No Exceptions

The Epiphany of the Lord

The wise men came from the east, Persia, Arabia, Turkey perhaps, to do homage to a newborn infant lying in a manger. The word “magi” indicates they were learned men, astrologers, possibly leaders among their own people. Scripture does not say how many of them came to visit, only that they came bearing gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. So, we say there must have been at least three of them bringing three gifts. And for a touch of realism, we should imagine others traveling along with them, servants, attendants, family. The magi got top billing. So, the story is tighter.

It is important that we celebrate the arrival of the magi. The shepherds who were first to hear the good news of the Messiah’s birth were children of Israel. They were local, unsophisticated, ordinary. Unlike the magi, they brought no presents. But the child in the manger was their king. He would teach them, heal their illnesses, and suffer at their hands. He was one of them. It was important he should meet them first.

Instead the magi were foreigners and outsiders. They had no claim to Israel’s history or destiny. They did not know God like Israel did, never witnessed the mighty deeds Israel witnessed, never experienced the unique relationship with God that Israel experienced. And with all their wisdom and knowledge, their extensive study of the stars and their interpretation of human history, they picked up on a truly extraordinary event unfolding, something considerably beyond their grasp. Then perhaps despite opposition from families and colleagues, they decided to set out on a long, difficult journey in search of some newborn king. The shepherds represent all of Israel to whom the angels announced glad tidings. The magi represent all whom Israel looked on with suspicion as foreign, suddenly stumbling on a wonderful historical anomaly, as it were a joyful glitch in the matrix. The magi represent you and me, once regarded in Israel’s eyes as foreigners and outsiders, too, but now through God’s favor have been granted access to mercy, justification, adoption, and an everlasting inheritance.

St. Paul assures us this was part of God’s plan from the beginning, revealed to him for our benefit. We who were once regarded as foreigners and outsiders are in fact coheirs, members of the same body, partners in the promise of salvation which comes through Jesus Christ and the gospel. We ceased to be foreigners and outsiders in God’s design long before we responded in faith. This means no one should be regarded as a foreigner and outsider any longer, simply because this was what God designed. It is not up to us, it never has been, and never will be, to determine who belongs and who doesn’t, who shares Abraham’s inheritance and who doesn’t, who are members of God’s household and who aren’t, who have total access to God’s mercy and who don’t.

From the beginning, it has been in our nature to distinguish ourselves one from another, to draw lines of exclusion according to external features like color, language, where we live, and what we drive. We have also differentiated one another according to religious affiliation: atheist, agnostic, indifferent, and believer: Jew, Muslim, Buddhist, Christian: Baptist, Presbyterian, Methodist, Lutheran, Episcopalian, Catholic: conservative, liberal, traditional, evangelical, fundamentalist, charismatic, cradle, convert. We like to use labels because they connote other meanings, whether directly intended or deservingly unintended. Life is neater when we can identify everyone and dispense quickly of ambiguities and uncertainties. We find it hard imagining God tolerating dissenters and free thinkers. Such activities only produce confusion, disorder, regrettable choices, embarrassment, and sorrow. If there was just one acceptable way of being right, there would be no need to entertain doubt or battle with conflicting opinions. You’re either in or out, right or wrong, true believer or eternally lost. You either get to heaven or not. You’re either saved or not. No ifs, ands, or buts.

But it seems God prefers a messier playing field. Despite attempts to describe that perfect believer, that faithful disciple, that zealous missionary, and at which God has met with considerable success, there have been scores of less than perfect believers, less than faithful disciples, and less than zealous missionaries. Instead, there are believers fighting doubt, disciples who struggle, and half-hearted missionaries. But God is not inclined to give up on the seemingly undermotivated, the habitual underachiever, and the self-confessed unbeliever. The fact that you and I are still here is not because we decided to not give up on God. Rather, it is God who decided to not give up on us.

In his public ministry, Jesus received all who came seeking him, the intellectually arrogant and the searching, the devout believer and the doubter, the observer of laws and the lover of God. He challenged those who thought they knew everything there was to know about God. He stirred faith in those who were convinced all they had to do was live by certain rules or perform certain rituals. He shone a light on God’s design to help us see beyond our own pride and hardness of heart. God sent his Son to redeem all people. But God must have worked out how this plan would come to fulfilment, with our cooperation of course, despite our weakness and limitations, that we might know his tremendous love for us, respond in freedom, receive forgiveness, be reconciled with our neighbor, and follow in Jesus’ footsteps in faithful discipleship. We believe our faith tradition provides for us a blueprint of holiness, of cooperation with, and faithfulness to God’s plan. If we make use of the tools our tradition offers us, we believe God will bring us closer to himself, create us anew in the image of Jesus his Son, and with our help accomplish his grand design in the world.

God invites us to broaden our own vision to see what God sees. God is not hindered by human weakness, not by selfishness, not by sin. God gave us freedom to respond to his call to embrace his very life, and God is not deterred if we turn him down or choose a different path than the one he points out. We do not cease to be God’s children because we are sinful and selfish. God calls us to regard one another with the same respect and concern as sisters and brothers. As God invites us to a deeper experience of his life, so we invite one another to draw closer to the community of believers. Through the mystery of the Incarnation and the wonder of the Holy Child revealed to the magi, God is Father of all without exception. Jesus is Savior of all without exception. And we are sisters and brothers one to another without exception. That has been God’s plan all along. And with or without our help, God will get it done.

Rolo B Castillo © 2023


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