— A Sermon by Robert W. Prim —
~~~ Epiphany of the Lord Sunday ~~~
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.”
When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: ‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.’”
Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.”
When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.
Sometimes the secular calendar and cultural practices line up with the church calendar and faith practices; this is one of those times. At the turn of the year on the solar calendar that guides our sense of secular time most everyone thinks in terms of “New Year’s Resolutions.” There is something about the drop of that ball or the turn of the page on the calendar or the writing of a different number on the end of the date – 2020! – when we are writing checks that makes our minds engage the idea that this might be a good time to say “out with the old, in with the new.”
The culture this month gives us some support in the belief that things in our world and in the way we live our lives do not have to stay the same. We as human beings have the ability to transcend, to overcome bad habits, to make a new way in the world. Such notions of changing for the better do not have as much cultural support in the month of February as those notions do right now in the first week of January.
Well, on this Sunday in the church year – a Sunday connected to the visit of the magi to the Christ child – we are given a similar message of transcendence and an invitation to a new way of being in the world. We are offered by this ancient story told at this time every year for those following the Church’s liturgical calendar some support for the idea that we as human beings are capable of re-mapping our lives. We as children of God have the capabilities for changing directions, changing habits, changing outlooks.
The story of the magi does not tell us that change comes easily. The strong inclinations in all of us are to stay with that which we have grown accustomed. All of us find comfort in the familiar and in the roads we have already traveled. All of us have a bit of inertia to moving in different directions when we are comfortable and seemingly insulated from struggle by our present positions in the world.
The magi do, however, remind us that we can break free of the inertia and chart a different future. The magi did it, and in the doing they demonstrate to us that it takes both initiative and openness to unfamiliar territory to find the way to the gospel truth of our lives. The magi teach us that we have to let go of our preconceived notions of how things work to find what might be a better way of being in the world. The magi, you remember, after they paid homage to Jesus and offered him their gifts went home by another road. They re-mapped; they changed direction; they became different in their approach to life.
The willingness to go take a different path did not start right after seeing the baby Jesus. This desire to re-map their lives had to have begun back where they were from…somewhere far east of Bethlehem. These magi, these wise ones, must have had a sense that something in their lives was not what it needed to be. They were, after all, men of means. They were, after all, men of
some learning. Their learning and their wealth, however, was not enough. Their hearts were restless. The magi sensed that life was not complete even though they were people of some prestige and place in their country of origin. The wise ones started at some point in their lives to pay attention to signs that God might be sending them for a way into deeper meaning and more purposeful lives, and that’s when the star appeared. The magi left their homes in search of a new way of being in the world that money, prestige, learning had not given them.
They did pretty well following the star, but something happened. They must have started to doubt their vision. They had gone a long way in their journey and were almost there when they lost their conviction about the star. They stopped and asked directions in Jerusalem; they went to King Herod and asked where the King of the Jews was to be born. It was a terrible mistake and it led to some awful consequences. We spoke of this last week, King Herod was a man with a fearful and jealous heart and when the magi did not return to him to tell him where they found the King of the Jews, Herod had every male child under two years old murdered because he did not want a rival king in his territory.
This is what I think happened to the magi which led them to stop and ask directions from King Herod; the magi went back to an old map. They went back to the old way of looking at the world. They went back to the idea that the way you get to where you want to go is to go to the top. The important people are the people with power. That was the old map they reverted to following when they stopped to ask directions of King Herod. They, the magi, were rich and powerful and they decided that to find their way they needed to go to their own kind to get the best directions. They went by their old map instead of by the new way of following the light God had been giving them to show them the way. They stopped trusting their own experiences of God leading them and turned again to the worldly powerful to show them the way.
Fortunately, for them at least, they did go back to re-mapping. They listened to their dreams and went home by another road.
The magi show us that we can be wise ones too; we can learn from our experiences and our faith in the God of the vulnerable child of Bethlehem and find our way home by a new map.
Joan Chittister, a Benedictine nun and writer, gave an address to
the National Catholic Educational Association entitled “Leading the Way: To Go Where There Is No Road and Leave a Path.” That speech ended with the following story…
In the mid-17th century Spanish seafarers sailed up the west coast of the Americas to what is now known as the Baja peninsula. The cartographers of the time, aware of the Drake expeditions and good Cartesians as well simply drew a straight line up from the strait of California to the strait of Juan de Fuca between Vancouver Island and Washington state.
Consequently, the maps that were published in 1635 show very clearly that California was an island.
Now that might be only a quaint story if it were not for the fact that the missionaries of the time were using that map to travel inland.
So, given the information on that map, they developed the first great pre-fab boat construction project in human history. They cut their flatboats in Spain, shipped them over in pieces and then, on the shores of Monterey, California put them all back together again. To be transported on the backs of mules to the other side of California. Then they carried these boats 12,000 feet up the Sierra Nevada mountains for passage across the great strait, which the map showed ran from the Baja to Puget Sound.
But lo and behold the other side of those mountains was no seashore at all. It was what is now the state of Nevada and the beginning of the great American desert. California was the mainland!
It would be a rather funny story except for one thing that makes it tragic: when the missionaries wrote back to tell the cartographers and the crown that California was not an island no one – no one – believed them. In fact, they insisted that the map was certainly correct: it was the missionaries who were in the wrong place!
What’s more, in 1701 – almost 70 years later – they reissued an updated version of the same map.
For fifty years, then – the years of the most constant, most crucial explorations of the California coastline – those maps went unchanged because someone continued to work with partial information, assumed that data from the past had the inerrancy of tradition and then used authority to prove it.
Finally, after years and years of new reports a few cartographers – the heretics, the radicals, and the rebels, I presume – began to issue a new version. And in 1721, the last map-maker holdout finally attached California to the mainland.
But – and this is the real tragedy perhaps – it took almost a hundred years for the gap between experience and authority to close. It took almost a hundred years for the new maps to be declared official. Despite the fact that the people who were there all the time knew differently from the very first day.
(From “Leading the Way: To Go Where There Is No Road and Leave a Path” – a lecture by Joan Chittister to the 2001 National Catholic Educational Association Convention.)
The point for us this day is that re-mapping our lives is possible! We can take in new information and then make adjustments. We are human beings after all and we have been given by God the gift of transcendence – we can think beyond old patterns, old roads, old habits and find a new way into a more fulfilling, more purposeful, more holy lives. I don’t know… maybe you have some things in your life you need to change, some old pattern that needs to be broken, some way of looking at the world that is hardened and blind to new information. I don’t know… but here’s what I do know… God beckons us into a glorious future. Will we follow the light and offer our gifts?