Jesus came for all. This feast reminds us that all of humanity is part of a single family, a great big family of sisters and brothers, all children of one God. This great feast shows us not only the universal and catholic nature of the Church but also the interconnectedness of all humanity. No one is excluded from God’s plan, no one is beyond God’s love. And God’s love has the power to transform.
And that’s part of the last lesson to be learned from the wise men. Once they have met Jesus, once they have fallen down prostrate and truly worshipped, once they have offered their hearts as well as their gifts, they are forever changed. They can’t go back by the same route. So too with us, we have to be changed by our encounter with Jesus. It is not enough simply to think I can worship Jesus on Sunday and get away with thinking or doing or saying anything I want about anyone else. Once I have encountered Jesus, once I have offered my heart in worship, I have to think and act and speak like Jesus. This is what it means truly to worship: not only to adore but to think and act and speak like Christ, to be Christ for others. No easy task.
So, there you are, five lively but laconic leadership lessons liberated and lifted like leaven to be learned for life. But this feast has to means more to us than the average disciple because we have a special relationship to this feast. Holy Family parish was started as a community on this feast almost 40 years ago. So I ask you, I challenge you: how will you be different this year? How will you live the lessons of the wise men differently this year? How will you search more profoundly for the hints God is leaving to deepen your faith? How much further will journey and how much deeper will you look this year? How creative will you be in overcoming obstacles and in not being deterred? How quick will you be to worship Christ even when it is difficult or embarrassing or challenging? How fully will you offer up your gifts and will these truly be the best you have to offer? And then how will you be changed? What will the new route be after your encounter with Christ?
Because that is truly at the heart of it all. Our changed experience, our new route, our more gentle life after our encounter with Christ could very well be the message that starts someone else on his or her own journey. What God did by the light of the star, namely drew the wise men to Christ, now he does by the light of Christ himself, not shining in the sky but in our hearts and through our words and thoughts and actions, through our very lives.