On this annual feast of the Epiphany, we listen again to the enchanting fable of astrologers who traveled by camel a long, long way in search of truth they believed to be more than merely human. They were sure they’d find wisdom that would guide all who want to live good lives and to reach their maximum potential as human beings.
It was logical at that time that they should look upward, at the sky, for signs of the majestic presence of God.
The clever tale goes on to tell us that they were not disappointed when they got to the humble place where Jesus was born: they recognized that the child was destined to know and to reveal the unseen God more intimately and more clearly than any human being ever had or ever would. The gifts that they offered spell out for us what was in their minds:
Gold stands for royalty. The mythical visitors were acknowledging this peasant child as the ruler whose dominion would embrace the entire world. His power would not be that of force or of military or governmental might, but of boundless love, perfect justice and pure truth.
Incense is for beings thought to be divine. With this offering, the wise men expressed their understanding that in this child humanity and divinity are fused, joined as one. His awareness of the presence of God in everyone and everything would be so keen that he would someday be able to say that to know him was to know God.
Myrrh is for the bodies of the dead. The wise men perceived that divine love like the Christ’s would inevitably pay a terrible price at the hands of those whose evil intentions would be threatened by his very existence. No matter that he would later on be called the Son of God: he would die just the same, and die an excruciating death. He who would save others would not be able to save himself from such suffering. He would join us, his sisters and brothers, not first in triumph, but in the misery of our weak human condition.
The narrative continues by asking us to consider whom the Christ is for. Those who think that their religion is the only true one, favored by God above all others (as we Catholics believed of ourselves not so long ago) quite naturally claim Christ to be exclusively theirs. But the genius of the story, and one of its essential teachings, is its insistence that he is for everyone without exception, even those who may never come to know him.
I think that is the point we should try hardest to comprehend, to absorb, and apply consistently in our own lives. No one is despised or rejected by the Creator; all are loved by God. Jesus is brother to us all, honors all, loves all, no matter our race or nationality or religion. Jesus would say in his adulthood, “If they are not against us, they are with us.”
And some of us will think, even if we are unwilling to say, that it’s fine for God to love everyone, but don’t ask that of me!
The overriding theme of our celebration on the first day of this new year was peace throughout the entire human family. The theme for this day, the commemoration of the revelation of Jesus to the nations and peoples of the world, could well be a respectful, warm acceptance of all those who are not Christian, who are not Catholic. An appropriate gift to them and to our God would be the anticipation that we will find in them also unique facets of the one God, as well as helpful examples of how to live our common human life in peace and mutually supportive friendship.
I wish you a good disposition, a welcoming attitude, in which to accept the gift of peace he offers.
I was born and raised as the first of four children in a typical American home in North Jersey. We don’t know much at all about the family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph. What we say about them is largely drawn from the little that we know about them from their later years. But I do know a lot from the home of my origin. What I learned and experienced there, as you have learned from your own background, has given me insight into what Jesus and Mary and Joseph very likely were to each other.
The one incident that always comes first to my mind occurred when I was 16 years old, a car-crazy kid who couldn’t wait to drive. On one Sunday afternoon, I took my father’s car on a brief jaunt, no matter that I was unlicensed. I struck another vehicle, badly injuring the elderly woman in the front passenger seat. We drove our cars to my home, no police having been around to take over. With the very kind Jewish stranger whose car I had damaged, my father quietly settled the financial issues involved, saying not a word to me – right through to the day he died 23 years later.
My now-deceased sister said to me a few years ago, “When you consider all the pain we endured with Dad’s disease and Mother’s reaction to it, don’t you think that it was love that saved us?” She said, “I mean the love they had for one another, the love they had for each of us children, despite the hell that we were all going though.”
Of course she was right. What else could it have been?
Who knows what personal problems the Holy Family might have struggled with? We have at least a couple of hints in the Gospels that there were times of crisis, worry, confusion. One was when Jesus as a pre-teenager was lost for three days in Jerusalem, where his parents feared he may have been kidnapped and sold into slavery. I know that my mother could never have survived those days had that happened to her child. The panic would have killed her or driven her mad. And then there was the advice given to Mary and Joseph later on when Jesus was becoming known as an increasingly popular and challenging, though unorthodox, preacher: “Why don’t you consider putting him away? Don’t you realize that he’s out of his mind?”
What was conversation like at their table? It could not have been all pious sweetness and light. There was too much going on in their lives that could not be ignored.
