Today’s readings: Isaiah 60, 1-6; Ephesians 3, 2-3.5-6; Matthew 2, 1-12.
There is a common ground between believers, agnostics, atheists and those who consider themselves devotees of one specific religious tradition. In some way or other, they all want to find the key to an amplified inner life that has purpose and meaning.
In the past days, we Christians have celebrated the Christmas story, which narrates how the God we believe in has manifested Himself in a historical person at a specific point in time. That story shows how God subjected Himself to the laws of nature, how transcendence restricted itself to time and space, and how all this has become for the past 2,000 years the core belief of Christianity.
Yet, as St Paul writes in his letter to Ephesians, “pagans now share the same inheritance, they are parts of the same body, and the same promise has been made to them”. It is part of the evolution of God’s own mystery that His revelation in the person of Christ should proceed in time and space and extend further to generations not necessarily belonging to the specific religion conveying the Christmas story.
In narrative form, and from such an early stage, St Matthew in his gospel tells of “the wise men who came to Jerusalem from the East”. Jerusalem stands for the core of Christianity, but the mystery, by far broader and deeper than a specific time and place, is never exhausted in the specifics of that story.
Unlike the wise men who, summoned by King Herod, consulted the Scriptures, these wise men, through the guidance of the same Spirit who breathes wherever he wants, had different intuitions from other sources. Still, they came to Jerusalem, they also found the place “where the child was” and, most importantly, they also “fell to their knees in worship”.
King Herod and the whole of Jerusalem were perturbed by this. Just as we might feel uneasy with people whom we might judge as being on the fringes of belief, only to discover them as being at the centre. We can claim no monopoly on the divine. We want to keep religion as traditional, without accepting the challenge to reimagine and rethink it for our time.
There are mysteries that permeate our lives and unless we learn to pay attention to the inner guidance, unless we learn to authentically listen to our life, religion will fail to fill those gaps between the spiritual and the secular. Psychotherapist and author Thomas Moore, in his book A Religion of One’s Own, writes how “we don’t seem to appreciate how deeply we are affected by changes in science, technology and culture”.
The feast of the Epiphany we celebrate today points to the fact that formal religion by itself takes us nowhere and can just leave us lost in a fast-changing world. Personal religion is a requirement and it is different from formal religion. This is what the wise men coming from the East possessed, in contrast to the formal religion of the people of Jerusalem which failed to make them grasp what was really happening just round the corner.
Imbued as we are with our formal religion, we still need to kneel down and acknowledge that the mystery is much bigger than the formalities we participate in. This calls for a rethinking of religion as we conceive it and live it. Very often, our practices and traditions banalise the mystery of God and alienate us from the core of what our belief consists of.
As culturally religious people, we need to reset our mind and heart and endeavour freshly the journey from a distant standpoint to rediscover God’s ever new ways of revealing Himself. Olivier Clement, a French Orthodox theologian, puts this very significantly when he writes: “To come to the point where you disbelieve passionately in a certain kind of God may be the most important step you can take in the direction of the true God”.
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