Sunday, January 3, 2016

Both Lights

   The Epiphany of the Lord   

What did the magi follow to lead them to the Christ Child?
A deceptively easy question!
Have you ever seen a star?  Of course you have!
But have you ever looked up, seen a star, 
and said to a couple of friends,
Well, I guess we need to drop everything,
buy some really expensive (but rather impractical) gifts,
and hit the road for an undetermined destination
so we can worship a little kid?

They saw a star: a very basic fact of nature.
But how did they know what it meant?
Or that it might mean anything at all?
How did they come to realize that this star
was more than just a star—
that it was an invitation, a call, a summons
to find one who came from beyond the stars,
and in fact had made the stars in the first place?

In remarks he made on the Epiphany a few years back (2010),
Pope Benedict XVI pointed out
that the magi were guided by two lights on their journey: 
by the star and by the Scriptures.
(Recall how they consult with King Herod
and the chief priests in Jerusalem.)
It’s one thing to see something in the night sky;
it’s another thing altogether to be able to recognize it as a sign:
as a specific message from God for man.
And in doing so—the Pope Emeritus says—
the magi serve as a model for every genuine seeker of the truth.

What the magi did is something that we Catholics
for a long time have simply taken for granted:
a both/and approach to faith and reason, to religion and science.
It’s in our Catholic DNA
that what we believe helps us to interpret life in the real world,
and that the real world is the place where our faith plays out.
At the same time that our ancestors
were building the great cathedrals of Christendom,
they were also establishing the university system.

But our basic operating assumption as Catholics
is being strongly challenged these days.
Many voices would tell us that you can’t be a serious student
of both divine revelation and earthly reality.
And that's a big problem.
Region can tell you to feed the hungry and care for the sick, 
but without giving you the tools to do that.
Science can tell you how to build a bomb, 
but not whether you should ever use it.
When it comes to religious faith and human reason,
choosing one over the other—as our times make increasingly clear—
has some pretty significant dangers.

There are some people today who have a religious outlook
that’s rather divorced from the real world.
They’re called Fundamentalists.
Every religion seems to have ’em.
They’re rightly concerned about what God has to say…
…but—in their thinking—
God has only said what they have heard.
Religion is all they need—
and they are more than willing to impose their brand of it
since you clearly need it, too.
Such religious fundamentalism—as we unfortunately know—
can be rather destructive when taken to the extreme.

Of course, there’s also a growing number of people today
whose outlook leaves no room 
for anything beyond this tangible world.
We can call them Relativists.
They believe that observation and experience
have the ability to tell them everything they need to know,
and they'll reach their own conclusions.
They see no need for religion
(at least, not for any public, organized one)
since—in their thinking—
what’s right and true for you may not be right and true for me.
Although a bit more subtle and sophisticated,
such secular relativism
is equally destructive as fundamentalism
once everybody starts going his or her own way.

Long before the magi opened their treasures before the Christ Child,
they had to open their hearts and minds.
They were clearly life-long learners, 
and not afraid to have their assumptions challenged, 
since they surely weren't expecting to find a newborn king 
lying in a borrowed manger.
If we want to avoid the dangerous extremes of our times,
we must do the same.
Was the last time you actually studied your Catholic religion
back in high school?  Or maybe even grade school?
It’s awfully hard for the remnants of childhood catechism lessons
to make a significant impact on an adult life.
And what do you do to keep yourself informed
about what’s really going on in the world today?
How can we bring our faith to bear
on realities we don’t know or understand?
In the seminary I remember being told
that a wise preacher keeps the Bible in one hand
and the newspaper in the other.
That’s not just good advice for preachers;
that’s good advice for all believers!

Likewise, the magi’s quest had to be more than a good idea:
they had to actually set their feet on the road,
to take action, to do something about what they’d discovered.
Do we have that same sort of courage?
Are we willing to make sacrifices? 
To overcome difficulties?  
To risk ridicule?

While those mysterious magi couldn’t have yet been Christians,
and they certainly were not even Jews,
their approach manages to model an authentically Catholic perspective:
not either/or, but both/and.
In following the light of both the star and the Scriptures,
carefully studying both worldly realities and divine revelation,
the magi find their way to the one truth all people are seeking:
he who is Truth in person,
the eternal Word become mortal flesh,
God made man.
Let us follow in their footsteps.
Come, let us adore him!

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