When Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, in the days of King Herod, behold, magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem, saying, “Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We saw his star at its rising and have come to do him homage.” When King Herod heard this, he was greatly troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. Assembling all the chief priests and the scribes of the people, He inquired of them where the Christ was to be born. They said to him, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for thus it has been written through the prophet: And you, Bethlehem, land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; since from you shall come a ruler, who is to shepherd my people Israel.” Then Herod called the magi secretly and ascertained from them the time of the star’s appearance. He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search diligently for the child. When you have found him, bring me word, that I too may go and do him homage.” After their audience with the king they set out. 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. Then they opened their treasures and offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed for their country by another way.
I’m particularly fond of reading the works of former Episcopalians or Anglicans who have become Catholic. One of the more famous converts is St. Elizabeth Seaton whom we remembered especially last Wednesday, January 4th. And of course we have Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman and G.K. Chesterton. Another is Father John Jay Hughes, member of a New England Brahmin family of prominent Episcopalians. He was a direct descendant of his name sake, John Jay, founding father, diplomat, signer of the Declaration of Independence and first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.
Father Hughes suffered a good deal of scorn and rejection when he “swam the Tiber,” as we regularly say about those who symbolically cross the Roman river to convert to Catholicism. I had the chance to have lunch with Fr. Hughes a few years ago and I’m happy to say I’ve read several of his works. He wrote quite a lot and had some important things to say.
One of the things I read was a homily on the Epiphany. I’m going to share his salient points with you this morning. It is a reflection on the Gospel lesson. It’s really quite simple, but there’s a great deal of food for thought. (Hughes, Proclaiming the Good News Year A)
Fr. Hughes lays out the behavior of the Magi as a commendation for our ongoing faithfulness. The passage from St. Matthew’s Gospel is a symbolic “road to piety” if you will.
First Fr. Hughes noted that the Magi spent their lives searching the heavens for signs of divine behavior. And when they saw the star in the East they didn’t stay put but they began to search for the spot where the star would lead them. We can easily see how their friends and family and colleagues could have been dismissive, even derisive of this decision. To set out in the face of ridicule, on what many would have considered to be a fool’s errand took courage and trust. (As an aside, I had to think that Fr. Hughes may have been speaking autobiographically, perhaps at an unconscious level for to follow the quest to the Catholic Church from another well-entrenched belief system does bring about a good deal of derision from family, friends and colleagues. I can attest to this personally.)
Moving on, it takes nerve to seek the fullness of the truth of Christ Jesus. The Messiah’s proclamations and standards are often in contradiction with the world and even other religious traditions. The call to love our enemies, to forgive those who oppress us and to acknowledge that He alone is “The way, the truth and the life” fly in the face of all other faiths. And the Magi were of other faiths. Often in the quest for faithfulness one has to go counter to the prevailing standards and attitudes.
And to be faithful to the fullness of what the Church’s teaches in the face of great opposition can be daunting. I think so often of those who are willing to stand vigil outside the Planned Parenthood Center, frequently getting rude hand gestures and mouthed epithets from passersby. The Magi had such courage. They set out on their mad search and persevered until they accomplished their goal.
Fr. Hughes’ second point is that the Magi found the Messiah. They were rightly called “Wise Men.” The clever and cynical who mocked them, probably thought they were quite mad. In reality they possessed, along with courage and tenacity, the most superlative kind of wisdom there is: the spiritual humility and insight that first recognizes the unique call of God and then to follow that call regardless of the cost. As their search neared its end, the text tells us that they wore “overjoyed at seeing the star.” They were successful in the quest. They were vindicated. It was they who were proved wise; their critics were the fools. From the Wise Men’s point of view, they succeeded in their efforts, but in reality it was God who was seeking them. This is crucial, not only for them, but for us as well.
The story is told of a three-year-old who came home in tears. As the child’s mother dried her eyes, she asked why she was crying. “We played hide and seek. I hid. No one looked for me.”
We not only need to seek, we also need to understand that we are constantly being sought. When we realize that God is relentlessly seeking us, then we have the wisdom of the Magi.
But note that the Magi did not stop after attaining this wisdom. When they finally arrived at their destination, they fell down and worshipped the Messiah. Their act of worship included the best they had: wondrous gifts of Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh. If any here present think that worship entails coming and receiving only, you/we are sadly mistaken.
We need to make an offering when we worship. How really sad it is that for so many Catholics the Mass is the rather boring fulfillment of a legal obligation. As Fr. Hughes said, “No wonder so many come late and leave early, complaining that they ‘get nothing out of it.’” That’s probably because they brought nothing to it. Fr. Hughes then says that “If that is your problem, do what the wise men did. The answer is, give him something: your time, your talent, your treasure, your intentions, at the very least your attention.
The basic answer lies in the text of one of our Christmas Carols:
“What shall I give him—poor though I am?
If I were a shepherd—I would give a lamb,
If I were a wiseman—I would do my part,
What then shall I give him?—I give him my heart.”
Fr. Hughes goes on to say that each of us needs to offer God the best that we have: something precious, something costly. When we do that, then we will discover, even if only for a few fleeting minutes, the indescribable joy of self-forgetfulness, the joy of true worship.”
Then the Magi went home. And they went back changed. They had been touched by their experience, they had been touched by God. We return home from Mass each week after our direct reception of God, our reception of Jesus fully in the Mass: body and blood, soul and divinity. And we are changed, every time. And because of that change we have a message for others, as did the Magi. Our message is that God is not far off. In all our sorrows, in all our temptations, in all our frustrations and disappointments, and fears and anxieties and “busyiness,” our sufferings and difficulties, God is near, He is with us. Just as he is with us in our greatest joys and when we are bored. Fr. Hughes makes an interesting point: God is always near, even when we are far away from him.
When things are going sideways, we often assume that we must storm heaven with our prayers and sometimes that is necessary, more for our sake than for God’s but ironically even when we get frustrated in our searching, God is searching for us and upon finding us he leads us onward, drawing us to himself. That is the message of the Magi, that is the Gospel.
And when we grasp this Good News, the story begins over again: the seeing, the searching, the finding, the worshipping, the returning home.
This is the story of the Christian life, the royal road on which untold millions have walked, the road that God wants you and me to walk for the remaining 51 weeks of the new year, and for however more months and years that our journey will last until it ends in God. Then our journey and search and struggle will be over, because we will be home where there will be no more fatigue, no more sickness, no more death. Where God will wipe all tears from our eyes. Where we shall see him face to face.
Thank you Father Hughes for sharing this insight with us.