Tag Archives: Magi

Jesus’ Last Sabbath

Anastasis, Fresco painting, Chora Church Collection, 11th century

Holy Saturday

Earth received a new and incorruptible seed in her womb when Jesus was laid to rest, wrapped in cloths as in a manger, and perfumed with myrrh, as the Magi anticipated. Christ’s journey from birth to death was complete. The Jewish Sabbath begins in the evening until the following day. Thus Jesus spent one full day in the heart of the earth on the Sabbath. “It is finished,” Jesus breathed at last from the Cross (John 19:30), mirroring the Creator on the Sabbath:

On the seventh day God completed the work he had been doing; he rested on the seventh day from all the work he had undertaken.

Genesis 2:2

Sacred silence fell upon the earth as the King slept. Unseen marvels took place as Jesus descended into Sheol “to free from sorrow the captives Adam and Eve” and to “proclaim the Good News to the spirits imprisoned there.”

The Son took his mother and father by the hand and raised them. 

Rise, let us leave this place, for you are in me and I am in you. We are one and cannot be separated. I forbade you the tree that was only a symbol of life, but see, I who am life itself am now one with you.2

After a full Sabbath’s rest, a new day would dawn, the eighth day, for “Behold, I make all things new” (Revelation 21:5).3

-GMC


References

1 From an Ancient Homily on Holy Saturday, and Catechism of the Catholic Church 632.

2 From an Ancient Homily on Holy Saturday.

3 Catechism of the Catholic Church 349. 

Bread of Life

John “came to the tomb first, and he saw and believed” (John 20:8).

Wednesday of the Third Week of Easter

John 6:35-40

Egō eimi ho artos tēs zōēs. I AM the Bread of Life. 

After the miracle of the loaves and fishes, Jesus revealed his divine identity in the form of an I AM statement, hearkening back to the revelation of God’s name to Moses at the burning bush (Exodus 3:14; LXX). 

Food, the fundamental need of all sentient flesh, was the chief catalyst in the protological trial of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. A desire for something more that would satisfy a mysterious longing drove them to partake of the forbidden fruit. Brokenness, division, and unquenchable hunger and thirst followed in its wake. Toiling for food from cursed ground became Adam’s lot as he and his progeny entered the treadwheel of “dust to dust” (Genesis 3:19).

Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me will never hunger…

John 6:35

The first persons who “come” (erchomai) and seek Jesus in the New Testament are the Magi:

“Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We saw his star at its rising and have come to do him homage.”

Matthew 2:2

The chief priests and the scribes, quoting Micah 5:1(2), informed King Herod that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem, which means “house of bread” (Matthew 2:6). 

…and whoever believes in me will never thirst.

John 6:35

“Believe me,” Jesus told the Samaritan woman at the well.

“Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again; but whoever drinks the water I shall give will never thirst; the water I shall give will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”

John 4:13-14

The verb “believe” (pisteuó) is deeply personal, involving trust and surrender to the Word of God who is “true” (aléthinos, “made of truth;” see John 6:32). 

But I told you that although you have seen [me], you do not believe.

John 6:36

“Seeing” (horaó) and “believing” (pisteuó) involve more than the retina. The Magi “saw” the star and the child, and worshipped him (Matthew 2:10-11). John the Beloved came (erchomai) to the empty tomb, and saw (horaó) and believed (pisteuó) (John 20:8). 

Everything that the Father gives me will come to me, and I will not reject anyone who comes to me…

John 6:37 

What does it mean to “give” (didómi) in the eternal Godhead of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit? Jesus repeated this verb over and over again during the Last Supper Discourse:

When Jesus had said this, he raised his eyes to heaven and said, “Father, the hour has come. Glorify your son, so that your son may glorify you, just as you gave him authority over all people, so that he may give eternal life to all you gave him. Now this is eternal life, that they should know you, the only true God, and the one whom you sent, Jesus Christ. I glorified you on earth by accomplishing the work that you gave me to do. Now glorify me, Father, with you, with the glory that I had with you before the world began.

“I revealed your name to those whom you gave me out of the world. They belonged to you, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. Now they know that everything you gave me is from you, because the words you gave to me I have given to them, and they accepted them and truly understood that I came from you, and they have believed that you sent me. I pray for them. I do not pray for the world but for the ones you have given me, because they are yours…

John 17:1-9

Something or someone “given” (didómi) is a precious gift from one person to another. The Father has entrusted “everything” (pas) to the Son, and the Son will not “cast out” or “reject” (ekballo) any who come (erchomai) to him (John 6:37).

Jesus finally enfolds the “all” and “everything” (pas) given to him in the glory of the Triune Love.

and everything of mine is yours and everything of yours is mine, and I have been glorified in them.

