Following Jesus can feel like riding a roller coaster. There are ups and downs, trills and panic, excitement, and eventual relief but the image lacks one thing. We know where a roller coaster will let us off. We don’t know that about Jesus. We see in today’s Gospel that we may know where we will start but not where he will bring us.
The Magi didn’t even know that. Magi were originally Persian priests who advised the king especially by interpreting his dreams and consulting the stars. As we see Herod and his brain trust of priests and scribes took their reason for traveling to Jerusalem at face value. It was a common belief that the birth of a great person would be prefigured in the stars. Their news would have been profoundly upsetting to Herod who thought himself “King of the Jews.” He was so paranoid that he killed so many heirs that it was said to be safer to be Herod’s pig than Herod’s son. Herod feared that this King would be the long-longed-for Messiah who would displace him. His advisors told him that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem several miles from Jerusalem and sent the Magi on their way.
The Magi were the most remarkable people. They used the learning of the day to travel to the capital of a foreign kingdom where they expected to spend some time with their fellow aristocrats, give the newborn king some gifts and go home well-fed and with wonderful anecdotes. But they ended their journey in a tiny village with peasants. Yet, they accepted that this was in some way a king, prostrated themselves before him, and gave this most unlikely king their precious gifts. This was a long and arduous journey that ended in a place with people they could not have expected.
Then it was time for the Holy Family to travel. Herod ordered the execution of any male child who could possibly have been the Boy Messiah and an angel tells Joseph to flee with Jesus and Mary to Egypt. This he immediately does and stays there until Herod dies. Joseph has received angels before. An angel told him that although Mary was pregnant, to take her as his wife and raise the child as his own. This was a tremendous sacrifice and leap of faith for him, and he might have thought that this was all that would be asked of him. Yet now he must travel many days without knowing what will happen to his family, with perhaps an army behind him. But this was not the end, he was called back to the land of Israel but not even to his own village but rather to Galilee, the boondocks.
In the Bible, finding and following Jesus was not for the faint of heart. It still is not but it is much better than standing still.
Look at the “chief priests and scribes of the people.” The Magi could successfully navigate across a continent by the stars but needed revelation to find the newborn king of the Jews. Herod’s priests and scribes had that knowledge but did not take the moderately long walk to find out for themselves. Such is the mental and spiritual lethargy of establishments that have become too settled in their ways: complacent and lazy. They will return at the end of the Gospel to advise both the High Priest and Pontius Pilate about how to dispose of Jesus once and for all. Just as their learning proved useless for killing the child Jesus, it also did not prevent his resurrection.
King Herod took great pains to arrange for Jesus’ death but did not stir himself from his palace to see for himself. He died a few years later of an excruciatingly painful but mysterious disease that became known as Herod’s evil. Vicious to the end, it was said that he was so concerned that no one would mourn his death that he commanded that distinguished men be told that they would be executed at the time of his death so that there would be displays of grief if not explicitly for him. This is unlikely but that it was believed shows the character and the loneliness of the Man. He would have ended in a better place following Jesus.
He and his retinue stayed in Jerusalem and were spared the inconveniences of the Holy family and the Magi, but to what did their lives amount? Contact with Jesus always gives meaning and the longer and closer we follow the more meaningful our lives will be.
This is as true today as it was 2000 years ago.
The universal church is engaging in the self-examination of the synod. St Charles has participated in this and sent our observations to the Bishop. These were combined with the other Parishes in the Diocese and will be further combined with the entire country and sent to Rome for the full Synod. We shall continue the synodal process in and for St Charles,
This will be far more than just administrative matters. Covid has permanently changed Brooklyn and Queens. There will be extensive and universal restructuring throughout the diocese, and we will need to examine how we will go forward. But it is more important to know why and for whom we will do this, Last year I was most struck by the parish’s response to the asylum seekers. There was no way to prepare for this, it just happened over the Labor Day weekend. This was a typical call from Jesus, it came without warning and without any idea where or with whom it would end. I expect to be surprised again this year. A true Christian community must be like the Holy Family and the Magi ready and willing to move out of itself without a map or compass or much of an idea of what awaits. The destination, however, is always Jesus, and we get there by being formed by the spirit of God into the body of Christ.