My Dear Friends in Christ
Grace and peace to you in God, our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit as we join the Magi in their silent homage on this feast of the Epiphany. While studying in Israel during the fall of 2000, I had many eye opening experiences. It was the first time I lived in a place in which I was a minority; a white guy who couldn’t speak Hebrew or Arabic. I learned what it was like to be calm around 17 and 18 year old soldiers carrying guns. And, I learned a lot from a man named Baruch Schwartz. Professor Schwartz was a conservative Jew who was asked to teach my class all about the prophets. We walked into his classroom the first day with a great deal of skepticism. We all wondered how a Jew would teach Christians anything of value about the prophets. I mean, would we even interpret the Bible in the same way. My class was talking on the way there about how we had all had arguments with Christian fundamentalists in which we quickly discovered that we would never agree because we were interpreting the Bible differently. They would take a passage, say that it doesn’t say something, and then say that means the Catholic Church is wrong. Oftentimes we, on the other hand, had trouble debunking them because we didn’t know the chapter and verse number, let alone the complete quote we were searching for. So, as we sat in the room waiting for our professor to arrive, I remember there being a certain unusual tension hanging in the room.
In the gospel today, we hear about the visit of Magi to the newborn Christ-child. We often associate these figures with kings because of the Old Testament verses, present both in the first reading and responsorial psalm today; kings from Tarshish and the sea coasts. These are actually the representatives of kings, the equivalent to presidential advisors. They were intellectuals who followed the star to where Jesus lay with his mother. What’s striking, of course, is that these are not Jews. They wouldn’t have known anything about the Old Testament predictions of their coming. They simply see something unusual in the sky, a star that guides them to the house where Jesus lay. And, yet, these are the ones who are among the first to fall down prostrate in awe and respect of the newborn king. It’s as though God is signaling through these priestly representatives of foreign kings that his works are always mysterious, always grander than our meager minds can accept, and never confined to one group or person. God works in and through whomever God wants to work.
Oftentimes, we have a great deal of skepticism toward people of other faiths. We hear about terrorism and violence between Christians and Muslims, we see how strangely that a Hindu dresses, or we hear the knock of the Jehovah’s Witness or Mormon at the door and we start to feel fearful because their traditions are so different than our own. And, yet, if we start from the differences, we may never find what connects us. That’s what my classmates and I discovered in that Prophets class in Israel. As he started talking about the Prophets, we found out that we agree on most things. We agree with our Jewish brothers and sisters that Prophets are, first and foremost, warning the people to repent and return to their lives of faith. Prophets are not setting forth a secretive agenda about the future that only a few “in the know” can understand. They are telling people that, if they follow the way of the Lord and do what he commands that, “Nations shall walk by your light, and kings by your shining radiance” to quote the first reading.
This is why the Second Vatican Council said, “From ancient times down to the present, there is found among various peoples a certain perception of that hidden power which hovers over the course of things and over the events of human history; at times some indeed have come to the recognition of a Supreme Being, or even of a Father. This perception and recognition penetrates their lives with a profound religious sense.” As individuals, we need to forge closer ties with all people of faith. Part of the way we do this, believe it or not, is to be comfortable enough as Christians that we don’t fear people who have different beliefs than our own. And, we must focus on points of agreement instead of rushing to areas of disagreement, even if the only agreement we can find is a basic belief in God or a Higher Power. Sometimes this is particularly frustrating because the person with whom we are conversing may make ignorant statements about Christianity or Catholicism that make us want to fight back. But, remember, in those situations, that the earliest defining characteristic of Christians is that we loved even those who hated us. To, again, quote the second Vatican Council, “We cannot truly call on God, the Father of all, if we refuse to treat in a brotherly way any(one), created…in the image of God. (Humanity’s) relation to God the Father and his relationship to humanity are so linked together that Scripture says: "He who does not love does not know God" (1 John 4:8).