Tag Archives: Magi

The Mass Readings after Epiphany

DSC00036

The gospel readings at Mass for the week after the Feast of the Epiphany may not seem connected to that great feast, but they are.

The Magi who come to find the King of the Jews represent the nations, the gentiles, to whom Jesus comes as Savior.  In our readings for Monday Jesus, grown in wisdom and age and grace, begins his public ministry after his baptism by John, going into Galilee, “the Galilee of the Gentiles,” Matthew’s gospel calls it. Jesus brings  light “to a people who sit in darkness.” In Galilee he first fulfills the promise made to the Magi.

Baptized by John, Jesus continues his mission, repeating the very words John used to define his ministry: “Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand.” But Jesus goes beyond John, who acknowledges “I am not the Messiah; I am sent before him.(Saturday, John 3,22-3)  Jesus calls a gentile world as well as a Jewish world to turn to God; he is the kingdom of God at hand.

Humanly speaking, it wasn’t a good time to begin such a mission. It’s “after John was arrested,” a dangerous time. Galilee, when Jesus began his mission, was ruled by Herod Antipas, who imprisoned John and then beheaded him. (Matthew 4, 12-25)

But God’s time is not our time. It probably wasn’t a good time either for the Magi to come to Bethlehem, in the days of Herod the Great. But God’s ways are not our ways. That’s important to remember. We can miss the time of grace and its opportunities when we think of time in too human a way.

God could not possibly act now? Why not?

Accounts of the miracle of the loaves and the crossing of the Sea of Galilee from Mark’s gospel are read on Tuesday and Wednesday of this week. Commentators note that Mark uses the Sea of Galilee as a stormy path Jesus takes to reach the gentile world of his day. Those on the other side of the lake are given the samef Bread that he provided for the children of Israel.

It’s to “all of Galilee” that Jesus goes and “as a consequence of this his reputation traveled the length of Syria, They carried to him all those afflicted with various diseases and racked with pain: the possessed, the lunatics, the paralyzed. He cured them all.” (Matthew 4, 23-25)

Galilee is the “Galilee of the gentiles.”

The Epiphany

We’re into the New Year and automatically we wonder about the future. We can’t avoid it. We’re wondering what this year is going to bring. What’s coming?

Living in a secular age as we do, we see things mainly with eyes for the here and now, which often boils down to politics and economics. What’s the country going to be like under President Trump? What’s the economy going to be like? Unfortunately when we look at things only like that, we can end up being small minded. We can think that what we see and hear and touch now is all there is. We lose a larger vision of life.

We need the spark, the light, of revelation.

Can we see that light in the mystery of the Epiphany we celebrate today? It begins with a star, guiding some travelers on their way. Can this mystery lift up our secular minds and point out something more? Is our world being guided by a Star?

To start, let’s not see the story of the Magi as a cute story of some people riding on camels coming to see Jesus. More than that, it’s a revelation of God’ divine plan which carries news for us and our world, and it’s as important now as it was then.

The Magi story is only found in the Gospel of Matthew, who was writing for Jewish Christians in Galilee and the Syria about the end of the first century. The temple of Jerusalem was recently destroyed and Jewish Christians like other Jews were facing an unknown, disturbing future. When Jesus came to them, he began his mission saying to the Canaanite woman, who pleaded for a cure for her daughter, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” (Mt 15;24)  “Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel,” Jesus first told the twelve whom he sent out to preach. (Mt 10, 5) It looked as though the promises of God were for the Jews and them alone.

But that made the promises of God too small.

Matthew’s story of the Magi was a reminder that the gospel was meant for others besides. Jesus came for all, though his ministry was first to the Jews. God wants the world to be one family and he wishes his gifts and graces be given to many peoples and places. God doesn’t save a few.

