"Find the lost, the hungry, the broken, and the sorrowful"
Homily from Father James Gilhooley
Epiphany Sunday - A Cycle
A mosaic of the Three Kings on the facade of the Church of the Nativity saved the site of Christ's birth from destruction.
In 664, Persian invaders were amazed to see the Three Kings dressed as they themselves were. They decided not to burn the Church.
When the song of the angels is stilled, when the star in the sky is gone, when the kings and princes are home, the work of Christmas begins: to find the lost, heal the broken, feed the hungry, rebuild the nations, bring peace among people, make music in the heart. (Howard Thurman)
Jesus was getting painful splinters from His tight cradle. The people had been counted by the census takers like cattle. The crowds had withdrawn. Bethlehem became a sleepy town again. Joseph took his wife and Child out of the damp hillside cave above Bethlehem. He rented a one bedroom house at off season rates on Main Street. Given his credit ratings, not even a loanshark would give him the dollars to buy a house.
In Bethlehem. the Holy Family remained about two years. Life settled into routine. They didn't have to celebrate Christmas the way we do. They were free of our physical and emotional exhaustion. Joseph freelanced as a carpenter.
But the comfortable living was ending. Soon they would have to throw a few things into cardboard boxes. They would flee as displaced persons into Africa to save the Child's life.
Their anonymity was blown by the gentlemen we salute today as wise. Inadvertently the magi had set Jesus up. The wise men were not wise. Matthew, who owns the copyright on this tale, knew that.
There was a two year interval between the Boy's birth and the unannounced arrival in Bethlehem of the magi. We conclude this by wrestling with Gospel clues. The travelers came breathlessly not to that famous cave now empty but to the rented ranch house. The greeting card people notwithstanding, Jesus was already walking and saying excitedly "Mama" and "Papa." He was in the terrible twos.
We do not know that the men were kings. All Matthew tells us is "magi from the east arrived one day in Jerusalem."
If they had been of the blood royal, Matthew would have so written. After all, his former profession as tax collector had trained him to be precise. Had they been his peers, King Herod because of noblesse oblige would have fussed about them more than he did. Their kingship and blue blood began only in the sixth century. Their names as Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar originated in the ninth.
Tradition has us speak of the magi as three. Yet Matthew does not use a number. We say three since he speaks of three gifts. Happily Matthew specifies the gifts for us - gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
In the 8th century, Venerable Bede, the Benedictine historianwriting in England, gave us the traditional interpretation of their symbolism. The gold paid homage to the Child's royal line. The incense saluted His divinity. The myrrh forewarned of the passion. However, I prefer the charming explanation of the 13th century Frenchman, Bernard of Clairvaux. The gold was to pay off the bills at the supermarket. The incense was to fumigate the house. The myrrh was intended to be a herbal medicine against worms in the Child.
Matthew does not tell us how long the magi remained. It could have been but a long weekend or an extended stay. But, whichever, fearful of assassination by King Herod, they rode off into history more quietly than they came. A centuries old tradition says Mary gifted them with the swaddling clothes of the Infant. Matthew does not speak of them again. We do not know whether Herod pursued them. We can only hope they got home safely for a deserved rest. A late 20th century Japanese artist pictures them traveling home by ship.
What is certain is that they did not march off into obscurity. These were men who would remain famous for more than Andy Warhol's fifteen minutes. They left behind them so much charm that artists, poets, and preachers have been living off them for two thousand years.
In the 20th century, two Nobel Prize poet laureates, TS Eliot and Miguel Angel Asterias, along with their celebrated confrere, Langston Hughes, felt compelled to write of them at length.
We owe Jesus a gift. Why not adopt Thurman's platform - find the lost, the hungry, the broken, and the sorrowful?
We make much of the Child this season. But dare we forget more than a billion children, over half the world's boys and girls, suffer extreme hardship because of war, HIV/AIDS, or poverty? (UN) We have much work to do this new year.