In the late 1980’s a household name in the dark days of Northern Ireland was Gordon Wilson. His daughter was killed by a bomb in Enniskillen on Remembrance Day 1987. Instead of calling for revenge, he forgave her killers and began a campaign for peace and reconciliation. He later said: ‘I’m a very ordinary sort of man. I have few personal ambitions and no political aspirations. I just want to live and let live. Life has been kind to me in the main, and I have tried to live by the Great Book. I do not profess to be a good man but I aim to be. I would like to leave the world a better place than I found it, but I have no exaggerated ideas of my ability to do so. I have hitched my wagon to a star, a star of hope, the star of Bethlehem.’
It’s interesting that Gordon alludes to the star at Bethlehem. Losing his daughter in such tragic circumstances must have been a very dark night for him. Yet in forgiveness and reconciliation he was able to find a star. Stars only become visible at night and the star of Gordon’s night led him all the way to Bethlehem.
The Magi were first in line to get hitched onto a star that led to Bethlehem. There is something very mysterious about these ‘wise men’ from the east. They were not born and bred within the traditions and beliefs of Israel. They didn’t have the Great Book that Gordon talks about. Neither were they part of the chosen people. Yet it is these strangers who come to render homage to the new-born King. All of this is truly extraordinary. What brings them from afar and all the way to Bethlehem? What kind of star was it that pulled them away from their palaces and comfort zones to set out on this hazardous journey? Obviously they were great searchers willing to risk all in search of the truth. Obvious too was the mysterious workings of the Holy Spirit who can blow and sparkle wherever she will.
One mystery is how these strangers got it so right? And then that other mystery: how did the religious leaders, those to the manor born, get it so wrong? It seems that they rested on their laurels as the chosen people and their smugness rendered them stale and unreceptive? Notice that they never questioned or doubted the claim of the Magi concerning the newborn king of the Jews. There was no rejoicing however. Instead they were upset. Matthew has one very telling phrase. Not only Herod but the whole of Jerusalem was perturbed and shaken. Clearly this birth was going to upset apple carts and they were not happy to go along with such disturbance. Of course with hindsight we know that Matthew is anticipating the reception of this same Good News after Easter. Here again it was the Gentiles who flocked towards the risen Jesus while the Jews were scandalised by this same event.
The one word that separates the Magi from Herod and the inhabitants of Jerusalem was search. The Magi knew there was something more to life, some secret to the meaning of life and what our human vocation is all about in the first place. So strong was their search that they were happy to leave all, risk all, in their search for meaning. The inhabitants in Jerusalem, on the other hand, did not have this hunger. They had settled for less, far less. They had found a way of living and partly living – merely surviving you might say – and so were in no way receptive to the God of surprises.
It is rather ironic that the best piece of advice and encouragement that the Magi got, came from Herod. “Go and search diligently for the child!” While Herod had completely different motives, we could still take his advice to heart. If we want epiphany, the manifestation of God’s light and guidance in our lives, then we too must go and search diligently for the child. Go and search and find a child wrapped in swaddling clothes and ask ourselves, what kind of God is this that would want to clothe God’s self in our vulnerable, human flesh.
In the darkness of his soul and grieving his daugher, Gordon found a star that led him all the way to Bethlehem. The Magi had their darkness too, otherwise, they would never have seen their star that led them unerringly to Bethlehem. Today the world is dark also, some say darker than ever, leaving many to despair. Pope Benedict puts it down to living by our own lights and pushing God aside. “At the heart of all temptations is the act of pushing God aside because we perceive him as secondary, if not actually superfluous and annoying, in comparison with all the apparently far more urgent matters that fill our lives. Constructing a world by our own lights, without reference to God, building on our own foundation, refusing to acknowledge anything beyond the political and material, while setting God aside as an illusion-that is the temptation that threatens us in many varied forms.” (Jesus of Nazareth)
The feast of the Epiphany puts God and Jesus Christ right back in the centre where they belong. The God who became flesh in Bethlehem is a light of guidance, peace and reconciliation for all nations. The word epiphany itself means “to manifest” or “to reveal”, and what is manifested on this remembrance is that Jesus was made known to be the light of the world, the one who would save humankind, the one who would radiate God’s glory. After paying homage to the infant king, the Magi went back by another way. We too on finding our salvation in the infant Jesus, are sent back into the world by another way. The way that he has already travelled for us: the way on which we find him walking with us, the way that leads us rejoicing to the Father.
Sunday, 3rd January 2007