Following the Light of Jesus
Jan 6 “Following the Light of Christ” Isaiah 60:1-6 * Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14 * Ephesians 3:1-12 * Matthew 2:1-12
As someone who hasn’t traveled much outside of the Western US, there is a certain air of mystery and intrigue to faraway lands, journeys there represent events of discovery, and I am envious of those who send stories and pictures while they are there. Last night, I received an email from George, with pictures sent from Barcelona. He was watching a parade from his hotel, celebrating the journey of the Three Wise Men. Apparently, that event is given more importance in Spain than celebrating Christmas. Sometimes travel is drudgery, but sometimes those journeys become milestones in our lives.
In 1927, the great poet T.S. Eliot published a poem called “Journey of the Magi”, inviting us to think about our own journeys of faith and our lives in this world, where we often find ourselves living a reality transformed by Jesus but still living within a society that has not been touched by him. In many ways, our journeys take us beyond that of non-believers, into territory unknown to them. Eliot himself took a long journey of faith, as well as one to a new land, from which he would not return, unlike the magi. Eliot was born in Missouri into a Unitarian family, but shortly before writing this poem he moved to England, renounced his US citizenship, and became an Anglican. After this journey, his poetry took on a new flavor influenced by his faith, so listen for Biblical references.
Journey of the Magi
A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.'
And the camels galled, sorefooted, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
and running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty and charging high prices:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.
Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wine-skins.
But there was no information, and so we continued
And arriving at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you may say) satisfactory.
All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.
Any comments? What do you think he means by “I should be glad of another death”? I’d like to think the death he is talking about is a metaphorical one, to the life we lived before meeting Jesus. We once belonged to a certain people, but now belong to a different one. We might note that the Magi, contrary to legend, were not identified by Matthew as being kings, they are not even said to be wise. It doesn’t even say that there were three of them: it just names three gifts, and certainly they gave much more, in terms of celebration and adoration after such a long journey. Reading poetry of this caliber makes me wonder just how wise I am, for I read it again and again and still wonder if I understand what the author is trying to say. As we kneel before this baby boy, is it both birth and death to us? A new life, a second birth in Christ, and the death of the old life lived apart from him? As we all know, the old ways linger even when we have been born again or born from above. The difference is that Jesus gives us the light we need as we stumble through the darkness of our lives, along with forgiveness, understanding, unconditional love and acceptance, and so many other gifts.
But that is what the New Year is all about, isn’t it, even for non-believers? We all make resolutions to make ourselves better, usually failing, and sometimes that means trying to overcome bad habits, and even sinful behaviors. Again, and again, most of us fail spectacularly, trying to be someone else and finding that we can’t help but be ourselves, not as perfect as we might like to portray ourselves to the world. But if we are on the right path, following the light of Jesus, we can make progress and become better.
Of course, the path we are all on can be hidden at times; at other times we don’t want to accept where it is going. How ironic the story of the Magi is: Herod, the ruler over the Jews, cannot find the baby in his own backyard, while strangers from a faraway land, from a different religion, from a different people, make a long and difficult journey but find the baby boy in the right place at the right time, with divine guidance. They come bearing precious gifts, give their adoration and praise, and then leave in joy, never to have contact with him again, as far as we know. They have some understanding of him, perhaps, while Herod does not. They come in expectation and depart in peace, but Herod is motivated by fear. They are wise enough to elude his grasp and head for home, but Herod is blinded with rage and fear, killing all the baby boys in the area, and still not finding Jesus. The Magi have the freedom to follow their path wherever it might take them, Herod seeks to control all pathways and end those that threaten him. And so Mary and Joseph, also with divine guidance, must take their boy and make the long journey to Egypt, until it is safe to return home.
So as we start a new year, we ask ourselves: where are we on this journey, what light are we following? What star or celebrity do we adore? Are we controlled by fear and hatred, or maybe by guilt and self-loathing, or are we following the light of Jesus, which brings us to a place of forgiveness, reconciliation, fulfillment, peace and joy?
In the coming year, may we work towards making our church a place of peace, instruction, and inspiration. Our first task is to begin with ourselves, as we seek to grow and experience greater fulfilment. As the Greek philosopher Pindar said long ago, each person must “Become who you are by learning who you are.” When we kneel before this baby boy, we discover that we too are children of God. We were born in his image and carry him with us. The world tells us all sorts of fantasies about who we should try to be, by purchasing certain things and trying to act like someone else, but we set ourselves apart from the world by seeking to be the people God created us to be. We will make mistakes, and see things in ourselves that we don’t like, but we keep returning to Jesus for forgiveness, nourishment, and guidance. He heals the wounded and brokenhearted. Christ’s light shines within us even when we don’t think we are good enough, but are on the right path. This is a life-long journey into self-discovery, communion with the Holy Spirit, and eternal joy.