The Magi may have come from present day Iran or Yemen; two places we hardly view positively today. We tend to see ourselves a privileged people and our own country a promised land. God is on our side. Better to leave the rest of the world to its wars, its earthquakes, its immigrants, its divisions, its problems. As the old song once said, let’s find “perfect peace, where joys never cease, and let the rest of the world go by.”

We can’t let the rest of the world go by. The story of the Magi reminds us we live in a big world that God means to be one. The story of the Magi is not a sweet story about people on camels who looked and dressed and spoke differently than us. They’re symbols of the world beyond ours that’s called by God to share in his promises.

And the newcomers come with gifts.

Noah’s ark, the Magi, the Slaughter of the Innocents

Noah’s ark, the Magi, the Slaughter of the Innocents. “They’re just myths,” you hear it said. I don’t like those stories dismissed that way, because it easily leads to a further dismissal: ”Is any of it true? Probably not.”

We think straight reporting is the only thing true. “Just the facts, Mam.” Everything else is fake news. But are these stories fake?

“The Secrets of Noah’s Ark” a recent Nova program on PBS examining the biblical story makes good sense to me. In early times, floods were common in the “Fertile Crescent” the area in Mesopotamia {modern Iraq} where the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers and the ancient city of Babylon were located. So you had to keep boats handy– you never know.

You had to be ready for a great flood too, but people have short memories and people then, as now, tend to forget “the big ones.” “As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. In those days before the flood, they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, up to the day that Noah entered the ark. They did not know until the flood came and carried them all away.” (Matthew 24, 37-38)

I suspect some Babylonian priests– meteorologists and story tellers of their time– came up with a flood story thousands of years before the Noah story to keep the people of their day on their toes – and maybe challenge some early climate change deniers too. It reinforced important advice: “ Keep your boats in good shape and make sure there’s also a big boat around for ‘the big one.’”

dsc00301

Exile of Jews  to Babylon

In 587 BC, thousands of Jews were driven from Jerusalem, destroyed by Babylonian armies, and were forced to make the thousand mile journey in Babylon. It was their Exile. When they heard the story of the great flood they saw it as a symbol of their own tragic circumstances. “By the rivers of Babylon, we sat and wept, remembering Zion.” (Psalm137)

Returning from exile, the Jews incorporated their version of the flood story into the Torah. It became a reminder to keep the covenant God made with them and beware of living unfaithfully as “in the days of Noah.”

Does real history underlie the story of the Magi and the Slaughter of the Innocents? Begin with Herod the Great, ruler of Palestine then, whom secular sources and many archeological monuments from the time describe quite well. Herod was a micro-manager who built fortified palaces in Jerusalem, the Herodium outside Bethlehem and other places to keep watch over his kingdom.

dsc00291-version-4

Citadel, Herod’s Palace Fortress, Jerusalem

fullsizerender

Herodium, Mountain Fortress of Herod the Great

He promoted trade with the outside world; he built the seaport of Caesarea Maritima on the Mediterranean Sea and cultivated the trade routes from Yemen and other eastern parts that led all the way to Rome. He would have kept tabs on those arriving with spices and luxury goods of all kinds. He knew who came and went.

Were the Magi wealthy eastern traders, quite knowledgeable about the religious world of the people with whom they traded? Did they hear of the Child in Bethlehem? Herod’s advisors and everyone else knew Bethlehem was associated with the legendary King David and there were prophecies about an heir to his throne coming from there. Did the foreigners visit the Child, bring their gifts, gold, frankincense and myrrh, the prizes of their trade, and then quickly leave, well aware of Herod’s paranoia, quick temper and brutality.

Given Herod’s jealous hold on power, the story of the slaughter of the Innocents in Matthew’s Gospel doesn’t seem unlikely, True, it’s not mentioned in any secular source, but neither are many other tragic stories of the time. Bethlehem, after all, was a small town, off the beaten track. The death of perhaps 20 or so infants might go unnoticed and be quickly forgotten.