John 17:10

In the Bread of Life discourse, which harmonizes with the Last Supper Discourse (where bread is broken), Jesus constantly attributes the origin of his mission to the Father.

because I came down from heaven not to do my own will but the will of the one who sent me. And this is the will of the one who sent me, that I should not lose anything of what he gave me, but that I should raise it [on] the last day.

John 6:38-39

The Father and the Son act with a single, divine will. Human free will comes into play in both bread discourses as Jesus mourns the possibility of “losing” (apollumi) any of those given to him. 

When I was with them I protected them in your name that you gave me, and I guarded them, and none of them was lost except the son of destruction, in order that the scripture might be fulfilled.

John 17:12

The mystery of free will is… a mystery…

For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who sees the Son and believes in him may have eternal life, and I shall raise him [on] the last day.”

John 6:38-39

The Blessed Virgin Mary, St. Joseph, the Magi, St. John and all the saints who “came,” “saw,” and “believed” are shining guideposts in our journey to Bethlehem, the “house of bread.”

-GMC

The Mass Readings after Epiphany

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The gospel readings at Mass for the week after the Feast of the Epiphany are connected to that great feast.

The Magi seeking the King of the Jews represent the nations, the Gentiles, who seek Jesus as their Savior. In our readings for Monday Jesus begins his public ministry after his baptism by John, going to Galilee. “The Galilee of the Gentiles,” Matthew’s gospel calls it. He brings light “to a people who sit in darkness.” (Matthew 4,12-17,24-25) In Galilee Jesus fulfills the promise made to the Magi.

He repeats the words John used to define his ministry: “Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand.” But Jesus goes beyond John (Saturday, John 3,22-3); he calls a Gentile world as well as a Jewish world to turn to God, for the kingdom of God at hand.

Humanly speaking, it wasn’t a good time to begin such a mission. It’s “after John was arrested,” a dangerous time. Galilee, when Jesus began his mission, was ruled by Herod Antipas, who imprisoned John and then beheaded him. (Matthew 4, 12-25)

But God’s time is not our time. It probably wasn’t a good time either for the Magi to come to Bethlehem, in the days of Herod the Great. But God’s ways are not our ways. We can miss grace and its opportunities when we think of time in too human a way.

Accounts of the miracle of the loaves and the crossing of the Sea of Galilee from Mark’s gospel are read on Tuesday and Wednesday of this week. Commentators note that in Mark’s gospel the Sea of Galilee is a stormy path Jesus takes to reach the Gentile world of his day. The other side of the lake, the western side, was predominantly a Gentile area. They are given the same Bread he provides for the children of Israel.

It’s to “all of Galilee” that Jesus goes and “as a consequence of this his reputation traveled the length of Syria. They carried to him all those afflicted with various diseases and racked with pain: the possessed, the lunatics, the paralyzed. He cured them all.” (Matthew 4, 23-25)

Galilee is the “Galilee of the Gentiles,” where Jesus would bring good news to both Jew and Gentile.

Words of Spirit and Life

Plaque with the Calling of Saints Peter and Andrew, England, ca. 1160-80, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Feast of Saint Andrew

Romans 10:9-18; Matthew 4:18-22 

Brothers and sisters: If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved (Romans 10:9).

Not by our own strength alone can one confess the risen Christ, for no one can say, “Jesus is Lord,” except by the holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 12:3). 

In an age of mass media and globalization, Christ is drowned out in the cacophonous marketplace of ideas. Yet the lone voice of Isaiah proclaims on the first Monday of Advent, 

In days to come,
The mountain of the Lord’s house
shall be established as the highest mountain
and raised above the hills.
All nations shall stream toward it (Isaiah 2:2).

The mountain is Christ, write St. Augustine and St. Gregory the Great.1 The mountain that was plunged into the depths of hell and emerged victorious over sin and death—to this summit all nations and peoples aspire. 

An indistinct desire for the good has proliferated in multifarious meandering paths, religions  and philosophies from the dawn of conscious wonder. Christ, the Light of the world and desire of all nations, appeared without pomp or fanfare in swaddling clothes, yet drew the adoration of both shepherds and wise men from the East. Jews and Gentiles knelt before the vulnerable Divine Infant in silent awe. There is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all, enriching all who call upon him (Romans 10:12).

The ocean of the world teemed with fish of all colors, shapes and sizes made for the ocean of infinite love and mercy beyond death and destruction. 

But how can they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how can they believe in him of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone to preach? And how can people preach unless they are sent? (Romans 10:14-15a) 

The Word made flesh called ordinary fishermen to be his mouthpiece: Their voice has gone forth to all the earth, and their words to the ends of the world (Romans 10:18; Psalm 19:4-5). 

