A female parishioner of mine told me shortly after one long-ago New Year’s Day that she was giving up everything! She smiled, I laughed, curious to know what “everything” meant. She said that what she was giving up was New Year’s resolutions themselves – except for one.
And then she explained: “The one resolution I’m making is to try harder than I have tried in my whole life to keep aware of the presence of God wherever I am and whatever I’m doing. I think that will cover everything else.”
I read these words somewhere: “In a sense, each one of us had a star stop and come to rest over the place where we were baptized, for in that instant we became Christ for others…Let us pray that the presence of Christ will be manifested through us to a world longing for peace and justice.”
The clever, intriguing story that carries the Spirit’s message for us today, the commemoration of the Epiphany of Jesus, has an interesting twist that is really the essence of the message. Not only were the fabled wise men non-Jews; they were also pagans who were practicing a forbidden craft: consulting the stars in expectation of superhuman information and wisdom, a popular form of superstition even today. They claimed that it was through that very practice, condemned by the Jews, that they had found their way to the Jewish Messiah!
St. Matthew, in his Gospel, from which we heard the Good News today, is in a way scolding his fellow Jews, challenging them with the obvious fact that God had allowed Jesus to be recognized and presented to the world, not only through faithful Jews, but also by persons such as these pagan sojourners who embraced the truth when they saw it, no matter what had led them to it.
That is what we are baptized into. The sacrament does not initiate us into a narrow, exclusive community of religious members who think and worship in the same way. It doesn’t set boundaries that we the faithful are commanded to observe. On the contrary, it sends us out toward and beyond the horizon to tell the world, in everything we say and do, that God is pure, unconditional love and that we humans will be happy here on earth only to the extent that we live and act in love – and all that that includes and implies. Our baptism does not caution us to seek out and to associate with only those who share our faith and our understanding of God, but with all persons of whatever — and of no — religion who are of good will and who live in love. The reason for that is that the Spirit of God is in them, too, and speaks to us through them as well.
As I think back over my life and recall some of the outstanding persons whose charity to others, whose generosity and kindness, whose simple, childlike trust stood in stark contrast to the cleverness of the supposedly educated and sophisticated, it is so clear to me that in them, too (maybe in them especially), without their ever intending or knowing it, I saw God.
That woman was right: there is no New Year’s resolution that outranks the determination to remain aware of that divine presence in every situation.