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His Holiness, Pope John Paul II
THE MAGI (MT 2:1-12)
As we may recall the Magi were painted on the front of the basilica in Bethlehem, and because of which it was not destroyed by the Persians in 614 AD. When the Moslems invaded Palestine a century later the Caliph- having destroyed all the monasteries around- for some reason decided to spare this same basilica in Bethlehem. He promised not to treat it as a mosque, that only individual Moslems would pray there. Christians and Moslems prayed there side by side at Christmas for a long time (E.Hoade, Guide to the Holy Land, Jerusalem 1984, p.391). And it has just been announced that the basilica has now been almost completely renovated. This is really good news this Epiphany from the troubled Holy land with its extraordinary history
Why was the early Church so successful in making converts? Why did people ever come to believe that what this new group called Christians were credible? There were competing gods and moralities everywhere in the Roman empire then. Those who were converted came from despair and wanted hope, were sick in mind and heart and needed health; they were lonely and wanted comfort. But how could they satisfy these longings? Not by reading books, for mostly they could not read, nor by acquiring things- if they were rich often they were not satisfied. Christianity was accepted principally because of the Person of Jesus; people found in him the physician of their souls. The faith was lived out in small communities in which people found meaning and purpose. Pliny the Younger (62AD-113AD) wrote to the emperor Trajan: “[This] my informers tell me was the whole of their crime or mistake, that they were accustomed to assemble on a stated day before dawn, and to say together a hymn to Christ as a god, and to bind themselves by an oath ~(sacrament- not to any crime but the contrary) -to keep from theft, robbery, adultery, breach of promise, and making free with deposits. After this they used to separate, and then to meet again for a meal, which was social and harmless. …I felt no doubt that, whatever might be the character of their opinion, because of their stubborn and inflexible obstinacy, they deserved punishment.” “ However” - Pliny adds - “when trying to compel them to offer wine and incense to the emperor’s image or curse Christ nothing can compel a [true] Christian to do any of these things” (Quoted in J.H.Newman, The Grammar of Assent , p.363).
Christianity was preached in the light of the promise to Abraham at Genesis (12:3): “all the nations of the earth would bless themselves in you.” The promise was intended as good for all. It was a promise of happiness for all; the meaning and purpose of life was presented for all who accepted it. The alternatives became redundant. Believing slaves and believing masters were both looking for the meaning of life. It was not just an intellectual quest; it was a way of life. In community they loved each other; they had the same values. They respected each other totally. They worshipped together and heard the same narratives and ideals together Sunday by Sunday in the same place, at the same table. They supported each other by their presence; and with their various caring gifts they encouraged each other- with their skills and genius. (The constant struggle to achieve this is well documented in Paul’s letters to the Corinthians).
To this day the local Church is normally a small group of people, helping each other, in a very small compass, with security, and making an epiphany of values by constancy, fidelity and open and discreet generosity. Christians do not look to the State for ideals. Christians are delighted when they receive support for their ideals. But they do not worship at the shrine of fame, money, acceptance or social significance. Where believers can exert influence for good they do so, but they cannot force it. When Christians are not supported there are many martyrs to bear witness to the price they paid for their values.
This is epiphany. We profess faith in Our Lord. We read history all the time-and especially as we celebrate Mass together, without expectation of gold, frankincense and myrrh, neither as politics, nor economics.
The Grand Scale
This is how Cardinal Newman reflected on the long and chequered history of the Church as benefiting the whole human race. He said: it imparted an intelligent notion about the Supreme God to millions who would have lived and died in irreligion, that it has raised the tone of morality wherever it has come, has abolished great and social anomalies and miseries, has elevated the female sex to its proper dignity, has protected the poorer classes, has destroyed slavery, encouraged literature and philosophy, and had a principal part in that civilising of human kind, which, with some evil, has still on the whole been productive of far greater good..” Christianity achieved success, Newman says: by the novel expedient of sanctity and suffering (p.353). And how was the message transmitted? He replies that Christians preached Christ; they called on people to believe, hope, and place their affections, in that Deliverer who had come and gone. Their way of persuasion was to give description of the life, character, mission and power of that Deliverer. They spoke of his invisible Presence and Protection here, and of vision and fruition of him hereafter….” “It was the thought of Christ”, he continued, “ not a corporate body of doctrine, which inspired that zeal” (p.359). Putting it quite simply: people were converted because they loved Christ and loved each other in Christ. Christianity had its principal success among the poorer classes who had no power, influence, reputation or education. Love has no boundaries.
So on this feast of the Epiphany- this showing forth of Christ- we reflect on why we believe, and with whom we believe. We have so much to be grateful for. Saying thanks-especially to each other during the eucharist- this is the distinguishing feature of the Christian. Love is universal; we want everyone to love what we love, and live it out day by day. Happy feast to you all. Amen.
Rev Richard J.Taylor
Spiritual Director Matercare International
Boarbank HallCumbria, UK,