Matthew’s story is hardly a myth. Rather, it sees things through God’s eyes. The star points to the real power guiding human history; the magi represent the rest of the world coming to adore the Child. Angelic powers are always at our side. The slaughtered infants are like so many tragic deaths that seem to question God’s promise of life, but God doesn’t forget, the story says, even if human history doesn’t remember. “The souls of the just are in the hands of God and no torment shall touch them.”

If you ever visit Bethlehem, go to see the Herodium, Herod’s massive fortified palace looking down on the nearby town. Joseph wouldn’t need much urging to take the Child and his mother from this place,would he? Go to the Citadel in Jerusalem built on the highest spot in the city. You can walk where Herod once walked and imagine him looking down on his kingdom. But it was not his kingdom, after all, it was God’s. Go to Caesaria Martima, the splendid port city created by Herod. Did the Magi’s caravans reach here?

Then ask yourself if the stories of Jesus’ birth and infancy are myths.

dsc00006

Caesaria Maritima

The Epiphany

Audio version of homily here:

 

Today, the Feast of the Epiphany, we remember the mysterious visitors from afar who came seeking the new-born King of the Jews. (Matthew 2,1-12)

Years ago, I remember wandering through the catacombs of Rome where early Roman Christians buried their dead. On the burial places of their loved ones they scratched the name of the deceased, little symbols and prayers, sometimes a picture from the bible.

 

In the catacombs of Priscilla there’s a 3rd century grave that belongs to a Roman woman named Severa. Her simple profile appears with an inscription that reads, “Severa, may you live with God.”

Beside the inscription are figures of the three Magi coming with their gifts to the little Child sitting on Mary’s lap. Over the Child is a star and the figure of a man, probably Balaam, the prophet who predicted a star would announce a new king in Judea. (Numbers 24,15-19)

What did this mean to her, you wonder? Surely Severa believed the Child brought eternal life to her and others like her. Perhaps she was baptized on the feast of the Epiphany, the oldest of the Christmas feasts, the most important day after Easter for baptisms in Rome and other western churches.

 

 

Her faith, which she would have expressed in the Apostles’ Creed, is the same as ours today. God made this world and guides it to its destiny. Jesus Christ is God’s Son, born of Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and was buried. On the third day he rose from the dead.

Severa believed in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body and life everlasting.

The Roman woman knew, too, the story of the Magi and Herod, the powerful king, who threatened the life of the new born Child. The power emperors who ruled Rome then were so much like the ruthless king, but Severa knew the Child was more powerful than them all. He would bring her to another world, God’s world.

“Severa, may we live with you in God.”

 

The Big Picture: The Magi

This is the time of the year when people make predictions about the future. It’s a time to look back and look forward.

Our local newspaper on Friday in Hudson County featured the predictions of a local psychic about the future of our mayor, our governor, our senator and a variety of local politicians. Psychics are big this time of year.

The host of PBS’s Newshour the other night asked his two experts to talk about the big picture ahead. “What does it look like?” They talked about the “Tea Party,” possible roll-backs in the health care program, the new Republican majority in Congress. That’s about as far as they went. I would guess the cable news channels talked about the same things from even a narrower perspective: politics and economics–American politics and the American economic picture.

Something’s missing. Our “big picture” is really a small picture. We seem to lack of larger vision of life.

We live in a secular age, an age of “expressive individualism.”(Charles Taylor) One of the drawbacks of the secular mind is its tendancy to be small-minded, to concentrate on the here and now, on what we see and do, on our personal interests. Even believers are part of a secular age and share its tendancies.

The secular age needs the spark of revelation.

What about the mystery of the Epiphany we celebrate today? Can it bring sparks to secular minds?

Let’s take the gospel story of the Magi out of its Christmas card setting and ask what its all about. The Magi were strangers, people coming from afar, bringing gifts. They recognized the Child whom others did not see. Then, we may surmise, they brought news of him back to their own people and part of the world.

