For Americans, apart from unusually violent storms and weird shifts in the weather, the past week has witnessed unprecedented shifts in the political climate. Truly dark clouds seem to be lowering over the country. This may be an illusion created by an acrimonious electoral cycle. It may be fact. One way or another, citizens of this country seem to be groping in an increasingly gloomy environment. And today the cycle of readings for Sunday turns to Matthew’s gospel especially for light, guidance, and inspiration.
The life of the Church goes its own way while public attention is focused elsewhere on events that entertain or shock and sometimes even frighten us. And as we hear in Matthew’s gospel, we can learn a few things about despair and hope, about light in the midst of darkness, even about Falcons and Packers. Only here the stakes are much, much higher.
The wheels of liturgical concentration are set in motion by the reading from the Book of Isaiah. The mention of Zebulun and Naphtali link the first reading and the gospel, for Matthew cites the same passage. Zebulun and Naphtali were sons of Jacob who gave their names to two tribes of ancient Israel that settled in the northernmost region of the Promised Land. The territory that came to be known as Galilee lay east of the Lake of Genesereth and the central mountains. It was a fertile, lovely area of rolling hills and grasslands.
The reading from Isaiah refers to a date in the eighth century before Christ after the conquest of Palestine by the Assyrians when the annexation of the lands associated with the tribes of Zebulun and Naphtali accelerated their alienation from the rest of Israel. But the prophet is looking ahead to a liberation that never came, for over the next millennium Assyrians, Egyptians, Babylonians, Greeks, and then Romans all laid claim to the region, sometimes deporting the inhabitants, at other times seeding the area with immigrants from around the Middle East. But for Matthew the message is focused in a very different way – the light that will illuminate the deathly darkness is not a hoped-for liberation from foreign tyranny, but the dawning of the Light of the World, fulfilling the prophecy in a way transcending the dreams of the prophet-poet of the eighth century.
Galilee, especially the densely-populated areas surrounding the Sea of Galilee, became the principal location of Jesus’ ministry. So Matthew introduces his Gospel by evoking not only history but geography. After the Assyrians had devastated the northern parts of Israel and brought the ancient kingdom of the north to an end, the region had become home to a variety of peoples, the galil haggoyim. By the time of Jesus, it was not only known as Galilee of the Gentiles and despised by the Jews of the south, but filled with heavily populated towns, especially around the Sea of Galilee. It was there that Jesus decided to locate after he left the village of Nazareth and it became the major scene of his of teaching and healing ministry. This chapter of Matthew leads directly to the Sermon on the Mount. And in a preview glimpse of the rest of the gospel, Matthew tells us that Jesus extended his ministry from his base in Galilee – teaching, preaching, and healing.
The second reading seems to depart from the themes of Isaiah and Matthew, but a connection is made early on when Paul tells us clearly where the genius of effective ministry lies if we are to be true disciples – “Let there be no dissensions among you, but …be united in the same mind and the same judgment.” [1 Corinthians 1:10] I suppose the bad news is that Christians have always had a hard time avoiding factions and disagreements. Maybe that’s why Paul placed so much importance on it. But diversity can also be the anvil on which truth is hammered into shape, as subsequent history has so often revealed. The important thing, as Paul goes on to say, is that love must prevail. Patriots don’t have to hate Steelers in order to play against them. Democrats and Republicans can work together for the good of the nation.
We all have moments or periods or places of gloom and darkness in our lives. Whole countries do. Today Christians in Iraq, Egypt, Nigeria, Pakistan, and Sudan are still under attack, sometimes lethally. Earthquakes, cold snaps, and storms create suffering. Economies collapse. The United States seems caught up in an unprecedented political conflict in which decency and respect have been the first casualties. We know what it means to long for a little light at the end or even in the middle of our own tunnels. And Matthew is telling us what that light is. Or, rather, who it is. He will also be telling us in the months to come what it means to go toward that light, to grasp it, and to spread it — to be a disciple.
At the end of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus meets his disciples one last time back in Galilee, where it all began. From there discipleship will now spread to the ends of the earth. “And Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and see, I am with you always, to the close of the age’.” [Matthew 28:18-20]
A momentous week lies ahead as we venture further into the New Year – eventually, the Year of the Rooster, once Chinese New Year arrives on January 28. The year of one’s Zodiac sign is traditionally not supposed to be propitious. The new President of the US was born in the Year of the Dog, however. Not much joy there for Mr. Trump, at least according to traditional prognostication. He’ll be sore pressed at work, in health matters, wealth, and love. Too late to turn back now. But then, if you don’t believe in astrology, it probably doesn’t matter.
On a more serious note, the week commences with the annual celebration of Martin Luther King, Jr., Day, an observance honoring one of the greatest American figures of recent history… perhaps all of our history. King changed the course of this country and in many respects, that of the wider world. It remains to be seen how the accession of Mr. Trump will affect either. We can and should hope for the best as the week ahead ends with his inauguration as the 45th President of the Republic.