“Come after me, and I will make you fishers of men” (Matthew 4:19). St. Andrew, whom we celebrate today, and his companions dropped their nets and perishable bait to cast the words of eternal life into the ocean of tears.

Your words, Lord, are Spirit and life (Psalm response from John 6:63).

-GMC

1 St. Augustine, Sermon 62A.3 and St. Gregory the Great, Forty Gospel Homilies 33.

The Epiphany

We’re into the New Year and automatically we wonder about the future. We can’t avoid it. We’re wondering what this year is going to bring. What’s coming?

Living in a secular age as we do, we see things mainly with eyes for the here and now, which often boils down to politics and economics. What’s the country going to be like under President Trump? What’s the economy going to be like? Unfortunately when we look at things only like that, we can end up being small minded. We can think that what we see and hear and touch now is all there is. We lose a larger vision of life.

We need the spark, the light, of revelation.

Can we see that light in the mystery of the Epiphany we celebrate today? It begins with a star, guiding some travelers on their way. Can this mystery lift up our secular minds and point out something more? Is our world being guided by a Star?

To start, let’s not see the story of the Magi as a cute story of some people riding on camels coming to see Jesus. More than that, it’s a revelation of God’ divine plan which carries news for us and our world, and it’s as important now as it was then.

The Magi story is only found in the Gospel of Matthew, who was writing for Jewish Christians in Galilee and the Syria about the end of the first century. The temple of Jerusalem was recently destroyed and Jewish Christians like other Jews were facing an unknown, disturbing future. When Jesus came to them, he began his mission saying to the Canaanite woman, who pleaded for a cure for her daughter, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” (Mt 15;24)  “Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel,” Jesus first told the twelve whom he sent out to preach. (Mt 10, 5) It looked as though the promises of God were for the Jews and them alone.

But that made the promises of God too small.

Matthew’s story of the Magi was a reminder that the gospel was meant for others besides. Jesus came for all, though his ministry was first to the Jews. God wants the world to be one family and he wishes his gifts and graces be given to many peoples and places. God doesn’t save a few.

The Magi may have come from present day Iran or Yemen; two places we hardly view positively today. We tend to see ourselves a privileged people and our own country a promised land. God is on our side. Better to leave the rest of the world to its wars, its earthquakes, its immigrants, its divisions, its problems. As the old song once said, let’s find “perfect peace, where joys never cease, and let the rest of the world go by.”

We can’t let the rest of the world go by. The story of the Magi reminds us we live in a big world that God means to be one. The story of the Magi is not a sweet story about people on camels who looked and dressed and spoke differently than us. They’re symbols of the world beyond ours that’s called by God to share in his promises.

And the newcomers come with gifts.

Noah’s ark, the Magi, the Slaughter of the Innocents

Noah’s ark, the Magi, the Slaughter of the Innocents. “They’re just myths,” you hear it said. I don’t like those stories dismissed that way, because it easily leads to a further dismissal: ”Is any of it true? Probably not.”

We think straight reporting is the only thing true. “Just the facts, Mam.” Everything else is fake news. But are these stories fake?

“The Secrets of Noah’s Ark” a recent Nova program on PBS examining the biblical story makes good sense to me. In early times, floods were common in the “Fertile Crescent” the area in Mesopotamia {modern Iraq} where the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers and the ancient city of Babylon were located. So you had to keep boats handy– you never know.

You had to be ready for a great flood too, but people have short memories and people then, as now, tend to forget “the big ones.” “As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. In those days before the flood, they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, up to the day that Noah entered the ark. They did not know until the flood came and carried them all away.” (Matthew 24, 37-38)

I suspect some Babylonian priests– meteorologists and story tellers of their time– came up with a flood story thousands of years before the Noah story to keep the people of their day on their toes – and maybe challenge some early climate change deniers too. It reinforced important advice: “ Keep your boats in good shape and make sure there’s also a big boat around for ‘the big one.’”

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Exile of Jews  to Babylon

In 587 BC, thousands of Jews were driven from Jerusalem, destroyed by Babylonian armies, and were forced to make the thousand mile journey in Babylon. It was their Exile. When they heard the story of the great flood they saw it as a symbol of their own tragic circumstances. “By the rivers of Babylon, we sat and wept, remembering Zion.” (Psalm137)

Returning from exile, the Jews incorporated their version of the flood story into the Torah. It became a reminder to keep the covenant God made with them and beware of living unfaithfully as “in the days of Noah.”