The other day I was talking to a young priest from my community in Kenya, an African who’s studying now in Chicago. He was asking me about the new media and how to reach others through it. He wants to learn as much as he can from us, but he also thinks that Africa has something to offer the world, and his church in Kenya as something to contribute to the church beyond it.

Is he the Magi coming to us today?

Matthew’s gospel is the only gospel with the story of the Magi. The gospel was written for Jewish Christians in Galilee and the neighboring areas and it emphasizes that Jesus came first to them. “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel,” Jesus tells the Canaanite woman, a gentile pleading for a cure for her daughter. (Mt 15;24)  “Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel,” Jesus instructs the twelve as he sends them out earlier in his gospel. (Mt 10, 5)

Were these stories Matthew’s way to bolster the faith of  Jewish Christians beset by a powerful Jewish orthodoxy that questioned their belief in Jesus Christ? Was Matthew’s story of the magi also a reminder that the gospel was meant for others besides them?

Jesus came to save all, even though his first ministry was to the Jews. God  saves the world and his gifts and graces are in many peoples and places. He doesn’t save the few.

We live in a big world that’s meant to be one. It’s not a world to be ignored. Great gifts and burdens are there, gifts and burdens meant to be shared. An earthquake in Haiti, for example,  is our tragedy too.  A worldwide depression is our problem too. More  and more, we tend to demonize the Muslim world. The Magi may have come from present day Iran or Yemen; two places we hardly view positively today.

We are tending to demonize immigrants in our own country today. Many of us are descendants of immigrants who came here with gifts and burdens. When they first arrived, those here often saw them only as burdens to this country. We know better.

The story of the Magi is not a sweet story about camels and men dressed in strange rich robes. It’s about the big picture, a picture we should see.

Do You See What I See?

The liturgy goes slowly through the mysteries of Christ, because  we can’t know them  in a few minutes or a few hours of worship, not in a day. It takes time, a lifetime.

And so we prolong the Epiphany feast for a week in our liturgy, hoping to see what the Magi saw.

“In choosing to be born for us, God chose to be known by us. He therefore reveals himself in this way, in order that this great sacrament of his love may not be an occasion for us of great misunderstanding.

Today the Magi find, crying in a manger, the one they have followed as he shone in the sky. Today the Magi see clearly, in swaddling clothes, the one they have long awaited as he lay hidden among the stars.

Today the Magi gaze in deep wonder at what they see: heaven on earth, earth in heaven, man in God, God in man, one whom the whole universe cannot contain now enclosed in a tiny body. As they look, they believe and do not question, as their symbolic gifts bear witness: incense for God, gold for a king, myrrh for one who is to die.

So the Gentiles, who were the last, become the first: the faith of the Magi is the first fruits of the belief of the Gentiles.” (St.Peter Chrysologus)

The Magi came searching; their questions seek answers. For now, their questions rest  “in deep wonder”  before the Child.

The Feast of the Epiphany

The Feast of the Epiphany, celebrated today by all the mainline Christian churches of the east and the west, is a reminder of the universal call to salvation. 

As the Magi come to Bethlehem from afar, so all nations are invited to share in the promise of Jesus Christ. 

St. Leo the Great’s homily for today sees that promise made long ago to Abraham, who was told by God that his offspring would be as many as the stars in the sky.

“Let the full number of the nations take their place in the family of the patriarchs…In the persons of the Magi, let all people adore the Creator of the universe; let God be known, not only in Judea, but in the whole world…

This is the day that Abraham saw, and rejoiced to see…”

We should be like the star, drawing others who are far off, to know Christ, the saint says.

Like all mysteries, the mystery of the Epiphany is not over. It continues. How shall the nations of today, the peoples of the world, be led to Christ? How can we shine in the darkness, like the star, and lead them to the Child, the Word made flesh?

For more on the Epiphany, see 

http://www.cptryon.org/prayer/adx/x3k.html