Thursday, January 06, 2011

We Three Kings - Epiphany reflection

The following is from eLumen, the Newsletter of the Lay Fraternities of St. Dominic, Province of St. Joseph, U.S.A.

From the Provincial Promoter’s Desk

We three kings of orient are
bearing gifts we traverse afar
Field and fountain, moor and mountain
following yonder star.

In our popular carol about the Wise Men, we quickly pass over their journey with all its fields and moors, fountains and mountains. In the usual Christmas spirit, this allows us to focus on the most important part—the presents! Each gift is given a whole verse to itself: gold for Jesus the King, incense for Jesus who is God, and myrrh for Jesus who is to be a sacrifice. Yet, for the Magi,the journey to Jerusalem and then on to Bethlehem to find Jesus was a significant trip. We don’t know exactly who they were or from where they came. Many traditions hold they came from Persia, Arabia, or Indian. Typical nativity scenes show the magi representing three ancient gentile races: Greeks, Ethiopians, and Chinese. A journey from any of these places would be incredibly long, over a thousand miles. We modern Americans have no idea what it meant to travel that kind of distances. We complain if we have to cross to the other side of town or spend a few hours in an airport. For the magi this journey would have taken months, perhaps half a year, doing nothing but traveling. Even for those with wealth and power, such a journey was not easy or safe. And certainly, camels have never struck me as being particularly ergonomic.

These Wise Men spent months traveling thousands of miles following a star. They were searching not for the Seven Cities of Gold or the fountain of youth. They gained no glory or power or fame. They didn’t even get to appear on “Amazing Star Following” on CBS. In the end, all they found is a baby boy, born in a stable, who was too young to remember or even recognize them. And so, after months of travel, they turned around and went home. Only, they were forced to sneak back “by a different way” because paranoid King Herod was trying to kill them to cover the whole thing up. They undertook an incredible journey of risk and sacrifice which brought them...absolutely nothing. They didn’t get anything out of it.

This realization is crucial to understand what the Wise Men were about. For the Wise Men didn’t make their journey to get anything. They made that journey to give. Certainly, they gave their famous gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. However, more importantly, they went to give the gift of worship. When they found the child with Mary his mother, “they fell down and worshiped him.” They were willing to travel so far and risk so much, because they found someone worthy of their worship, someone whom they could adore. This was the point of their thousand mile journey, and this is the point of the journey of each of our lives. We are made to seek someone to worship, someone worthy of our adoration.

There is a strange temptation in the world today to see religion in terms of what we get out of it. We are supposed to find the religion or the church that gives us the best service, the most for our money. I’m sure we have all heard people complain, “I don’t get anything out of Mass.” Perhaps when we’ve been frustrated with the music or preaching at our parish, we’ve even shared that sentiment ourselves. Yet, when we gather to celebrate Mass, we do not come to get to hear beautiful music, to get insightful instruction from the priest, or to get to share in our community of faith. All these things are good, but we come not to get them but to give—to give our worship to God.

We are sometimes tempted to imagine a god who doesn’t want to be worshiped, a god who is much more egalitarian, a regular Joe just like us. But in imaging such a god, we imagine something that is not God. Worshiping doesn’t fit well into our American culture as we have managed to obliterate so many signs of respect and honor from ordinary life. This makes it hard for us to see anything as worthy of honor. It also leads us to forget that man’s greatest attribute is being made in the image and likeness of God. Our fellow men and women deserve to be respected and honored because each one is like God. God Himself deserves not just to be respected and honored but to be worshiped and adored because he is God.

The new translation of the Mass that we will start using next Advent intentionally highlights this aspect of the Mass. It uses loftier language and sometime even big words—words that were chosen not because they were the easiest options for us but because they were the most worthy options for God. Those who fret that average Americans won’t be able to understand these words not only insult average Americans but also forget who is being addressed throughout most of the Mass—not us but God. The language used at Mass will be a bit different from the language we use for other activities, but that is because what we do at Mass is different from any other activity.

The effort we spend to prepare and celebrate Mass is not so we or others can get more out of it, but it’s so we can give more honor to God. The art and beauty of our Churches is not meant for our eyes or ears but is a sacrifice rising up to God. We come to Mass to give—to give everything to God. Like the Magi, in giving, we will find our greatest joy. We will discover a God who is not only a source for grace and enlightenment but one who is Emmanuel, God with us. God dwells with us giving us his very flesh and blood so that we can receive him and adore him.

Fr. Darren Pierre, O.P.
Provincial Promoter

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