3 New Year Lessons from the Magi
The Feast of the Epiphany occurs on 3 January, just a couple of days after the World Day of Peace. Pope Francis’ World Day of Peace Message for 2016 is titled Overcome Indifference and Win Peace. Reflecting on this Message, and on the Feast of the Epiphany, it seems to me that the Magi offer us three lessons for the New Year. They noticed God’s action, they looked into the meaning of events, and they responded by taking another path.
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1. Notice God’s Action in the World
The Magi saw a new light and followed it. Their first lesson for us is that they noticed.
Amid the whirl of events and information, how good have we been at noticing? Have we really noticed the suffering and the hopes of others? Right now there seem to be natural disasters – or perhaps not so entirely natural ones – all around the world. Which of these caught our attention? The suffering and hopes of the people we know, or who seem the most like ourselves, can feel more concrete, more immediate and real to us than the suffering and hopes of people we don’t know and who seem not to be like ourselves. Think too of the differing international responses to acts of terror in Europe and in Africa and in the Middle East during 2015. Pope Francis points to this as a failure to understand that we are one human family. In his World Day of Peace Message he calls it a failure of solidarity, and of fraternity.
Francis laments the globalization of indifference and wants to shake us out of indifference to others. He stresses that personal dignity and interpersonal relationships are what make us human beings made in the image and likeness of God. Solidarity is not just a matter of recognizing similarities with those whom we don’t immediately see as being like us. It also asks us to love others as others – to embrace, accept and be enriched by their very otherness. The three persons of the Trinity – in whose likeness we are made – enjoy a relationship of unity, mutuality and reciprocity, not just sameness. Our solidarity can’t be an excuse for reducing others to being just like us.
The birth that drew the attention of the Magi is an event that happened in time, but it is not just something that happened in the past. Jesus is born every day. God is actively present in the people, places and events of our world every day. The challenge is to have eyes to see. Can we learn to be more like the Magi and notice the guiding star when it appears in our lives?
2. Seek the Meaning of Events
The Magi didn’t simply take in the presence of the new star as information – they set off on a quest to find out more. The second lesson of the Magi is that they looked into the meaning of events.
Today so much information is available to us so instantly that it can be overwhelming and paralyzing. Knowing more doesn’t automatically translate into caring more. Pope Francis says in his World Day of Peace Message:
“Some people are well-informed; they listen to the radio, read the newspapers or watch television, but they do so mechanically and without engagement. They are vaguely aware of the tragedies afflicting humanity, but they have no sense of involvement or compassion. Theirs is the attitude of those who know, but keep their gaze, their thoughts and their actions focused on themselves. Sadly, it must be said that today’s information explosion does not of itself lead to an increased concern for other people’s problems, which demands openness and a sense of solidarity. Indeed, the information glut can numb people’s sensibilities and to some degree downplay the gravity of the problems.” (n 3)
Pope Francis urges us to engage with the information available to us and to ask questions of reality. It is easier to blame people for their own suffering, or to simply accept it as a fact, than to ask why it is so. This is another form of indifference that Francis criticizes. It is linked to what he calls an “indifference to God.” Francis says that we “… think that we are the source and creator of ourselves, our lives and society. We feel self-sufficient, prepared not only to find a substitute for God but to do completely without [God]. As a consequence, we feel that we owe nothing to anyone but ourselves, and we claim only rights.” (n 3) Pope Francis reminds us that this common way of thinking is actually a misunderstanding of what it is to be human. We are not self-made and independent. We are all creatures and we are interdependent – we are all in this together. We are children of the one God, sisters and brothers to one another, related to the whole of God’s creation. We are responsible for each other and for the care of creation.
This understanding shapes our interpretation of the meaning of events. The image of Aylan Kurdi’s tiny lifeless body on a beach was not just information, it resonated around the world as a call to action. We understood in that moment that our humanity as well as the very lives of asylum seekers was at stake. Of course there had been many images before of people seeking asylum who had lost their lives in the quest for safety and freedom. In his poem The Journey of the Magi, TS Elliot speaks of returning to the same place, and seeing it for the first time. Epiphany can happen any day.
3. Respond by Taking a New Path
The Magi noticed the star, they set out to find out more, and after they saw the Child, they returned home by another path. The third lesson of the Magi is that they responded by choosing another path.
Indifference to God, to one another, and to creation are all interrelated. In his World Day of Peace Message Pope Francis says that not only do they operate at the personal level but these dynamics are also global and have institutional dimensions too. He says that indifference “can foster and even justify actions and policies which ultimately represent threats to peace” and that it “can even lead to justifying deplorable economic policies which breed injustice, division and violence for the sake of ensuring the wellbeing of individuals or nations.”(n 4)
The Magi understood that Herod was concerned about his own grip on power. They decided not to collude in his actions. They chose another path, and so must we. Pope Francis urges us to respond to reality in a committed way. He holds up the example of Jesus, who he says “did more than just see; he touched people’s lives, he spoke to them, helped them and showed kindness to those in need. Not only this, but he felt strong emotions and he wept (cf. Jn 11:33-44). And he worked to put an end to suffering, sorrow, misery and death.” (n 5) Francis calls us to a conversion of heart that we might be credible signs of the love and mercy of God.
Such personal conversion must also find expression in solidarity. In our families, in the way that we communicate, and in the way that we participate in civil society there are plenty of opportunities to foster mutual respect, responsibility for one another, and for the common good. Collective action is also needed at the community, national and international levels. We can choose a new path.
A New Year Just Begun
So, as we begin a new year, let us learn from the Magi. Rather than simply reviewing the year past, as many commentators will, let us commit to practices that help us to notice God’s action in the world in the year to come. Let us commit to seeking the meaning of events rather than simply seeking novelty or entertainment. And let us choose to shake off indifference to each other, to God, and to creation, and to take a new path towards peace.