In any journey worth taking there is often some uncertainty. The journey of the Magi was one of uncertainty and discovery. Isaiah today says, ‘the darkness covers the earth, and thick clouds cover the peoples.’ and something is needed to pierce the darkness. It can happen when people have the courage to look and see and go beyond the familiar and comfortable to discover a presence not seen before.
Matthew describes the Magi as arriving in Jerusalem from the east looking for the newborn king of Jews. Herod is perturbed and anxious about these inquiries especially when it was confirmed that the Christ was to be born ‘in Bethlehem of Judea.’ The story of the magi is rooted in the politics of domination and the costly resistance to it. Their arrival upset the political equilibrium and called into question the rule of an insecure puppet king. Herod’s anxiety, fear and sense of threat to his power let to the killing all males children under two years of age. The cutthroat politics that resulted in Jesus’ death were present at his birth as children were being massacred.
Herod’s actions are not new in when it comes to such responses today. We need only consider the active tensions or wars around the world, within nations, in communities, and families. In conflict situations, we have suspicion, mistrust, and fear, we judge, and are not open to alternative interpretations. Herod’s experience of threat are not different from our own when comments and responses by others do not conform to our own ideas, prejudices or views. As uncomfortable that these confrontations can be when people have different perception to our own, it can be life changing to pause, listen to our own inner voices and examine our motives and intentions prior to responding.
Pope Francis has consistently called us to develop a ‘culture of encounter’. This does not happen when we dare not look at the perceptions and values of others that do not conform to ours. The Magi were transformed by their encounter with Jesus. Things would not be the same. They took another route home. They ‘returned to their own country by a different way.’ Naturally, the Magi did not wish to betray where the child was to Herod, but this feast must also point to a transformative encounter that was deeper and took them into a new future. They could not return to their old ways because they were changed in their inner selves by the encounter with Jesus. We can have similar experiences that have made a difference in our lives – whether a series of experiences and encounters or one such experience. We cannot know how much the Magi changed but it was their encounter with Jesus, and then their encounter and sharing with each other that made the difference. They could not take things for granted.
When we reflect deeply on our lives and dare to look beyond ourselves, we can no longer take things for granted. Daring to step out of our comfort zones, going beyond was is familiar and safe, we might look and see our sisters and brothers, share their experiences by being present to them, befriending them and provide for their needs. Cultivating a culture of encounter means looking and entering in the life of ‘the other’, the one who is different and it involves, as Pope Francis says, moving to the margins and peripheries of our world. Not doing this leaves us where we are. We do not look. We do not see. We do not change. We do not love as we called to love. Those peripheries can be as near as stepping out of a train or off a bus to look at our streets and see what is there.
Last year I referred to a car sticker ‘Make compassion great again’ printed by the Edmund Rice Centre where I also work in response to calls to ‘Make America (or Australia) great again!’ It aimed to contradict the impunity to corruption and human rights violations, exceptionalism, hyper-patriotism, othering of people or any attempt to straightjacket people into narrow categories. The call today is to expand our horizons and see ourselves as sisters and brothers in the world. We are challenged today to see traces of God’s presence everywhere - particularly in places and people easily overlooked. As we focus on the catastrophic fires plaguing this country, can we also include the suffering of the people of the Philippines and Fiji as they suffer from severe typhoons? Can they include the people of Yemen and Syria or the Uighur and Rohingyan people suffering various human rights abuses?
So, today’s feast reminds us where we - the Church - should be by expanding our horizons and the boundaries of our concern towards people that God choose to make a home amongst: people who do measure up or the oppressed [indigenous, gay people, Palestinians, persecuted Christians and other minorities, etc.]. It is coming up to three years since the inauguration of Donald Trump as US President. Not long after, Paul Bayes, the Bishop of Liverpool (UK) lambasted ‘Christians’ for uncritically supporting one like Donald Trump. He saw it as a collusion with a system ‘that marginalises the poor, a system which builds walls instead of bridges, a system which says people on the margins of society should be excluded, a system which says we’re not welcoming people any more into our country.’ We have seen this where people continue to be excluded along the Mexican border or the actions of Australia’s Border Force. This is possible when people remain silent and do not choose another road as we heard in the gospel. People are increasingly seeing themselves as distinct from and ‘other than’ others. Our faith can also become exclusive to the extent that it must be defended against people with different views. God become flesh crosses all kinds of boundaries and refuses to be defensive or self-protective or draw lines of separation.
The message today is of an alternative view of God’s presence found in engaging compassionately and sharing with others, and protecting and defending the least. We cannot be content with our ‘faith’ if it does not touch suffering people and ‘the least’ among us. We cannot be content when our church leaders make decisions about care for people based on the dollar rather than what is core ministry and excludes those affected such as people in prison, youth and Aboriginal people. The One who attracted the Magi also attracted Samaritan adulterers, immoral prostitutes, greasy tax collectors, despised Roman soldiers, and ostracised lepers – and he would pay the price for that.
We have choices. Respond to the broadness of God of mercy or contain God within the bounds of our doctrines and imagination? The magi chose another road. They chose to do things differently – to be ‘about the things of God’ - the things close to God’s heart. As we begin another year, we might listen to those seekers, especially young people, who want more than what conventional and ritualised religion, can offer. God is bigger than any ritual or tradition and is always waiting to encounter us anew, somewhere beyond our expectations.
Epiphany is any time when God appears in surprising places and pushes against our constructed realities .We may be surprised in the places and people where we might meet God. We might also surprise God by our courage when we show up in places and situations and with people because we have taken another road. Today we can continue to make the foolish claim that tenderness triumphs and that love wins.