Epiphany (B) – Matthew 2:1-12
Heather, a woman who had been searching for something to believe in for years, feels drawn at last to the Catholic faith. She becomes part of the RCIA process at the local parish. Having had little religious background or education, everything she sees and learns is new and exciting to her. Everything seems to confirm for her that God has indeed led her there. Her interest and excitement are easily seen by other parishioners. Some find it an inspiration and a challenge to their own life of faith. Others shrug it off with a bemused, “knowing” smile. “She’s new and naïve”, they say among themselves. “She’ll learn someday.”
Learn what, we might ask? Why do some find Heather’s excitement appealing, and others do not? Simply put, the difference is in how people handle a phenomenon that happens to us all. Disappointment.
Being limited in our humanity, we cannot help but disappoint – and be disappointed by – others in our lives. This sense of disappointment is heightened by how much we have invested ourselves in the relationship. When it comes to a vocational choice, that sense of disappointment can feel acute. Spouses feel disappointed in one another. Children feel disappointed by their parents, and parents by children. Parishioners feel disappointed in their parish communities and their priests. Priests feel disappointed by their bishops, fellow priests, and parishioners. Bishops feel disappointed in their priests. We all disappoint ourselves. And on it goes. That disappointment can lead to a distancing, a lowering of expectations, or even a breaking of that relationship. Few people know how to negotiate the trials of disappointment. Many stay stuck in a sense of jaded disillusionment. They tell themselves that they have discovered how life “really is”. They keep a safe distance from any personal commitments, preferring to stay where they can offer criticism from afar. And yet, their disappointment remains unresolved, their deeper desires frustrated. Lacking what they need, they cannot help putting down anyone who seems engaged or content or excited about anything.
We must take one more step. Even God disappoints us. Not because God is unfaithful or unreliable. No, because we come to God with certain expectations based on our experience and on the assumptions of our culture. Because God’s ways are not our ways, disappointment is inevitable. Jesus was, at best, a disappointment to the Pharisees and Sadducees. He refused to be the kind of Messiah that some people expected. Even his own disciples had to feel disappointed when, in response to their question about whether he would restore the kingdom to Israel now, he said that the time was not theirs to know.
Jesus has promised us a great treasure, a pearl of great price. He has given us the ability to be open to it, to seek it, and to claim it. Not many of us even go that far. We hesitate, fearing to be disappointed again. But what if we do? We are led to a field, where we are told the pearl of great price lied hidden. We dig, and dig, and dig, as deep as we can go. What do we find? It’s not at all what we expected. No literal pearl. No gold or silver or diamond. Not even some historical artifact or dinosaur bone. We find dirt, worms, rocks, and maybe a lump of clay. It all looks very ordinary. This is the treasure? “Yes”, says the Lord. “Have faith”.
We have been promised the Kingdom. We have been promised that one day we will become like God, for we shall see him as he is. Yet, most days, that promise may seem very distant from where we find ourselves. We see, all too clearly, the failures of others and, if we are honest, our own failures. In fact, those failures seem even more evident now. We can feel that we are moving further from the Kingdom of God, and not nearer to it. Nevertheless, we are called on to believe the Word that has been spoken to us. Not because it makes us feel good, or makes us powerful, or rich, or successful, or honored in the world. No, to believe simply because it is God’s Word. Period. God who cannot lie, God who will be faithful, God who will accomplish in us all that he has promised us.
With all this in mind, let’s look at that familiar story of the Magi in our Gospel reading.
The Gospel tells us that Magi came from the east. They were ‘astrologers’, for lack of a better word, for the ruling class of the Parthian Empire (at this time, roughly where Iran and Iraq are today). Many ancient cultures believed that if one could properly interpret the movements of the stars and planets, one could gain insight into earthly events and even predict some major events to come. These Magi are different from the others. They see the star of this newborn King of the Jews at its rising. They could have simply observed it and noted it from the safety of their homes in Babylon or Ctesiphon. They could have maintained a safe, critical distance. Instead, for some reason, they were drawn to actually seek this newborn King. This was no ordinary King, they sensed, and therefore they could not be satisfied with an ordinary response.
Accordingly, they go to Jerusalem. That’s where the current king of the Jews, Herod, lives. That’s where they expected to find this newborn King. But no, not there. They learn from the Scriptures – God’s word – that this King is to be found in Bethlehem. Bethlehem was David’s birthplace, but it was a small, insignificant town at this time. No Jerusalem, and no Babylon. Yet, the Magi go, heedless of the disappointment. What do they find? No palace, no wealthy family. Rather, a humble family, a lowly place.
What do the Magi do? Say to each other, “I told you so!”, and leave? No, they worship this seemingly ordinary, humble child, and offer very valuable gifts to him. Why? Because God’s word had pointed out this child, in this place, as the true King. The Magi are not going by their own expectations or by what they can see physically. They are going on faith. This is one of the great examples of faith in Matthew’s Gospel. Later, we are told that the Magi returned home by another route. This was, in part, to avoid Herod. But it has another meaning. They had been grasped by God’s word. They had surrendered themselves in faith to this word, in spite of any disappointment they may have felt initially. This faith opened them to grace, a grace that changed their lives for good. They had to go back by “another way”. They are different now.
How do we handle disappointment – especially when we feel disappointed in God? When life gives us things that go against our expectations? Like the Magi, we are called to hold on to our faith in God’s Word. There will be times when disappointment seems to have the upper hand. We will feel no sign of God’s presence or God’s love. The treasure that the Lord promises us will feel like a cruel hoax. Yet, Jesus has promised us the Kingdom. He has promised us a joy and a peace that the world cannot give. He is, even now, leading us there, just as he led the Magi. At times, the star will be bright in the sky, and the going will be clear and easy. At other times, our skies will be clouded, the wind will be cold, and the way uncertain. The Lord himself is the way. He is faithful to his promises. He cannot deceive or fail. He will help us transform our old expectations. He will heal our blindness so that we can see a bit more clearly where the treasure truly is. He will enlarge our hearts so that we can learn to love him (and one another) with at least a reflection of the love that he has for us. The Lord has given us his Word. Believe it.