Ephesians 3:2-3, 5-6
When you pull into Port Everglades at Fort Lauderdale, Florida, it has a navigational aid for the deep draft ships that sail there. Since the inlet into the port is narrow, there are two lights on towers at the inland end of the channel, one shorter and close to the water's edge, and the other taller and set back from the water. When a ship is entering the port, if it is safely in the middle of the dredged channel, the two lights will line up one on top of the other. If a ship moves say, to the right side of the channel, the lower closer light will move to the left of the higher light, and the prudent captain will correct the ship's course appropriately. And this is just one example of the way that mariners use lights for navigational assistance for ships that need to steer good courses and to avoid often submerged hazards.
Today we read of the Magi who use the Christmas star to guide them. The story does not give a lot of details, so in their absence, with our need to understand things difficult to understand, people have put in the details, in what has become the traditional legends around this event. The Magi are called kings, but this is not in the story – Magi are not kings or at least were not usually, but more likely astronomers or learned pagan priests who may have had royal patrons. We say there are three Magi, but this too is not in the account – there were three gifts, but the number of Magi is not specified. Religious tradition has given them names, ethnic origins, and other specifics that are not in the account. But I think those who need to embellish the event are missing the significant point that Matthew is trying to convey. It is a universal need for all people to want to understand the world around them and how God interacts with that world and with them personally. Here we have that search which begins with pagans, Gentiles, finding a guiding star and ends with their finding Emanuel, God-with-us, in a similar way that we all seek to find that which will point us towards finding God and purpose in our own lives. I think this is why this experience from Christ’s life resonates far beyond the actual bare-bones story.
There are two aspects to finding a guiding star that the story deals with: first, finding the star and understanding its meaning, and second, deciding how to respond to it once found. The Magi find the star, follow it, get help from Jewish authorities as to its meaning, and honor God with appropriate kingly gifts. They succeed and are commended by Matthew as a model to follow. Herod fails on both aspects of this event. He seems unaware that there was even a star to be found, sort of like most of us would have been unaware a few weeks ago that Saturn and Jupiter were close to each other in a very uncommon way unless we had heard about it through the media. And after he is made aware of it, Herod responds not with joy at the possibility of a Messiah, that great promise from God his fellow Jews had been waiting for centuries, but instead sees it as a threat to his own thrown, and therefore it guides him to react sinfully, including the massacre of the innocents. It is not the Jew Herod but the Gentile Magi who follow the star and understand its importance.
This has special significance to us, especially at this time of year. We've just celebrated the New Year, and so it is traditional that we make New Year's resolutions. In other words, we question what are our guiding stars should be – our goals, objectives, and values – and how will we follow those stars. It should be a time of hope since with a new year we can push the reset button to a certain extent. It should also be a time of contemplation, since we have all made goals in the past only to fall short of their realization, and without real change, we will only continue to make the same mistakes that we have always made, and once again come up short.
Just like a sailor, returning to port can err and run her ship aground, so too can we. A sailor can fail to see the navigational lights or not know that they are there, and therefore they do her no good. She must see them and know what they mean; likewise, we must also listen carefully to God and what he is asking us to do. Saint Paul had his star literally blind him and knock him to the ground on the road to Damascus, what he calls in the second reading his revelation, which he then shared with the churches he established and us through the letters he wrote.
Similarly, it is easy for a sailor to mistake a particular light for another. If she thinks that certain light is the navigational light but it turns out to be a street lamp or other distraction, the lights will not only do her no good but will actually lead her astray. Similarly, we can choose lights that will lead us into the shoals of life, such as a love of money, status, comfort, possessions, and the like. We cannot ignore the secular aspects of life, for it is hard to do the will of God when one is starving or sick. But if we lose sight of the teachings of Christ it will be difficult to find our way to heaven, where our star should be leading us, seeing God face-to-face. Therefore, with the start of the new year, we should not only take a hard look at what stars we choose to follow but moreover how resolved we are to follow them. It is so easy to say “amen” in church on Sunday and then let the cares of the world and the allures of sin cloud over the star so that we don’t follow it. How we spend our treasure, time, and talents is up to us. We can present them to God as did the Magi, or we can spend them in preserving our personal ambitions as did Herod. We should make sure that our New Year's resolutions include, in addition to doing better at exercising and losing weight or finally cleaning out the garage, some goals on improving our spiritual life as well as how we carry out the Lord's teachings such as the beatitudes or the corporal works of mercy.
On Monday, we will celebrate the feast day for Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton. She, like all the saints, provides a good example of someone who kept her eye on the star and made her way to God. She was a good mother and wife, supporting her family through her husband’s business failure as well as his struggle and eventual death of tuberculosis. She then centered her life on helping the less fortunate both with education and with charity. She not only founded the first religious order in the United States but essentially founded the Catholic parochial school system here. Although she didn’t have much treasure, she gave what she had in talent and time, faithful to God’s great commandment to love one another.
As we continue with the Liturgy of the Eucharist, let this act of communion bring the will of God into greater focus in our lives and into the life of the Church. Let us resolve in the New Year to follow the guiding principles of Christ’s teaching into practice. May we more fully see and understand God's guidance to becoming joyful disciples.