By David Gibson | Catholic News Service
Starlight guided the steps of the gift-bearing Magi "from the east," who soon after Jesus' birth undertook a journey that led to "the newborn king of the Jews," enabling them to pay homage to him.
The Gospel of Matthew tells of the Magi (2:1-11). A bright star in the heavens beckoned to them. So they set out from home and traveled toward its light.
Can you envision yourself walking in the shoes of the Magi? Pope Francis believes that we all resemble the Magi in an important way.
"Following a light," the Magi also "were searching for the Light," the pope said in a homily for the feast of the Epiphany in 2014. Thus, "the destiny of every person is symbolized in this journey of the Magi."
"Our life," Pope Francis explained, "is a journey, illuminated by the lights which brighten our way." It is a journey toward "the fullness of truth and love," which "Christians recognize in Jesus, the light of the world."
Sure enough, the Gospel's Magi also differed from us, due to their habit of watching for ways the stars might influence life on Earth. The New American Bible states plainly in a note that "Matthew's Magi are astrologers."
The journey of the Magi led them first to Jerusalem, not Bethlehem, as one might have expected. It appears that at some point they lost sight of the star and would need to rediscover their route.
In Jerusalem they met ultimately with King Herod, who assembled the finest experts to determine where the birth of the long-awaited Messiah was expected to take place and to help the Magi find him. "In Bethlehem of Judea," was the experts' answer.
The Gospel soon reveals Herod's murderous motives for helping the Magi. They will not fall into his trap, however.
"When you have found (the child), bring me word, that I too may go and do him homage," Herod said to the Magi.
When the Magi set out again on their journey, the star reappeared and guided them. The star "that they had seen at its rising preceded them, until it came and stopped over the place where the child was." The Magi "were overjoyed at seeing the star."
They had traveled to Bethlehem from another country. But when the time came to return home they would take "another way" after being "warned in a dream not to return to Herod."
Typically it is said that the Magi are not presented in the Gospel as Jews, though they notably longed to pay homage to the "newborn king of the Jews." If the Gospel viewed the Magi as gentiles, meaning outsiders to Jewish faith, it nonetheless presented them as the kind of outsiders who esteemed the Jews.
Upon reaching their destination and visiting Mary and the infant Jesus, the Magi opened "their treasures" and offered fine gifts to the child.
It was a visit for the ages. For in telling how the Magi paid homage to the newborn Jesus, the Gospel strikingly revealed for Jesus' followers in every age that theirs is not an elite faith meant only for some. Rather, it is open to all.
On the feast of the Epiphany, late in the church's Christmas season, the faith community retells the Gospel's brief, fascinating story of the Magi. This is an occasion during Christmastime that contemplates Christ's presence to the entire world.
The Magi who visited the newborn Jesus represent "the wider human family," they represent "all nations," Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin said in a 2006 homily. He called Epiphany "the feast of the revelation of Jesus to all peoples."
To walk in the shoes of the Magi today means journeying toward a light, Pope Francis suggested. But this journey also is devoted to "searching for the Light."
Where, though, will "the Light" be found?
Pope Francis discussed this type of human journey in a Nov. 20 apostolic letter issued as the church's Year of Mercy concluded. One of the ways God is encountered here and now is through the consolation others offer to us or that we offer to them, he observed in "Mercy and Misery" ("Misericordia et Misera").
"The drying of tears," Pope Francis wrote, "is one way to break the vicious circle of solitude in which we often find ourselves trapped."
Consolation -- whether in the form of "a reassuring word, an embrace that makes us feel understood, a caress that makes us feel love, a prayer that makes us stronger" -- is a means of expressing "God's closeness," said Pope Francis.
In traveling "the road of mercy," he commented, one meets so many "who reach out for someone to take their hand and become a companion on the way."
In the pope's words, "Each day of our journey is marked by God's presence." He "guides" our journey's steps with grace that makes us "capable of loving" -- able to extend mercy and love to others, even as we ask God to extend the same to us.
Gibson served on Catholic News Service's editorial staff for 37 years.
A new kind of New Year's resolution
By Effie Caldarola | Catholic News Service
Many of us own those wristband devices that record how many steps we take in a day. We're told that 10,000 steps daily is a healthy goal, so we take walks, use the stairs instead of the elevator, vacuum instead of watch television.
At day's end, we can see how close we came to that 10,000-step goal.
And always, the next morning, the tally on our band is back to zero and we start again. Maybe that's the thing I like best about my wristband -- it always starts fresh each day.
New Year's Day is sort of like that band. It encourages us to begin again, to roll back the markers and take a fresh approach.
From that standpoint, New Year's resolutions can be positive and hopeful. But sometimes, resolutions set us up for failure. It's hard to change behavior overnight and for a whole year. It raises tough expectations about our own behavior, willpower and determination.
There's a mantra I am taking with me into the new year. I heard it when I attended a workshop with the spiritual writer Kathleen Norris, and I reflect on it often.
Norris writes extensively on monastics, the desert fathers and mothers, and on the early church. The workshop was held at a beautiful Benedictine monastery in rural Nebraska. Amid the prairie wind and the growing corn, Norris assured us that one tenet of Benedictine spirituality is the reminder, "Always we begin again."
