Every time I return from visiting family, I marvel at how far we’ve come. I can admit there were times we didn’t always enjoy being together. We were never totally outrageous like those families on TV or in the movies. But we weren’t always patient and forgiving, often settling arguments by who yelled the loudest. These days we are quick to split the bill when we go out to dinner. We haven’t called each other childish and insulting names in years. There was a time we would play cards and scrabble and Pictionary. Then my sister bought a karaoke machine. So for a while, no family get-together was complete without the spontaneous songfest. Recently we discovered Just Dance and Dance Central on Wii and Xbox. But we are also able to enjoy just talking and laughing and reminiscing. I feared growing up that we were an unusual bunch. But we really are mostly nice and harmless. We may have exaggerated a good many perceptions of injustice and inequality in our youth. We may have seen each other as rivals and contenders for the same coveted prize, whether the triumph of personal achievement or the praise of those we admired and respected. Now that we are older and wiser, we can look back with a more balanced perspective. We didn’t know any better then. We did what we thought was expected of us. We made mistakes. We didn’t always listen to the wisdom of our elders. We faced our struggles head on, in spite of the risks. But we learned from experience. We survived childhood and each other. That is an outstanding achievement in and of itself. And as the middle-middle of seven children, I have long declared myself the authority on the dynamics within my own family. And I have come to the conclusion that God, whose wisdom and mercy is beyond any of us individually and all of us collectively, had something to do with how normal, healthy and sane we all turned out … or so it seems to ordinary observers.
Initially, thought we were a typical Catholic family. We prayed the rosary as a family up until I was twelve. We said grace before meals … sometimes. We went to church together most Sundays. But if anyone was missing, it would have been dad, until he attended a Cursillo weekend, and he never missed church ever again. I can’t recall one memorable conversation at home about anything particularly religious, not something in a movie, a book, or the Sunday homily. Yet today, my parents are Eucharistic ministers. An older brother is also a priest in this diocese, and another is active with the Knights of Columbus in his parish. My sister is a part-time administrative assistant at her parish. One younger brother volunteered to be a confirmation sponsor for a young man in high school, and is still involved in young adult ministry, and the church theatre group. And another brother does bible study and music at his church. I cannot say for sure what caused us to turn out the way we did, and there is nothing exceptional about any of us. But I suspect many good seeds were planted along the way.
Many among us spend a significant portion of our youth searching for meaning and purpose, sometimes with the help of our family’s Christian values and example, despite the darkness, turmoil and doubt with which we had to struggle. We watched and listened for signs that might lead to God – the stillness and intensity of nature’s forces, the simplicity and sophisticated beauty of living things, the wonder and mystery of human relationships. Typically, we set out on the journey with some idea of what we want, with the occasional assistance of spiritual guides and practical insight. Like the wise men, the magi of the Christmas story, we left behind the comforts of family and home one day in search of something beyond ourselves, something we believed would bring fulfillment and make us whole. We set out in search of God, not so much the God we heard about at home or at church, but One more real and personal. We did not want a God who watched us from afar and spoke to us through intermediaries. We wanted to see God’s face, God in flesh like our own, God who would enfold us in his loving embrace. And if your experience is anything like mine, you found yourself returning home eventually, perhaps not literally, to discover anew what has been right before your eyes and within your reach all along. When we go in search of God, we discover that God has also been looking for us. And when we behold God’s appearance at last, we are convinced that we have come home.
“And on entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother. They prostrated themselves and did him homage. Then they opened their treasures and offered him gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.” When we encounter God in a most profound and personal way, our eyes are opened and we are changed. We offer to God our enthusiasm, our joy, our commitment and our best resources. We lay at God’s feet the best of all we have and are as though we were offering gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, as though God had any need for the things we offer. Yet what we receive is worth more than anything we bring. We offer God only what we have first received from him. God offers us his very self, his life, his joy, his reconciliation, his peace. And we are caught up in excitement. Then we realize we have to return to the world we left behind, but not to the lives we left behind, not if we have been profoundly changed by our encounter with God. “And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, [the magi] departed for their country by another way.” No one who encounters God so personally and so profoundly ever returns the way they came. That is what finding God or being found by God will do to us. So if you are genuinely seeking God, you should know your life will change when you find him. And if you like your life, you shouldn’t get too comfortable, because God might be looking for you.
On this feast of Epiphany, we celebrate how God was revealed to wise men from the east by the light of a star. God desires that we encounter him on the journey. He sends us signs like stars and loving people to point the way to him. And God will keep looking for us – the proud, the strong, the weak, the poor, the arrogant, the struggling, the confident, the indifferent, the discouraged, the weary. God wants to share his life with us, that we might live consciously aware of the demands of the gospel and our baptism, for the glory of his name, and for the salvation of our neighbor. Those already profoundly changed by their encounter with God will never choose to return to the life they once had. They may have to return to help others encounter God, but they are a people renewed. It shows in the way they think, the way they speak, the way they live. They may be in the world, but they are definitely not of the world. A star beckons in the night sky, announcing that God awaits us. Are you ready to be transformed?