A major way of understanding ourselves is to share this journey together, reflecting one another in our interactions. The church, like a family, if we are healthy, is a place where individuals can come together and find a place to belong and be loved, and to accept and love others. Here too we may experience disappointment and discord, but together we can grow as individuals and as a church family. As Brene Brown writes:
True belonging is the spiritual practice of believing in and belonging to yourself so deeply that you can share your most authentic self with the world and find sacredness in both being a part of something and standing alone in the wilderness. True belonging doesn’t require you to change who you are; it requires you to be who you are. (Brown, Brené. Dare to Lead, p. 107. Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.)
Our church should be a place where we can be our authentic selves, warts and all, and be loved and accepted. As we share our hearts with one another, we share Christ’s light and make it more vibrant than if we keep it to ourselves. We come together each week to be refreshed and reconnected, with God and with his people, and then we carry Christ’s light into the world. As Archbishop Oscar Romero once said:
When we leave Mass, we ought to go out the way Moses descended Mt Sinai: with his face shining, with his heart brave and strong to face the world’s difficulties.
As the Magi followed the star to find the baby Jesus, we now carry the light of Jesus into our world, helping to lead others to him. And as we come to kneel before him, we too bring the greatest gifts we can offer him, ourselves. Paul reminds us that at one time, God’s plan was hidden, but in Christ has been revealed for all people. And yet, some still haven’t heard the Good News, or haven’t been shown what that means by someone like one of us who is living their life for Jesus. Pail writes:
so that through the church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known… in accordance with the eternal purpose that he has carried out in Christ Jesus our Lord, in whom we have access to God in boldness and confidence through faith in him.
We have all that we need for the journey and know that we will have victory in Jesus. God has blessed each of us with gifts, talents, and treasures with which we are to use in his service. We now look for the signs God provides for us along our path, as we seek to be lights on the path to Jesus for those who still struggle in darkness.
Now if we embrace the fact that each of us is equal before God, and are now carriers of the light of Jesus, able to transform our world in his name as we do our part to unroll God’s plan leading into eternity, we may need to temper our sense of importance with a little humility. We who now kneel before the baby Jesus and will one day sit at his feet in glory are not any better than those who have yet to call on Jesus as their Lord and Savior, we have just found what all of us are looking for. So here is one final quote as we head into the Lord’s Supper, from Thomas Merton. We remember that we who belong to the Church of Christ are saints, holy and made righteous through Christ, regardless of whether we think we deserve it, even before we leave this world to be with Jesus. Being a saint here on earth doesn’t mean we are perfect yet, it means we are accepted and forgiven, seeking to someday be perfect as Christ is perfect. As a Catholic, Merton’s view on the saints is a little different, he seems to separate them from us common believers, but that really isn’t the case, we just sometimes think we are lower than some folks when we really are not. Merton writes:
God does not give us graces or talents or virtues for ourselves alone. We are members one of another and everything that is given to one member is given for the whole body…The saints love their sanctity not because it separates them from the rest of us and places them above us, but because, on the contrary, it brings them closer to us and in a sense places them below us. Their sanctity is given them in order that they may help us and serve us—for the saints are like doctors and nurses who are better than the sick in the sense that they are healthy and possess arts of healing them, and yet they make themselves the servants of the sick and devote their own health and their art to them. The saints are what they are, not because their sanctity makes them admirable to others, but because the gift of sainthood makes it possible for them to admire everybody else. It gives them a clarity of compassion that can find good in the most terrible criminals. It delivers them from the burden of judging others, condemning other people. It teaches them to bring the good out of others by compassion, mercy and pardon. A person becomes a saint not by conviction that he or she is better than sinners but by the realization that he or she is one of them, and that all together need the mercy of God! (From New Seeds of Contemplation, some wording change to be inclusive)
We may be saved, but we still rely on God’s grace and mercy every day. Jesus may not make our path any easier, in fact he often makes it more difficult, but it is a path that is going somewhere. As we carry the light of Christ into our world, may we share God’s love with all we meet, inviting them to join us on this journey with Jesus.