Isaiah 60:1-6, Ephesians 3:2-3,5-6, Matthew 2:1-12
On the Gospel, Which Way to Jesus?
On a cold harmattan morning three palm fruit farmers were warming themselves by the fireside. Soon two of them were engaged in a heated debate comparing their religions to decide which one was the true religion. Okoro, the oldest among them, sat quietly listening to the debate. Suddenly the two turned to him and asked, “Decide for us, Okoro. Which religions is the right one?” Okoro rubbed his white beards and said thoughtfully, “Well, you know there are three ways to get from here to the oil mill. You can go right over the hill. That is shorter but it is a steep climb. You can go around the hill on the right side. That is not too far, but the road is rough and full of potholes. Or you can go around the hill on the left side. That is the longest way, but it is also the easiest.” He paused and then added, “But you know, when you get there, the mill man doesn’t ask you how you came. All he asks is, ‘Man, how good is your fruit?’”
In the stories of Jesus’ birth, two special groups of people came to visit the new-born babe: the shepherds and the magi. The church has no special feast to commemorate the visit of the shepherds but we have this special feast of Epiphany today to celebrate the visit of the magi. Why is that? It is because the visit of the magi is an eye-opener. The shepherds learnt of the birth of Jesus through a direct revelation from angels appearing in the midnight sky. This is direct and supernatural revelation. Many of us have no problem with that. The magi, on the other hand, learnt of the birth of Jesus by observing a star. The star did not say anything to them. They had to interpret this natural sign of the star to know what it meant and where it led. If we remember that the magi or the three wise men were nature worshippers, people who divined God’s will by reading the movements of the stars and other heavenly bodies, then we can see how the visit of the magi challenges some of our popular beliefs.
Like the palm fruit farmers, religious people of all persuasions tend to think that their religious tradition is the only way to God. This is what some of us hear when we hear such words of Jesus as: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). We hastily conclude that the way of God equals the way of our religious tradition. Yet the word of God cautions us against such a narrow interpretation. “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord” (Isaiah 55:8). That is why we are fascinated with the story of the visit of the magi. It is a unique story that opens our eyes to the fact that God is not limited to any one religious tradition.
Notice how people of different religious traditions came to know that the Son of God was born. The shepherds who were regarded as unclean and could not take part in Temple worship without undergoing purification came to know through a direct vision of angels. The magi knew through a reading of the stars. And King Herod’s scribes came to know through searching the scriptures. Visions, stars, scriptures — different ways of arriving at the same truth. Of course this does not mean that any religious tradition is just as good as the other. Notice how Matthew indicates that when the guiding star got to Jerusalem its light failed and the magi had to consult the scriptures to direct them to Bethlehem. Over and above the natural light of the star the magi still needed the supernatural light of scripture to finally get to Jesus.
Yet the crucial question in the story remains: Who actually got to find Jesus? Herod and his scribes who had the scriptures failed to find Jesus but the magi who followed the natural light of the stars were able to find him. Why? Because the Jewish authorities, even though they possessed the shining truth of revealed scriptures, did not follow it. They did not walk in the light of the scriptures. The magi, on the other hand, who enjoyed only a star light followed its guidance. It is not the possession of the truth that matters, it is how prepared we are to walk in the light of the truth that we possess. It is better to have the dim light of the stars and follow it than to have the bright light of the holy scriptures and neglect it.
As Christian we believe that our religion possesses the fullness of truth. But what does that benefit us if we do not walk in the truth? Nature worshippers or non-believers who are sincerely committed to following the dim light of natural reason may arrive at Jesus before Christians who have the exalted truths revealed by God but who do not walk the walk of faith. This is the challenging truth we celebrate today in the story of the pagan wise men who seek and find the Lord.
On the Epistle, The Mystery of the Gospel
Mark Twain used to tell a joke that he put a dog and a cat in a cage together as an experiment, to see if they could get along. They did. So he put in a bird, pig and goat. They, too, got along fine after a few adjustments. Then he put in a Baptist, a Presbyterian, and a Catholic, and hell broke loose. Mark Twain did not even bother putting together a Christian, a Muslim, and a Hindu. That was unthinkable in his days. In today’s world, however, it has become obvious that Christians live in the same cage, in the same city, in the same world, with people of other religions.
Today, the feast of Epiphany, we remember the Magi who came from faraway lands to worship the baby Jesus. They came guided by a star. Being nature worshippers who had no scriptures, God revealed Himself to them through the means available to them in their own religion. Through the stars they were able to learn of the birth of Jesus and find their way to him. They came as pagans, they worshipped Jesus as pagans, and they went back home as pagans. They did not convert either to Judaism or to Christianity. Their worship was acceptable to God and God directed them in their journey home through a dream. This shows that God does have a relationship with people of other religions who are neither Jews nor Christians.
There is only one God, and all who seek God with a sincere heart are led to Him, though they call Him by different names. One thing Christians have in common with members of other religions is that we all worship the same God. We all are children of the same Father. This truth is hard for religious people to appreciate because religious people all over the world tend to claim that they have exclusive access to God and the truth.
In the Old Testament, the Jewish people believed that they were the exclusive people of God. They divided the whole world into two: Jews who were the people of God, and Gentiles who were not. Some of their prophets and wise men tried to correct this belief by reminding them of the universal love of God for all humankind. But it was not until Jesus came that this idea began to sink in. As the letter to the Ephesians states, Christ made both groups, Jews and Gentiles, into one people and broke down the dividing wall of hostility separating them (Ephesians 2:14). This is the message of the gospel that God commissioned Paul to preach: “that is, the Gentiles have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel” (Ephesians 3:6).
Today’s second reading describes this truth as a mystery: “the mystery was made known to me by revelation” (3:3). It is a mystery for two reasons: (a) human reason alone could not arrive at such knowledge without the light of divine revelation, (b) even after the truth has been revealed it still proves to be an enigma or paradox to human reasoning. It is an enigma of the Christian faith that we believe, on the one hand, that the Jews are God’s chosen people and, on the other hand, that “God has no favourites, but that anybody of any nationality who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him” (Acts 10:34-35).
In the past, Christians tended to make the same mistake as the Jews of old by claiming that there is no salvation outside the church. Then Vatican II came along, the church opened the windows to the Spirit of God, and came to recognize that God’s truth is available to people of other religions, although not to the same degree that it is available in the church. The difference between the Christian faith and other faiths, therefore, is not that we possess the truth of God and they do not, but that, thanks to God’s unique revelation in Christ, we can know see God’s truth more clearly, love God more dearly, and follow God’s ways more closely in our daily lives. But we should always remember that if we go to sleep, even though we are on the better way, others who are on the not-so-better way could arrive at the goal before us. Let us reflect on this mystery today as we celebrate the Magi coming from pagan lands to worship the new-born Jesus while God’s “chosen people” in Jerusalem sleep unaware that the kingdom of God has come.