If our New Year's resolution is to grow more deeply in love with God, to achieve a new level of spirituality, to listen more closely to the Spirit in our life, then those four words are vital.
Because coming to God is always about invitation, surrender and trying again. It's about acknowledging that we can't do it on our own. It has little to do with willpower and my own determination. It has everything to do with being quiet and letting go.
"Always we begin again" reminds me that falling down is a big part of spiritual growth. The big thing is not my failure, but that I try again. It's seeing that marker set at zero over and over and realizing God is waiting for me in each step.
For me personally, the operative word is "always." Unlike my wristband, it's not "tomorrow" when I start again. It's in the present moment, when I'm falling and need help. Think of a bad habit: overeating, worrying, compulsive shopping. I can think of times when I've fallen and my response is, well I'll try again tomorrow -- might as well finish that bag of Oreos today; may as well turn from prayer.
That Benedictine mantra reminds me that God is waiting for me right now in my falling down, not in a far off "tomorrow."
If we're considering deepening our spiritual life during 2017, we start with the wonderful feeling of invitation, not obligation. There will be ups and downs. But always, we are invited to begin again. Our God is merciful and has boundless compassion and love.
If, like me, you need some structure and support, the internet provides a wealth of help. If you Google "Ignatian Spirituality," you will find sites that bring you a plethora of suggestions on prayer. Likewise, Creighton University's Online Ministries offers prayer guides, retreats and links to other sites.
The Irish Jesuits' daily inspiration "Sacred Space" can be found online and in printed versions. Your parish may provide other suggestions.
Simply spending time with the readings from each day's liturgy can be profoundly moving.
Perhaps signing up for a Scripture class or a prayer group at your parish will inspire the change you seek. Pray for the opportunity God has in mind.
The important thing is to open my heart in each moment, to remember that my own inadequacy is where God will meet me, always beginning again.
Caldarola is a freelance writer and a columnist for Catholic News
Seeking the light of Jesus
By Mike Nelson | Catholic News Service
As a community of faith, we are a people who not only seek light, but who crave and welcome light -- the light of hope, joy and love present in our risen Lord who declares, "I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life" (Jn 8:12).
Indeed, the power and pre-eminence of light as a symbol of faith and hope is established from the first chapter of Scripture: "God said: Let there be light, and there was light. God saw that the light was good" (Gn 1:3-4).
These words, from the first reading of the Easter Vigil, the holiest night of the liturgical year, connect us to the Scriptures of Epiphany and its focus on light.
"Rise up in splendor, Jerusalem!" proclaims Isaiah (60:1). "Your light has come, the glory of the Lord shines upon you."
The Gospel reading, from St. Matthew, is bathed in images of light, as the Magi from the East follow the star of the newborn king of the Jews "at its rising," until it stops at the house where Jesus lay. "They were overjoyed at seeing the star," Matthew writes (Mt 2:10).
Indeed, with the birth of the Son of God, light has entered the world in a new way, just as foretold by Isaiah (60:2-3): "Upon you the Lord shines, and over you appears his glory. Nations shall walk by your light, and kings by your shining radiance."
Of all the signs and symbols of God's presence in the world, light is, for me, probably the strongest of all. From my youth, I can recall making a candle from a paper plate and cardboard tube, decorating it with green and gold glitter, and -- even though I couldn't light it, obviously -- feeling a sense of comfort and warmth by holding that scruffy little candle.
In fact, I have always found comfort and peace from candlelight: the lighting of candles during Advent, for example, or the service of light that begins the Easter Vigil, or lighting a candle each night at the dinner table with my family prior to our mealtime prayer.
A line from Psalm 119 -- "Your word is a lamp for my feet, a light for my path" -- speaks powerfully to me, telling me that God is present and real in our world.
That kind of light is sorely needed in our world that too often dwells in the darkness of fear, turmoil, suspicion and hatred. The light of love promised and delivered by God -- like the light of the star that led the Magi to where God's newborn son lay in a humble manger -- is what all of us are called to reflect to one another.
"Your light must shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your heavenly Father," says Jesus (Mt 5:15). Good advice as we begin our new year.
Catholic journalist Mike Nelson writes from Southern California.
FOOD FOR THOUGHT
"It is on the Magi and their journey in search of the Messiah that the church today invites us to meditate and pray," Pope Francis said during a homily on the feast of the Epiphany, Jan. 6, 2015.
The three Wise Men were, according to tradition "sages, watchers of the constellations, observers of the heavens" in an age that regarded stars as having "power over human affairs," the pope continued. They represent the "unending quest" of humanity's search for God.
On their journey, the Magi faced many challenges, losing sight of the star, traveling to the wrong city, but upon resuming their journey, "the grace of the Holy Spirit ... assists them" and they are able to find Jesus with his mother and Joseph, and fall down in worship.
As the Magi made their way to Jesus, they "entered into the mystery" and "this was their conversion," said the pope. "And our own? Let us ask the Lord to let us undergo that same journey of conversion experienced by the Wise Men."[[In-content Ad]]