Tuesday, January 06, 2009

A star is born

The Feast of the Epiphany is a big deal for liturgical Christians, but I believe anybody, irrespective of religious persuasion (or lack thereof), can benefit from considering some of the issues which the feast brings to light.

The third reading for the Epiphany Mass comes from Matthew's Gospel:

1In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, 2asking, “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.” ...9When 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. 10When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. 11On 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. 12And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.
Having lived in Mesopotamia for more than five months now, I've become very aware of how easily the ancients would have ascribed deity to the heavenly bodies in the night sky. I suspect that their impact in the 21st Century pales in comparison to their effect upon people whose only light at night was from fire or from the heavens. As I've written elsewhere in this blog, I've felt a sense of spiritual overwhelm by the beauty of the night sky Down Range (when there's no dust in the air).

With the myriad stars in the sky, it seems remarkable that three dudes "from the east" would notice a new star having appeared, and would leave everything behind to follow it as it moved.

This prompts the questions, "What star are *you* following?" "What/whom are *you* looking for?" "What are *you* willing to risk in this journey?" and "What happens if what you're looking for turns out to be different from what you were expecting?"

I've found these questions to be helpful as I've reflected upon the zigs and zags my life has taken, especially recently with joining the Army at such an advanced age and finding myself deployed to a war zone as a non-combatant.

The myth of the Maji provides a good springboard for contemplating these questions, in my opinion. (Remember, that because it's *my* opinion, it is therefore correct! And lest people start getting their panties in a bunch by the use of the word "myth," go read Mircea Eliade's Myths, Dreams, and Realities in which he indicates that myth represents the absolute truth about primordial time (p. 23))

Now, back to those questions.

What star am I following? Am I paying attention enough to recognize that I am, indeed, following a star in the first place? My friend Fr. Tom W accuses me of "being distracted by sparkly things." He is, of course, correct. What is it that captures my attention, and draws me onward? Is it worth following? Having identified which star to follow, do I maintain my course, or do I get diverted by other lights? What star am I following?

What or whom am I looking for? The Maji, reputed by tradition to be kings themselves, were looking for a greater king, whose birth they believed was heralded by the star they noticed. Augustine of Hippo, in the opening lines of his Confessions, says of his God that "our hearts are restless till they find rest in Thee." Waylon Jennings sings of "lookin' for love in all the wrong places, looking for love in too many faces," and I think he's on to something. I believe each of us is searching for an ultimate connection in love with the Divine; our restleness and impatience can lead us to make unfortunate Waylonic decisions if we're not careful. What or whom am I looking for?

What am I willing to risk in this journey? Popular piety, reinforced by wonderful retellings of the story of the Three Kings (cf. Amahl and the Night Visitors, Gian Carlo Menotti), has the Maji traveling great distances at not insignificant peril to follow the star which rose in the east. In my following of whatever star I've fixed my gaze upon, what sacrifices am I prepared to endure? Can I choose short-term pain in order to achieve long-term gain? (As an addict, active in my addictions I always chose short-term gain, which inevitably and inexorably leads to long-term pain....) What am I willing to risk in this journey?

What happens if what I'm looking for turns out to be different from what I was expecting? Let me tell you, *this* (i.e., the Army, Iraq, war) was not what *I* was expecting when I signed on to be a Jesuit 30 years ago! Niente! Niemahls! Negatory! Imagine the reaction of the Maji -- reputed to be kings, looking for a greater king -- when they show up and find a simple baby and his mom, in a place as backwater and Podunk as Bethlehem! I suspect I'd have figured there'd been a big mistake along the way. But the Maji were "overwhelmed with joy" and presented their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh anyway. They were open to being surprised and delighted, and didn't let (hidden) expectations become premeditated resentments, as I'd surely have done.

On this Twelfth Day of Christmas, may you identify the star *you're* following, the one/One whom you seek, what you're willing to risk in that journey, and that you're open to being surprised and delighted as much by the journey itself as by journey's end.

Blessings and peace to one and all,

Fr. Tim, SJ

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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

My bratty adopted brother Tim,

You reaffirmed the power of your wonderful story telling in this entry. I am reminded of the peace your stories brought to Charlie in his final days.

I've never actively sought a star, direction or path, but I think I will know it when I find it...unfortunately I won't be able to tell anyone about it!

Missed you at Christmas!

Love and Prayers, Brenda

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