When someone’s heart is in the Gospel of Jesus, things really can get out of hand. King’s heart was one of those. He was not hesitant to lay down his life for his friends – the oppressed, weary, impoverished, and discounted people of this country and of the world. But also for those who were directly or indirectly oppressive. King opposed injustice, violence, and war. He wanted to change hearts, not stop them. And he did.
Today’s readings continue the story of another such figure, John the Baptist, although after today the focus of Sunday gospels will shift to the teachings of Jesus. But John mattered, especially to Jesus. His heart was in the right place. And he, too, paid for that with his life.
The first two readings remind us that God lifted up Israel and then the New Israel, the community of Jesus Christ throughout the world, to be a light to the nations. Sometimes that light seems to falter and even to fail, but it will not be extinguished. Whether we will add to its brightness and light up the world, as John the Baptist and Dr. King did, or forget the gospel in our enthusiasm for wealth, power, and entertainment is up to us. As King reminded us, “We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope.”
It’s hard to light up the world with hope. But that is the light, possibly the only one, that will not ultimately fail.
So here we are on the Feast of the Epiphany, wondering what that’s all about and why we’re here. On January 6th, the traditional date, in Ireland “Women’s Christmas” is still observed here and mostly there, a day when those valiant volunteers who spent so many hours decorating, cooking, and cleaning up so the rest of the family could enjoy themselves thoroughly over Christmas and New Year’s get a day off and often get to spend it in the company of their kind.
Well earned, to say the least. Called the Feast of the Kings in Spain, the Epiphany is a huge feast day on which gifts are exchanged rather than on Christmas, which is a time for worship and prayer and gathering with family and friends.
Epiphany means appearance. For Christians over the centuries, it came to mean three things, all of them focused on Jesus — the disclosure of God’s plan of salvation, the revelation of the true glory of God, and most of all the manifestation of the human face of God. Thus, from very early times the Church has celebrated three different events today — the revelation of God’s son to the Magi, the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan, and the Wedding Feast at Cana — all of which reveal God’s plan to us. At Jesus’ baptism, which has its own feast day in a week, the heavens were opened and a voice proclaimed him the Beloved in whom God was well-pleased. This was the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry, his signal appearance on the stage of history. The wedding feast at Cana, found in John’s Gospel, serves the same purpose — by changing the water into wine, Jesus revealed his saving mission surprisingly, even prematurely, as an act of compassion and deference.
But today God’s manifestation to the Magi remains the primary focus of our attention. From the earliest times, Christians have wondered who they were, these mysterious strangers, outsiders from the East. People still wonder. Or even question if they really existed at all. Perhaps they are only characters in a story Matthew uses to make a point.
One thing is clear: they three kings of Orient weren’t. The crowns and funny names come much later, when kings no longer persecuted the Church very much and Christianity itself was an imperial religion. They may have been Jews, for there were Jews among the Maghdim and the traditional names, Caspar or Gaspar, Melchior, and Balthazar, have Jewish origins. Or perhaps they were Zoroastrian priests from Persia. Belief in a universal redeemer was part of Zoroastrian religion at that time, which held that after the appearance on earth of a virgin-born savior, God would triumph over evil. God only knows how many of them came looking for the King of the Jews — the Gospel describes three gifts, not three figures.
Historically, the Magi or Maghdim were associated with magic and in fact contributed the name. But they were more involved with the study of the patterns of stars and planets to determine how events on earth manifested the plan of God than with prestidigitation and rain-making. The other two magi in the New Testament, Simon Magus and Elymas bar Jesus, whom we meet in the Acts of the Apostles (one a Samaritan, the other a Jew) were more sinister figures. Each resists the Gospel at first, but both are inevitably subdued by the preaching of the apostles. Here, the magi need no convincing — for Matthew, these strangers submit willingly to the revelation of God, having followed the star from the east. Their faith is also seen in their quick acceptance of the warning that comes to them in a dream, as another soon will come to Joseph.
After worshipping the child and leaving their mysterious gifts, they pass out of sight. These gifts, like their quest for the King of the Jews, point us ahead, however, to other anointings, other searches for the King of the Jews, and another dream in Matthew’s gospel, that of a Roman matron who warns her husband not to have anything to do with the man called Jesus now on trial for his life.
Here, however, we are left with the Magi and their gifts. What do they tell us about this strange little king and his plan for us?
What they brought wasn’t necessary, wasn’t big, and wasn’t even useful — except, perhaps, for the gold. What they brought represented lasting value and precious fragrance. Gold stands for eternal worth, because it never tarnishes and never loses its value. Frankincense, which means pure incense, was used in the temple as a sacrificial offering. Myrrh is a resin gum often made into an oil used in medicine, perfume, and incense. These are rich gifts, not so much costly as priceless — for they are only appropriate as gestures of homage, love, and reverence — odd gifts, fit only for a king. Or a god.