I cannot imagine that his boyhood indiscretion was the subject of parental nagging for the rest of his life, or even that it was ever mentioned except possibly in the context of love. They might have said now & then, for example, how his reunion with them that day was one of the greatest joys of their lives. However Mary and Joseph handled the incident, and perhaps a few others like it, they must have done it in such a way that Jesus was encouraged to think over the decisions of his young life and to develop gradually into the secure, self-possessed, clear thinking, highly motivated human being that he became.
We all need such compassionate acceptance, and we are all capable of giving it. Now that our Christmas gifts have been unwrapped, and some of them successfully exchanged for the right size and color, let’s resolve to give one more: the gift of allowing everyone in our lives to be the best they can be, to accept their flaws as fully as we welcome their virtues, to hope that we’ll get the same charity from others (especially from those persons who know us best!), and to enjoy the greater peace that this will bring to all.
TIME Magazine’s Person of the Year, as you know, is actually countless women who are protesting abusive behavior from men in their lives, a situation that society all over the world has ignored for centuries. It may be now that all they are asking, especially of us men, in this painful outcry is to negotiate toward the building of a fairer world for all.
The Bible is the story of human beings not knowing how to live together in mutual charity and good will. And this is so because we are not born programmed to live in unselfish love — quite the opposite, we are born caring only about ourselves. As humans we have to develop into the fullness of our nature, especially toward compassionate care of others.
You and I have the good fortune to live at a time in history when humanity’s path has already been radically changed by a happening called the Christ Event – the birth, the life, the teachings & example, the murder & the resurrection of a man from Nazareth by the name of Jesus. We don’t have to wonder how to be good human beings: he has given us the pattern and also the promise of his abiding presence every step, every minute of the way.
Poets and artists and musicians are far better than philosophers and historians and theologians at expressing our experiences with God, the Creative Spirit whom Jesus, above all, reveals to us. We find in those ancient words, not always fact, but always truth. That is why the story of Jesus, especially the part having to do with his birth, is preserved for us chiefly through their art and their craft. We listen with undivided attention to those familiar accounts, appreciating both the underlying message they carry and also their exquisite, often fanciful, literary beauty.
There were protesters present at Jesus’ birth, the story-tellers said. They were the shepherds, poorer than the animals they herded. Somehow they had learned that what was happening in Bethlehem was very, very important: that because of this birth life could get much better for them and for their children and grandchildren.
The child born that night dedicated his life and death to that cause: freedom for all human beings, God’s children; an end to slavery of all kinds; compassionate care of the poor and the needy; a just and equitable sharing of the abundant goods of the earth; and –- empowering it all — a firm belief in the presence and the love of the One he called Father.
It’s less than 20 years since we emerged from the bloodiest century the world has ever known, and we are only too aware that the Savior’s work is not yet complete. But once again there is good news: It has been documented only recently that never before in human history have there been, as there are at this very moment, so many groups that exist for the sole purpose of helping the downtrodden.
Christmas is not an isolated event of 2000 years ago; it is a present and on-going reality in us now.
You know from your own experience that the Christ you pray to is not “up there” or “out there,” but in you. A priest friend of mine has written that what this means is a secret so profound that we spend our lives either missing it or discovering it.
What I would give you for Christmas, if it were in my power to do so, would be a deeper realization that the good things you are doing, the love that you give to others in so many ways, are sure signs that Jesus lives and acts in and through you — and that Christmas, therefore, is really all the time!
In the first year of my priesthood, more than 6 decades ago, I had the good fortune of starting out as a full-time hospital chaplain. That was unusual in those days, and several times I was asked by concerned observers what I had done to deserve such a punishment. (I remember one person asking me what window I had broken!) In those days hospital assignments were considered handy outposts for priests who got into one sort of trouble or another. The five years I spent there were among the happiest of my life.
Among the blessings and advantages that I enjoyed were my friendships with the medical and nursing staffs and the opportunity to be with them every day in a variety of situations. I can still recall many of the conversations that enriched my life. One came back to me as I was preparing this homily. Several of us had just left the chapel after a Holy Week celebration, I think it was Good Friday. I was especially aware of the presence of a young doctor, only a few years older than I, who was coming from the Mass. He was regarded as an extraordinarily good physician; how many times I heard nurses say, “If ever I am suddenly in need of a doctor, please don’t call anyone but him.”
I was especially aware of his presence because I was feeling embarrassed over the archaic, unscientific, largely mythical character of the ancient scripture readings we had just heard, and I wondered what this learned man of medical science was really thinking.
