We don’t hear much about him now but in the 1960’s when I was in school, Malcolm Muggeridge was a household name. He was an English journalist, author, media personality, and satirist. In his youth, he was a typical leftwing intellectual enchanted with Marxist communism. Later he was disillusioned with communism after witnessing the evils of the Stalinist regime but remained an agnostic for many more years. He was often quoted as someone who knew everything about Christianity but yet didn’t believe. However, he always kept searching for the truth.
Then in 1970, Muggeridge went to Calcutta, India, to do a special documentary on Mother Teresa for the BBC. Bear in mind that at this stage Mother Teresa lived in obscurity. Nobody had heard about her. In fact we have to credit Muggeridge with making her known to the world. Here is an account by Rowland Croucher of that first meeting between Mother Teresa and Muggeridge:
“On that fated morning of their meeting (a morning that would change him for the rest of his life) Muggeridge met Mother Teresa as she was working out in the streets with sick and poor people in a ghetto like he had never seen before, amid stench, filth, garbage, disease, and poverty that was just unbelievable. But what struck Muggeridge more than anything else, even there in that awful squalor and decadence, was the deep, warm glow on Mother Teresa’s face and the deep, warm love in her eyes.
“Do you do this every day?” he began his interview.
“Oh, yes,” she replied, “it is my mission. It is how I serve and love my Lord.”
“How long have you been doing this? How many months?”
“Months?” said Mother Teresa. “Not months, but years. Maybe eighteen years.”
“Eighteen years!” exclaimed Muggeridge. “You’ve been working here in these streets for eighteen years?”
“Yes,” she said simply and yet joyfully. “It is my privilege to be here. These are my people. These are the ones my Lord has given me to love.”
“Do you ever get tired? Do you ever feel like quitting and letting someone else take over your ministry? After all, you are beginning to get older.”
“Oh, no,” she replied, “this is where the Lord wants me, and this is where I am happy to be. I feel young when I am here. The Lord is so good to me. How privileged I am to serve him.”
Later, Malcolm Muggeridge said, “I will never forget that little lady as long as I live. The face, the glow, the eyes, the love – it was all so pure and so beautiful. I shall never forget it. It was like being in the presence of an angel. It changed my life. I have not been the same person since. It is more than I can describe.”
In 1982, at the age of 79, Muggeridge converted to Catholicism, along with his wife, Kitty. This was largely because of the influence of Mother Teresa.
Like Malcolm Muggeridge, the Magi were men with restless hearts who set out towards the unknown. They were driven by a restless quest for God. They were filled with expectation, not satisfied with their secure income and their respectable place in society. They were looking for something greater. They were no doubt learned men, quite knowledgeable about the heavens and probably possessed of a fine philosophical formation. But they desired more than simply knowledge about things. They wanted above all else to know what is essential, what it means to be human. And therefore they wanted to know if God exists, and where and how he exists. Whether he is concerned about us and how we can encounter him. Nor did they want just to know. They wanted to understand the truth about ourselves and about God and the world. Their outward pilgrimage was an expression of their inward journey, the inner pilgrimage of their hearts. They were men who sought God and were ultimately on the way towards him. They were seekers after God.
The magnificent prophetic vision of the first reading today would suggest that they would find their answer in Jerusalem as Isaiah prophesied that all the peoples of the earth would stream towards this great city. But it was not to be. The Gospel tells us that the Magi, when they arrived in Jerusalem, lost sight of the star for a time. They no longer saw it. Its light was particularly absent from the palace of King Herod: his dwelling was gloomy, filled with darkness, suspicion, fear, and envy. But as they left Jerusalem the star began to shine again and led them unerringly to Bethlehem.
One could be forgiven for thinking that these wise men would have been shocked and even scandalised, when the star came to rest over a little cave outside Bethlehem and upon a poor couple with a little baby. But they were not scandalised. Just as Muggeridge was overcome by the warm glow emanating from Mother Teresa’s face, so the Magi must have been equally if not more astounded by the soft glow coming from the baby Jesus and his parents. They immediately knelt down and did him homage.
We are told that ‘they returned to their own country by a different way’. The word ‘way’, in Old Testament and New alike, means more than just the literal road they happen to take. ‘Way’ also means a way of life, a pattern of behaviour. True, the Magi had to skirt around Jerusalem to give Herod the slip, but there is something much deeper going on also. Just as Malcolm Muggeridge was changed forever by his encounter with Mother Teresa, so were these wise men from the East. They may have reached home again but they cannot return to their old ways, their old positions of power and influence, their wealth and status and luxury. This was no longer their home, because they had received from Christ infinitely more than they had given him: they had received the faith that brings with it the promise of a heavenly homeland.
Malcolm Muggeridge was changed forever by the selfless love of a Mother Teresa. The Magi were also changed by their encounter with a little infant in Bethlehem. There is much talk about putting Christ back into Christmas. That’s good. But the vital question is about putting the Christ of Christmas right there in the centre of our lives. If we leave Christ at the edges of our lives then don’t expect any radical change. We will just fall back on the same old tired way of doing things. Put Christ at the centre and it’s a whole new day and like Muggeridge we will probably say that our lives are changed forever.
Sunday, 4th January 2015