In light of the kind of things usually exchanged on Christmas as gifts, what the Magi didn’t bring can be as important as what they did bring. Think for a moment about what you or I might have brought and in fact tend to give one another: toys, food, candy, cigarettes, liquor, clothing, flowers, books, tools, or even weapons. Not only perishable, but even dangerous offerings. The Magi themselves very nearly paid for their visit with their lives, and the Holy Innocents certainly did. For they first looked for the King of the Jews where a king is likely to be found: in a palace. Palaces are dangerous places. They king they found there was a tyrant and murderer. They eventually found their true King in a house, probably a very ordinary house, a temporary lodging at that. For the Holy Family were about to become homeless refugees, not unlike Syrian and Iraqi families today.
So who are today’s Magi, these representatives of the Gentiles looking for the meaning of life? We are, of course – the strangers and outsiders now brought into the realm of God’s saving love. And where do we look for the King not only of the Jews, but of all humanity? Among the rich, the famous, the powerful? Or among the poor, the outcast, the homeless and oppressed? And what gifts do we bring? A closed mind or an open heart? Compassion for the outcast and suffering, love for our enemies, or a hunger for violence and revenge?
If, like those first Magi, we look in the wrong place, we may not lose our lives, but we could lose more than our way. We could even lose our souls if the gifts we bring reveal a lack of insight into the mystery continually opening before us. So like the Magi in Matthew’s gospel, let us search for the place God has chosen to be found — not in the sky or in the palaces of the mighty, not just where we think God ought to be. Let us pray for the grace to recognize Christ where he is still in hiding, and the wisdom to use our gifts in his service, to extend his gospel of truth and freedom, peace and justice and love to those who most need to hear it.
The Swamp looks poised to win big this time.
Although hardly mesmerized by the political spectacle unfolding across the sea, Irish eyes are watching the accession of the Trump era with trepidation. A recent national poll revealed that only 12% of the population thinks that Trump’s presidency will be good for the Republic. The Irish one. And the American one, needless to say. (Trump does have some fans here, too: support is most notable in West Clare, where the Donald bought and renovated a multi-million dollar golf course and hotel. Both are far beyond the pay grade of most Clare men and women, but the project brought jobs and cash flow into the coastal area.)
Watching US developments from a distance as Trump began filling his cabinet positions with corporate raiders, ultra-wealthy bankers and financiers, assorted tycoons, white supremacists and retired generals, it was hard to escape the feeling that the angry middle-class white males from the rust belt and other depressed zones of the heartland who turned to Trump for “change” are in for a big surprise as the reins of power are increasingly turned over to the upper percent of the One Percent. They are now going to have to foot the bill for The Wall, as well. Tax breaks for the very wealthy will increase the burden on the middle class as the deficit rises and social services, the environment, and health care are driven into the ground. And as for those tax returns, well, it’s anyone’s guess if they will ever be released. At least his promise to prosecute Hillary Clinton has been forgotten. That’s just as well. Living in a glass house, even one with tinted windows and drawn curtains, is not the best vantage point for hurling stones.
Wall Street may love it, but the swamp just got a lot bigger and a lot deeper.
I was never able to fathom just why the ancient Feast of the Circumcision, a surgical ceremony accompanying the official naming of a male child traditionally celebrated, as the Gospel of Luke set out, eight days after his birth, was changed from a Feast of the Christ to one for his mother. The Feast named for the Circumcision can be traced back to the 6th century. In the Orthodox Church, some Protestant traditions, and the Anglican Church, it is still observed under that name.
By the Middle Ages, January 1 was recognized as the feast of the Jewishness of Jesus, born as he was, St. Paul tells us, “under the Law.” It was also celebrated as the memorial of the first blood shed for humankind by Jesus, just an infant, like the babies just a bit older who were about to shed their blood, all unknowingly, for him. The change came during the revision of the liturgy under Pope John XXIII and was incorporated into the official calendar in 1962. The readings were altered, and the possibly embarrassing physiological aspect was covered over modestly. I don’t recall there having been protests, but I sometimes wonder if some latent anti-Semitism resided deep within the decision to depart from many centuries of liturgical tradition. Or was it merely squeamishness?
Mary was never overlooked in the early celebrations, and the Feast of the Purification is only a month away. She, too, was born under the Law. But the Octave Day of Christmas commemorated the birth of Jesus and the legal observances attendant on his ethnic identity. Perhaps we forget that too easily.
In any case, today Catholic Christians celebrate New Year’s Day by a feast honoring the Virgin Mary, that young Jewish girl whose consent to be the mother of Jesus changed the world forever. Mazel tov!