Does real history underlie the story of the Magi and the Slaughter of the Innocents? Begin with Herod the Great, ruler of Palestine then, whom secular sources and many archeological monuments from the time describe quite well. Herod was a micro-manager who built fortified palaces in Jerusalem, the Herodium outside Bethlehem and other places to keep watch over his kingdom.

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Citadel, Herod’s Palace Fortress, Jerusalem

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Herodium, Mountain Fortress of Herod the Great

He promoted trade with the outside world; he built the seaport of Caesarea Maritima on the Mediterranean Sea and cultivated the trade routes from Yemen and other eastern parts that led all the way to Rome. He would have kept tabs on those arriving with spices and luxury goods of all kinds. He knew who came and went.

Were the Magi wealthy eastern traders, quite knowledgeable about the religious world of the people with whom they traded? Did they hear of the Child in Bethlehem? Herod’s advisors and everyone else knew Bethlehem was associated with the legendary King David and there were prophecies about an heir to his throne coming from there. Did the foreigners visit the Child, bring their gifts, gold, frankincense and myrrh, the prizes of their trade, and then quickly leave, well aware of Herod’s paranoia, quick temper and brutality.

Given Herod’s jealous hold on power, the story of the slaughter of the Innocents in Matthew’s Gospel doesn’t seem unlikely, True, it’s not mentioned in any secular source, but neither are many other tragic stories of the time. Bethlehem, after all, was a small town, off the beaten track. The death of perhaps 20 or so infants might go unnoticed and be quickly forgotten.

Matthew’s story is hardly a myth. Rather, it sees things through God’s eyes. The star points to the real power guiding human history; the magi represent the rest of the world coming to adore the Child. Angelic powers are always at our side. The slaughtered infants are like so many tragic deaths that seem to question God’s promise of life, but God doesn’t forget, the story says, even if human history doesn’t remember. “The souls of the just are in the hands of God and no torment shall touch them.”

If you ever visit Bethlehem, go to see the Herodium, Herod’s massive fortified palace looking down on the nearby town. Joseph wouldn’t need much urging to take the Child and his mother from this place,would he? Go to the Citadel in Jerusalem built on the highest spot in the city. You can walk where Herod once walked and imagine him looking down on his kingdom. But it was not his kingdom, after all, it was God’s. Go to Caesaria Martima, the splendid port city created by Herod. Did the Magi’s caravans reach here?

Then ask yourself if the stories of Jesus’ birth and infancy are myths.

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Caesaria Maritima

The Epiphany

Audio version of homily here:

 

Today, the Feast of the Epiphany, we remember the mysterious visitors from afar who came seeking the new-born King of the Jews. (Matthew 2,1-12)

Years ago, I remember wandering through the catacombs of Rome where early Roman Christians buried their dead. On the burial places of their loved ones they scratched the name of the deceased, little symbols and prayers, sometimes a picture from the bible.

 

In the catacombs of Priscilla there’s a 3rd century grave that belongs to a Roman woman named Severa. Her simple profile appears with an inscription that reads, “Severa, may you live with God.”

Beside the inscription are figures of the three Magi coming with their gifts to the little Child sitting on Mary’s lap. Over the Child is a star and the figure of a man, probably Balaam, the prophet who predicted a star would announce a new king in Judea. (Numbers 24,15-19)

What did this mean to her, you wonder? Surely Severa believed the Child brought eternal life to her and others like her. Perhaps she was baptized on the feast of the Epiphany, the oldest of the Christmas feasts, the most important day after Easter for baptisms in Rome and other western churches.

 

 

Her faith, which she would have expressed in the Apostles’ Creed, is the same as ours today. God made this world and guides it to its destiny. Jesus Christ is God’s Son, born of Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and was buried. On the third day he rose from the dead.

Severa believed in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body and life everlasting.

The Roman woman knew, too, the story of the Magi and Herod, the powerful king, who threatened the life of the new born Child. The power emperors who ruled Rome then were so much like the ruthless king, but Severa knew the Child was more powerful than them all. He would bring her to another world, God’s world.

“Severa, may we live with you in God.”

 

The Big Picture: The Magi

This is the time of the year when people make predictions about the future. It’s a time to look back and look forward.

Our local newspaper on Friday in Hudson County featured the predictions of a local psychic about the future of our mayor, our governor, our senator and a variety of local politicians. Psychics are big this time of year.

The host of PBS’s Newshour the other night asked his two experts to talk about the big picture ahead. “What does it look like?” They talked about the “Tea Party,” possible roll-backs in the health care program, the new Republican majority in Congress. That’s about as far as they went. I would guess the cable news channels talked about the same things from even a narrower perspective: politics and economics–American politics and the American economic picture.

