Deacon David Reiser
As we approach the end of the Christmas Season – we
Rejoice in our recollection of the Epiphany of the Lord, the manifestation the “showing” of the Son of God to man. This beautiful story of the Wise Men is among the favorites of the Christian people. It is colorful, rich, multi-leveled, endless in its meaning.
We love to hear it. We love to see the Wise Men’s appearance at our crib with their royal clothes, elegant servants, and precious gifts. We love to point them out to our children and grandchildren. We love to weave stories about them and even give them spectacular names: Casper, Melchior, and Balthazar. It’s all so Eastern, so Arabian, so exotic.
But, what did Mathew, the gospel writer; have in mind when he told this marvelous tale?
What he had in mind, I suggest is quite powerful and is of the essence of the gospel, and what the Wise Men represent.
They represent three things, and richly so. They are, as Matthew tells it, Outsiders, Seekers, and Latecomers. And they are still with us today.
First, they are Outsiders. They didn’t belong. They were not Jews. They were from a faraway land. They were different. Tradition has even made one of them black. But, Matthew tells us, they brought their own unique gifts and they were welcomed. Do such Outsiders live today? They surely do. Are they welcomed? Not always.
These past months news outlets tell the stories of deportations, young and old separated from their families. Yes, they may not all be documented, but many by no fault of their own were brought to this country at a young age by their parents who are seeking a better life for themselves and their families. Prejudice, biases and hate crimes also exists because someone maybe “different.” That skin. Those eyes. Those clothes. Who can trust them? Yes, they are the outsiders
At the crib outsiders were welcomed, no racism, no deportations, Jesus received them all. Ox and colt, shepherds and Magi, poor and rich, Jews and Gentiles – he came for them all. He would reject no one, as he would accept the unique gifts of each. What a pity if his followers don’t always treat outsiders as he did. It’s really a part of the gospel, that’s why Matthew included it.
Secondly, the Wise Men are not only Outsiders, they are Seekers. They traversed the desert in doubt. They weren’t sure. They were looking for signs, reading the stars, making inquiries. Perhaps at the end, after all, there was nothing. But they continued the journey in one another’s company.
I have met people like that. I remember talking to a young man in RCIA. He with some reluctance said, “To tell the truth, I feel like a hypocrite listening to some of the catechists, I’m not sure I believe everything the church teaches. I go to Mass but my mind wanders and I’m not into it. I have my doubts about a lot of things, about faith, about religion, about the church.” My ear caught the word “hypocrite,” because I knew that many people felt that way and were confusing the term with “seeking.” Real hypocrisy, you see, means people not only do not practice what they preach, but they are calculating about it. But seekers are different… This is the person who practices what he or she preaches, but not out of total conviction or maybe with minimal conviction and comfort. This person keeps up appearances, maybe for the sake of the children or social pressure, says prayers, goes to Mass, but has some genuine difficulty about the faith.
This person says, “How can I believe in a God who allows babies to be born with AIDS? How can I prove God’s existence? How can God or going to Mass mean anything to me since I lost my dad or my child? Since my spouse left me? Since my prayers for so many, many years have gone unanswered? I pray, such as it is, but it’s like I’m talking to myself. I go through the motions; so much has changed. So much has happened. I’m empty, dried up. What am I doing here? I feel like a hypocrite.” Hypocrite no!
This is a journey of searching. This is the discipline of keeping up appearances, not to deceive, or to test; or to win applause, but to gain some kind of a sign from God that God is there and really cares.
This is the journey of the spiritually numb hoping for a thaw. This is the full routine of fidelity. This is a quiet, joyless duty of people going through the traditional dark night of the soul. They are trying to be faithful even when they don’t get anything out of it. Such people are not hypocrites. They are searchers and seekers after truth. They are beloved of God. They are Magi seeking and they are Magi accepted. Matthew wants us to know that.
Finally, the Magi are Latecomers. Not there from the first, they may be different, they are the flirters with religion, the duckers of religion, the intellectuals, the sophisticated with another agenda, those of a different pace and orientation and drum beat. Not the usual path. Yes, these Wise Men are Latecomers. But they too are accepted. In Evelyn Waugh’s novel, Helena, a story of the Emperor Constantine’s mother… the empress is at the end of her life in Bethlehem, musing on the Wise Men. She prays out loud:
… like me … you were late in coming … How laboriously you came, taking sights and calculating, where the shepherds had run barefoot! … Yet, you came and were not turned away. You too found room before the manger…. You are my special patrons and patrons of all latecomers, of all who have a tedious journey to make to truth…. Dear cousins, pray for me…. For His sake who did not reject your curious gifts, pray always for the learned, the oblique, the delicate. Let them not be quite forgotten at the Throne of God when the simple come into their kingdom….
These are the converts, like myself, the Good Thieves, the Augustines, the John Newtons, the Tom Mertons, the Dorothy Days, and all who, finally, exhausted by their mind games, gave in to the Hound of Heaven. And those who have nowhere else to go but to a simple baby in a manger. Latecomvers, like the Magi, are also welcomed.
So, this familiar and beloved story turns out to be our story, doesn’t it? Which is why it has such an appeal. The three Wise Men are not Casper, Melchior, and Balthazar; they are the Outsiders, the Seekers, and Latecomers. Matthew knew that all along. Just as he knew the Wise Men offered quirky gifts. And he offers a happy ending… for the gifts have been accepted, the givers have been embraced. The journey is over. They had found what they were looking for. Se will you… if you treat the Outsiders, the Seekers, and the Latecomers the same way that Jesus did.