This time of year always reminds me of the year I spent as a teacher of Religious Education in a Catholic girls school in London, England, before I became a priest. I set a Christmas exam for one class of thirteen year olds, and these were some of the answers I got back:
“Mary and Joseph were not able to find room in the inn. I expect they were busy for Christmas.”
“Jesus was born in the year 123 B.C.”
“At the Epiphany, Jesus was visited by a bunch of wise guys. They must have been small, because we sing, “Three wee kings of Orient are.’”
“At Jesus baptism, the heavens opened, and the Holy Spirit came down in the shape and form of a duck.”
You can probably understand why I gave up teaching soon after that and became a priest instead!
The problem was that I have often found that many Catholic adults are every bit as ignorant of their faith as the kids I used to teach. Because many of them have not bothered to open a Bible or a catechism or attend a religious education course since they left school. They have advanced in their careers, raised families, have developed all kinds of practical skills, but have not advanced at all in their spiritual or religious formation.
They have matured in all kinds of ways, but not in the things of God. So they remain stuck at the level of Adam and Eve eating an apple, Noah building a boat big enough to store a pair of every single animal on earth, Jonah being swallowed by a whale, or Samson losing all his strength because of a hair cut – stories that strike them as so absurd that they assume the Bible was all made up and not to be believed. Without understanding that these stories have the character of religious myth – stories told to express ideas of profound spiritual and theological truth, which makes them and the truths they contain of eternal value and power.
Religious faith takes us beyond mere reason and scientific fact into the realm of God, of how God thinks and acts. Our Catholic faith takes us beyond the realm of earth into the realm of heaven, which is why St Paul, in his letter to the Colossians, urges us to:
“Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth..for your real life is hidden with Christ in God, and when Christ, who is your life, is revealed at the end of time, then you also will be revealed with him in all your glory.”Colossians 3: 2-4
Our real life, our life in Christ, began on the day we were baptized. Our baptism, as I never tire of teaching, makes us different, makes us children of God, gives us the character of God, the mind and heart of God, so we can understand spiritual things, the things of heaven. Which is why Jesus says, in the gospel of John,
“Unless you are born from above, by water and the Spirit (i.e. in baptism) you cannot even see the kingdom of God, much less enter it.”John 3: 3-5
But being baptized is just the first step in the journey towards heaven. That baptismal faith is planted in us as a seed, but without watering and nurturing, steadily cultivating it through prayer and Scripture and spiritual formation, it will never grow into anything much, and we will always remain at the level of infants in understanding the things of God. If we were to make a New Year’s resolution of any real good to ourselves, it would be to do all we can to grow in a deeper knowledge and understanding of our Catholic Christian faith in the year ahead.
Why are King Herod and all of Jerusalem so frightened by the news that the wise men brought, that the King of the Jews had been born? (In fact, that word for “frightened” could equally be rendered “agitated” or “disturbed”) Especially we have to ask: why did the chief priests and scribes, who were experts in the Jewish scriptures, and readily knew the answer the king asked them about where the Messiah would be born, why did none of them, who had spent their life-time preparing themselves and the people for the Messiah’s coming, why did they not rush down straightaway to Bethlehem when they heard the wise men’s’ news? This was what they had been waiting for after all, together with all the people of Israel, for so long. And now here it was happening right under their noses!!!
Wouldn’t you think that they would be madly keen to rush off to see their Saviour and Lord?
Because they, like so many Catholics, had the revelation of God on their lips, and in their minds, but not in their hearts. The truth of God had not penetrated into the core of their being, and set their spirits on fire with the love of God and his truth. Many Catholics have been taught that Jesus Christ is returning at the end of time to judge the world and send people either to heaven or hell which, if true, would make his return the single most important moment in their whole lives, one that should have them focused above all else, on being ready to receive Jesus when he came. But how many of us, myself included, can claim that our future destination, for all eternity, really absorbs us and frames and shapes the whole way in which we order our lives?
To be honest, most of us are absorbed with our present lives here on earth far more than our futures, and the idea of Christ coming on the clouds of heaven, with angels blowing trumpets gets treated with the same thinly veiled disbelief as all the other stories in the Bible. The wise men came hundreds of miles out of the East, a journey not by plane of train, but by camel, taking many months, if not years, to visit a new born baby in a foreign land, and there are so many baptized Christians, who will not stir themselves, to get up out of their beds and cross the roads to the church on a Sunday, even before the coronavirus hit.
I wonder how many will come back to Church after the virus ends, because they have gotten used to not coming for so long?
King Herod is frightened, along with the chief priests and scribes of the people of Israel, also because they know this birth in Bethlehem, faces them with a crisis, which literally means a “turning point”. They know, if they let this new revelation in, if they accept that the Messiah truly has been born, then things are going to change for them. They will have to give way to the kingship, the Lordship of this new born baby. Many people, including those who are nominal Christians, realize this deep down. If they believe, really believe, that Jesus is the Son of God, and has come to earth to call people to repentance and conversion, then things will have to change in their lives, which have been so comfortable for so long.
I quoted a poem over Christmas in one of my homilies, part of which ran like this: ”Christ may be born a hundred times in a stable in Bethlehem, but if he is not born in our hearts, it will be of no avail.” To come to real Christian faith is to allow this Jesus to move out of the manger scene and into our hearts. It means we have to move aside whatever, or whoever, reigns on the throne of our hearts, and give way to Jesus reigning there instead. And that is what most people are frightened of, and disturbed or agitated about, when they hear the name of Jesus. And they react with anger and hatred, like Herod, or with indifference like the chief priests and scribes, dismissing the birth of Jesus, as an unimportant event in their lives, if it is even true at all.
“Wise men still seek him.”
So runs a slogan I have seen in house or car windows of late. Wise men and women still seek him.
Justin Trudeau? Joe Biden?
No, wise men and women still seek Jesus. It is wisdom, true wisdom, heavenly wisdom to see after Jesus, knowing he is waiting for us to open our hearts and our lives to him in this year ahead, knowing also that our lives will never be the same again.