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Epiphany, Year B: The religious search

We have all seen the desolate state of towns and cities in Iraq resulting first from the Iraq War and then from the invasion by Islamic State. Ancient cities reduced to rubble, with emaciated children in tears and equally emaciated parents desperately searching for food, water and shelter. That’s what Jerusalem was like at the beginning of the sixth century BC. It had been besieged and raised to the ground by the forces of Babylon. Most inhabitants had been killed or exiled, with only a remnant left behind.

It was to this remnant that Isaiah made the consoling prophecy we heard in the first reading. “Arise, Jerusalem, shine out, for your light has come. The glory of the Lord is rising on you.” He is foretelling the restoration of Jerusalem, the return from exile of its sons and daughters. He describes Jerusalem as a mother, recounting how her heart will be throbbing and full at the sight of her children coming home.

But Isaiah goes further. He speaks not only of the return of the Jewish exiles, but of the coming of the nations to Jerusalem. In fact, Isaiah is foreseeing not just some kind of socio-political justice and peace for Jerusalem in the short term. He is seeing much further into the future, indeed to the very end of history. He is describing the heavenly Jerusalem, the holy and eternal city in which the glory of the Lord will be its light and the whole of humanity will dwell in that light in eternal peace.

The story of the three Magi or Kings anticipates this fulfilment of Isaiah’s prophecy. They see the star, not above Jerusalem, but above Bethlehem. They call it “his star”, the star of the infant King of the Jews. They know it is not some created light that they seek, but the divine light who created it and to whom it points. They are not of the Jewish people, but their search for the mysterious figure signalled by the star makes ethnic considerations irrelevant. The one they seek has a relevance beyond such considerations. The only consideration of any significance is His Person. It is His Person who is the goal of their search and all that His Person means. I think it would be fair to go further and say that the very Person of Jesus, whether it be described as the glory of the Lord over Jerusalem or the star over Bethlehem, is their final destiny, their eternal home. Certainly, the Magi will go away from Bethlehem and return to their lives, but they will now have known that, in due course, the child they once worshipped in a manger would reveal himself as Lord of all times, places and peoples.

And this is precisely what St. Paul is talking about in the second reading. The life, death and resurrection of Christ having taken place, St. Paul and the apostles have the task to proclaim Jesus as the Lord of all. The call of the Jewish people was only ever intended by God to be the beginning of the call to the whole human race to share in the life of God, to come home to God. Tragically, as we know, the Jewish people have not yet accepted Jesus as the Messiah, but Jesus gave the power and the mandate to the apostles to preach the Gospel to all creation and to baptize in the Name of the Trinity.

The call to faith in Jesus is God calling us to come home. Humanity left home in our first parents. But no matter how far any child goes from home, there will always be a pull to return. Home is about belonging and being loved in belonging. Yes, there are home experiences where that can sadly be lacking, but even then, there is always the desire and wish that it was not lacking. You will perhaps have seen the TV programme, “Who do you think you are?” It’s about people searching for their roots, where they belong, to whom they belong. What’s interesting is the title of the programme because it says so clearly and rightly that I am where I have come from. I can know and own fully my identity, who I really am, in light of my family tree.

The three Magi were in some ways asking that question, “Who am I really?” Only they were asking it not in terms of their human ancestry, but in terms of their spiritual origin or home. They were seekers of the ultimate. They detected in themselves a restlessness to understand who they were, why they existed at all, what was the sense and purpose of life. In other words, they were searching for the source of life, a search which would bring them back to that source. This is another way of talking about man’s basic religious awareness. Religion means bound back, to go back with a sense of having ties to what you are going back to. Said differently, it is to seek home, the home lost through sin yet never forgotten and increasingly desired once more.

Before being about this or that religion, as we would say in common usage, the religious dimension is present in every person, for whether we know it or not we come from the heart and hand of God. We have an inborn sense of God. It can be obscured by all sorts of external conditions; it can be repressed wilfully by seeking god-substitutes which, however, ultimately fail us; but it cannot be uprooted because it is as natural as our desire for truth and love. Indeed, our desire for these is already our desire for God.

God’s response to our religious sense and search is to reveal and give Himself to us. We cannot know or love God properly of ourselves for our minds and wills are limited and weak. And so, after preparing the way over centuries in accordance with his own wisdom, God eventually, in the fullness of time, sends His Son, “the light to enlighten the Gentiles and give glory to your people Israel.” Providentially, the figures of the Magi represent all the sincere hearts seeking God now being given the goal of their search in the Christ-child. When the religious search meets God revealing himself, that search becomes faith, faith in the truth revealed. It also becomes love, love of the love revealed. It also becomes hope, hope in the definitive fulfilment of the promise of the heavenly Jerusalem that will be revealed.

Today, worse than losing their faith, so many of our contemporaries have repressed their sense of religion. It is a repression which is caused and made easier by the so many things at hand to satisfy our more superficial needs and wants. Consumed in such things, the deeper questions about life, especially the deep personal search for God and the ultimate answer to the question “who am I really?”, are easily suffocated. Adapting our faith to the times is not the answer, for if people’s sense of religion is at a peep they will look on our adaptations with indifference or contempt. It makes more sense rather to remain firm and strong in faith, hope and love because through these Christ can continue to shine His Light on our contemporaries. Only that Light will break through the surfeit of superficial distractions which keep people from feeling the religious restlessness of their own deepest hearts. Strengthening and deepening our own knowledge and love for Jesus Christ, and living our lives from these, are what the Child of Bethlehem requires of us today.

So, “arise, let your light shine out” and trustfully await the return home to God of those you know and love who may be lost in the moral and spiritual rubble of our contemporary civilization.