From Pastor Emeritus:
‘Rise up in splendor, Jerusalem, the glory of the Lord shines upon you. Darkness covers the earth and thick clouds cover the peoples; but upon you the Lord shines, and over you appears his glory…’ These words of the prophet Isaiah from this Sunday’s Mass, might appear to have been realized as I browsed the strip in Las Vegas this week! I looked up at the soaring, glittering towers of ‘sin city,’ promising happiness to the tired and restless who come here. The promise, of course, is not for a happiness that is meant to last or run deep, even if you hit the jackpot!
The Magi story, less glamorous than the Vegas strip, suggests something more lasting in the form of a character contrast between Herod and Joseph. Herod the Great had put Jerusalem on the map and built a temple that was one of the wonders of the ancient world. A Hitler-like figure, Herod outfoxed his power-seeking rivals in the rough and tumble of Roman politics, and was crowned King of Judea. Like Pol Pot in Cambodia, Mao in China or Stalin in Russia, Herod was all about Herod and advancing his own political career. He was vain, ambitious and ruthless – a known child killer, having ordered the murders of three of his sons.
Joseph was less about Joseph and more about listening to God’s word and acting on it. Like his namesake of some thirteen hundred years earlier, God’s plan unfolded itself through him in dreams. Joseph listened to God, took his word seriously and accepted it. That’s how he came to be in Bethlehem with Mary and the child when the Magi showed up. Herod was ‘greatly troubled,’ his worst nightmare was happening when he heard about the events in Bethlehem. He put his spies to work, armed his soldiers and sent them out to massacre the children in hopes of eliminating this newborn rival to his throne.
Joseph, the listener to God’s word and servant of his family, unwittingly latched on to God’s outfoxing plan. God told him in a dream to take the child and its mother and go immediately to Egypt. He knew the route was infamous for its lurking bands of thieves and murderers. Joseph listened and did what God told him to do. After the death of Herod and those who sought the death of the child, Joseph was instructed to take the family out of Egypt and bring it to Nazareth. Again, mindful of the hazards, he did just that. Joseph, poor and lowly, unwittingly outwitted the powerful and much feared Herod. He was the instrument of God’s grace. In the biblical grand scheme of things, grace always outfoxes evil – in the end.
Isn’t the Magi story a metaphor of what happens in life? The political powers of our world, the latter-day Herods, too often espouse agendas that promote various kinds of death rather than life. I think the Magi story may be telling us that God is still busy outwitting the powers of darkness in our world. If God is doing this at all he must be doing it through effective ministries and through those people who are standing up for what is right and just and compassionate and human. God is working through people like Father Louis Vitale, those women and men who publicly speak God’s truth to the powers of darkness that rule the roost – and are often made to pay the world’s price.
The Magi story is a story of hope. Hope is prophetic and not something soft and sentimental – ‘a thing of feathers’ as Emily Dickinson described it. Hope is creative, standing up in the midst of darkness, bleakness and chaos, and calling forth order. Hope sees beyond what can be seen, and imagines a more just, a more truly human and loving world. It doesn’t stop there; it demands that God bring that world about. It will come about through people like Joseph (and Fr. Louis) who heed God’s word and care for God’s family.
The restless crowds in Las Vegas this week and every week, are hoping against hope for a big win. Their hope lies in the spin, the dice, the lucky card… What many of them fail to notice is that the ‘repining restlessness’ in their hearts is one of God’s greatest gifts to them. British poet George Herbert, in his poem ‘The Pulley,’ tells of God’s plan to prevent man from mistaking God’s gifts for God Himself. Here’s the final stanza:
‘Yet let him keep the rest
But keep them with repining restlessness:
Let him be rich and weary, that, at least,
If goodness lead him not, yet weariness
May toss him to my breast.’