Something’s missing. Our “big picture” is really a small picture. We seem to lack of larger vision of life.

We live in a secular age, an age of “expressive individualism.”(Charles Taylor) One of the drawbacks of the secular mind is its tendancy to be small-minded, to concentrate on the here and now, on what we see and do, on our personal interests. Even believers are part of a secular age and share its tendancies.

The secular age needs the spark of revelation.

What about the mystery of the Epiphany we celebrate today? Can it bring sparks to secular minds?

Let’s take the gospel story of the Magi out of its Christmas card setting and ask what its all about. The Magi were strangers, people coming from afar, bringing gifts. They recognized the Child whom others did not see. Then, we may surmise, they brought news of him back to their own people and part of the world.

The other day I was talking to a young priest from my community in Kenya, an African who’s studying now in Chicago. He was asking me about the new media and how to reach others through it. He wants to learn as much as he can from us, but he also thinks that Africa has something to offer the world, and his church in Kenya as something to contribute to the church beyond it.

Is he the Magi coming to us today?

Matthew’s gospel is the only gospel with the story of the Magi. The gospel was written for Jewish Christians in Galilee and the neighboring areas and it emphasizes that Jesus came first to them. “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel,” Jesus tells the Canaanite woman, a gentile pleading for a cure for her daughter. (Mt 15;24)  “Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel,” Jesus instructs the twelve as he sends them out earlier in his gospel. (Mt 10, 5)

Were these stories Matthew’s way to bolster the faith of  Jewish Christians beset by a powerful Jewish orthodoxy that questioned their belief in Jesus Christ? Was Matthew’s story of the magi also a reminder that the gospel was meant for others besides them?

Jesus came to save all, even though his first ministry was to the Jews. God  saves the world and his gifts and graces are in many peoples and places. He doesn’t save the few.

We live in a big world that’s meant to be one. It’s not a world to be ignored. Great gifts and burdens are there, gifts and burdens meant to be shared. An earthquake in Haiti, for example,  is our tragedy too.  A worldwide depression is our problem too. More  and more, we tend to demonize the Muslim world. The Magi may have come from present day Iran or Yemen; two places we hardly view positively today.

We are tending to demonize immigrants in our own country today. Many of us are descendants of immigrants who came here with gifts and burdens. When they first arrived, those here often saw them only as burdens to this country. We know better.

The story of the Magi is not a sweet story about camels and men dressed in strange rich robes. It’s about the big picture, a picture we should see.

Do You See What I See?

The liturgy goes slowly through the mysteries of Christ, because  we can’t know them  in a few minutes or a few hours of worship, not in a day. It takes time, a lifetime.

And so we prolong the Epiphany feast for a week in our liturgy, hoping to see what the Magi saw.

“In choosing to be born for us, God chose to be known by us. He therefore reveals himself in this way, in order that this great sacrament of his love may not be an occasion for us of great misunderstanding.

Today the Magi find, crying in a manger, the one they have followed as he shone in the sky. Today the Magi see clearly, in swaddling clothes, the one they have long awaited as he lay hidden among the stars.

Today the Magi gaze in deep wonder at what they see: heaven on earth, earth in heaven, man in God, God in man, one whom the whole universe cannot contain now enclosed in a tiny body. As they look, they believe and do not question, as their symbolic gifts bear witness: incense for God, gold for a king, myrrh for one who is to die.

So the Gentiles, who were the last, become the first: the faith of the Magi is the first fruits of the belief of the Gentiles.” (St.Peter Chrysologus)

The Magi came searching; their questions seek answers. For now, their questions rest  “in deep wonder”  before the Child.

The Feast of the Epiphany

The Feast of the Epiphany, celebrated today by all the mainline Christian churches of the east and the west, is a reminder of the universal call to salvation. 

As the Magi come to Bethlehem from afar, so all nations are invited to share in the promise of Jesus Christ. 

St. Leo the Great’s homily for today sees that promise made long ago to Abraham, who was told by God that his offspring would be as many as the stars in the sky.

“Let the full number of the nations take their place in the family of the patriarchs…In the persons of the Magi, let all people adore the Creator of the universe; let God be known, not only in Judea, but in the whole world…

This is the day that Abraham saw, and rejoiced to see…”

We should be like the star, drawing others who are far off, to know Christ, the saint says.

Like all mysteries, the mystery of the Epiphany is not over. It continues. How shall the nations of today, the peoples of the world, be led to Christ? How can we shine in the darkness, like the star, and lead them to the Child, the Word made flesh?

For more on the Epiphany, see 

http://www.cptryon.org/prayer/adx/x3k.html