As we waited for the elevator, I said to him, “Pretty hard to swallow some of that old stuff, isn’t it, Doctor? I think it’s about time the church brings it up to date.”
He answered quickly, spontaneously, “I’d much prefer the poetry we just heard to the lifeless prose of a medical journal.”
He was even smarter than I had previously judged him to be! Holy scripture was considered my field, not primarily his, but he taught me something I have never forgot. In that wise comment, he showed himself, as a Catholic Christian, to be way ahead of his time.
Poetry. The bible, we now increasingly understand, is full of poetry. They are not historical accounts or scientific reports that we find there; mostly they are poetic outpourings from the hearts and minds of men and women who had come to know that the one and only God of Love is always with us. They knew that that divine presence was the ultimate source of our life and our destiny. They could not find enough ways to announce to the world, “Emmanuel,” God with us! And so, where to begin but with human language at its colorful best?
At this time of the year, we hear the familiar ancient messages about a divine architect, and heralding angels, and a guiding star, and mysterious stargazers, and awestruck shepherds, and reverent animals, and a most unusual birth. All exquisite poetry! Profound message! And the doctor was right: It beats a dispassionate reading from a scientific journal any day of the week!
What are we being told in such a resilient and enduring way? It is being revealed to us that in Jesus we have a new window onto the mystery of God! What we see through that window is that we do not need a bridge between us and a supposedly distant God. No. Jesus saves us from that ancient misconception and lets us in on the until-then secret that God is in everyone and everything, in every particle of this vast and incomprehensible universe! Emmanuel: God with us!
A truth as fundamental as that cannot, should not, be left to mere factual statement. It deserves to be and it needs to be celebrated with every means at our disposal. Let’s keep listening to the ecstatic biblical authors with our hearts and minds as open as we can make them! Let’s enjoy what they have written for us! We will most certainly never hear better news than that!
With her lawyer husband, Patty Crowley, who died twelve years ago, was a founder of the Christian Family Movement and also a member of the birth control commission appointed by Pope Paul VI. Both of these distinctions, and many others, took place mostly in the 1950s and 60s.
Patty was the mother of four; she was a gentle, loving, caring person, whom Father Andrew Greeley called the most important woman of her time with regard to the involvement of the laity in the life and ministry of the church. She was, by the way, a great cook, constantly preparing and serving good meals for her family, their friends, and strangers as well.
Patty could be quite blunt, without offense or meanness: she wrote back in the 80s that she longed for a church “that is honest about its teachings, that admits its errors and faces the effects of rigidity with openness.”
In preparing this homily, I was reminded of something I had read about her around the time of her dying. The National Catholic Reporter introduced it with this beautiful description of her journey toward death and new life: “As her health declined over the past 10 years, she remained as long as possible an active member of Holy Name Cathedral Parish, reading the scriptures on Sunday and bringing Communion to the homebound; and always she warmly welcomed any visitor who cared to drop in on her, even on a moment’s notice. … (She) provided a blunt, typically pithy summary of the spiritual outlook that guided her life. (Quote) ‘I say the only important thing is Jesus’ message, and the rest of the rules are for the birds. So give food to the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, help the sick and visit those in prison. That’s what I do.’ ” (End of quote)
I think that is so refreshing, especially as coming from a modern saint, a true follower of Jesus, who lived faithfully by his rules, which he said were essentially only two: to love God and to love others as we love ourselves.
Patty Crowley may never be canonized, and I’m not suggesting that she should be. But she certainly was a prophet who, as we might colloquially express it, “cut the mustard” and focused on the essence of real Christian behavior both in what she said and in how she lived.
Of course, rules are necessary and helpful in their proper place and form; Patty would not have denied that, I’m sure. But she was right in insisting that our lives as Christians are not to be characterized primarily by obedience to rules and regulations invented by others for us to observe.
No, our Christian lives are to be defined essentially by relationships that are kind, patient, respectful, non-abusive, life-giving, forgiving, affirming, loving. As Patty expressed it, if those are not the qualities of our relationships, then all the rules that we so scrupulously keep are simply, in her exact words, as you just heard minutes ago, “for the birds.”
“Rejoice always,” St. Paul advises us in today’s second reading. “Never stop praying. Give thanks always…Don’t stifle the spirit. Don’t despise prophecies. Test everything; retain what is good. Avoid any semblance of evil.”
Our friend Father Roger Karban, whom we haven’t quoted for a long time, says, “Not a bad way to live – especially when we’re not exactly certain where our living is taking us.”