Sunday, January 14, 2018

Leaving It Behind

After graduating from the University of North Carolina, Jason Brown was one of the best  American football players at his position. He was soon signed for a contract worth 37.5 million dollars. However, after 12 years in the league, he decided at the age of 29 to give it all up. Instead of signing with a team, he bought a one thousand acre farm in North Carolina. Some of his teammates wondered whether he had taken too many shots to the head. His agent told him that he was making the worst decision of his life. Nonetheless, he was determined.

What motivated Jason Brown to give up a promising and lucrative career for the simple life of a farmer? He felt in his heart a deep need to provide for the less fortunate. After learning that one out of five people in North Carolina do not have enough food to feed themselves and their families, he knew he had to do more than donate money to charity. He committed himself to using his farm to provide fresh vegetables and produce to those families. Calling his business, “First Fruit Farms”, he pledged to donate the first yield of his crops to area soup kitchens and food pantries.

Though it is a far cry from the excitement and glamour he experienced playing in the National Football League, Jason finds working on the land and providing for others fulfilling. When describing his new life to CBS news he was quoted as saying, “When I think about a life of greatness, I think about a life of service.”

We live in a culture that glorifies fame and wealth. Even believers can be swept up in the illusion that if we had more money or more glamorous lives we would feel better about ourselves and all our problems would melt away. However, as the story of Jason Brown teaches us, it is the life of service to others that is the most fulfilling. Seeking to enrich others rather than ourselves is the real secret to a happy life.

Of course, we have to imagine that the decision to leave the career he had worked hard to establish did not happen overnight. There must have been many evenings when he lay awake wondering what God’s plan for him was. There must have been many days when he asked himself whether there was more to life than throwing a football around. There must have been many hours of prayer and soul-searching before making such a huge change in his lifestyle.

Such was the experience of Samuel in today’s first reading. He heard God’s call but was still too young to understand who was calling him. It was not until he received some guidance from the older and wiser Eli that he could answer, “Speak, for your servant is listening” and hear the voice of God. We do not always recognize the voice of God when He first calls us. However, He never gives up on us, stirring our hearts again and again until we finally stop and listen.

Are you feeling restless? Do you feel that your life is not as fulfilling as you expect it to be? Do you wonder whether there is more that you should be doing but do not know where to look? It could be that God is stirring your heart, calling you to something greater. Finding out what it may be is as simple as slowing ourselves down to listen to what is going on within us. Like Samuel, all we need to do is find a quiet place and pray, “Speak, for your servant is listening.”

It can be tempting when we sense a void within us to want to fill it with noise. We think that watching a movie or listening to music will drown out the discontent echoing in our souls. Other times we may be tempted to fill our schedule with activities so that we will be too busy to slow down and attend to the cry of our heart. We can also try to fill what is lacking in our lives with toys, clothes or technology. However, none of these distractions ultimately satisfies the longing of our soul. There is no way of silencing the call within us except to slow down and listen to it.

Most likely, as Jason Brown discovered, the call we are hearing is to serve others. It may be as dramatic as leaving our job to work with the needy or to dedicate ourselves to religious life. Or it may be as simple as volunteering at a soup kitchen or hospital. Whatever it may be, we will never find out unless we are willing to listen to the stirring of God in our soul.

One thing is certain. We can never find happiness and fulfillment in this world if all we do is live for ourselves. All it can bring us is endless dissatisfaction and anxiety. When we live only for ourselves, nothing is ever enough. We blame others for not meeting our needs and become collapsed in on ourselves. Only when we decide to live for others do we find our real identity and purpose.

John the Baptist is our shining example. The whole purpose of his life was to point to Jesus. Even before he met the Lord, he dedicated himself to preparing the way for the One who was greater than he. And when Jesus did appear, he was quick to point him out to others, “Behold, the Lamb of God.” Those who were following him left to follow Jesus. In that moment, John the Baptist must have experienced his deepest sense of fulfillment and happiness because he was leading others to Jesus.

We are gathered here today to interrupt our busy schedules, to slow down and to listen to the God who stirs in our hearts. He is calling out to us to make us aware of how much He loves us. Then, He is calling us to share that love with others. God has a plan for each of us. We can only avoid Him for so long. Today is the day to stop searching for our purpose elsewhere and to say, “Speak, for your servant is listening. 

Friday, January 12, 2018

Hearing The Call

Ask any married couple, "How did you know your husband or wife was the one for you?" Everyone would have a different answer. Some knew right away, from the moment they first saw each other. For other couples, the process was longer. They may have known each other for years and dated off and on before they decided to spend the rest of their lives together.

No matter how they met or how they decided to marry, every couple has one thing in common. They had to decide together that marriage was the right thing for them. One person cannot decide on his own that he wants to get married. It is a joint decision because marriage is by its nature a partnership.

As Christians, we have an even deeper understanding of what marriage is because of the teaching of Jesus. Marriage is more than a contract between a man and a woman. Marriage is a calling from God himself. God is the one who brings a man and a woman together to live as examples of the beauty of his love. That is why Jesus can say, "What God has joined, no man may tear asunder." It is God himself who joins a man and a woman in married life. It is God who calls them to live together as one.

Marriage is not the only calling. Some men are called to be priests or deacons. Some women are called to live as religious sisters. Different careers such as writing or business can also be callings. Each one of us, in one way or another, is called to be part of God's plan and to contribute to the common good. Each one of us is chosen by God to play a special and unique role in the salvation of the world.

Today's readings speak to us about what it means to be called by God.

In the first reading, young Samuel is asleep in the temple when the Lord calls him. But he mistakes it for the voice of his mentor, Eli. Sometimes we wish that God would just come down from heaven and tell us himself what he wants of us. Just such a thing happened to Samuel - in the temple where the Ark of the Covenant was, no less - and he still needed help understanding that it was the voice of the Lord he was hearing. His mentor gives him excellent advice. When you hear the Lord call, simply say: "Speak Lord, your servant is listening."

Listening is an important part of any relationship. But it is crucial to our relationship with God. If we are to know where God is calling us, we must listen. God may be speaking to us by placing a desire to serve him in our hearts. He may be speaking to us through a passage from Scripture that we keep opening our Bible to or that we hear being quoted frequently. He may be speaking to us through a friend. One thing is sure - God is trying to get our attention. We have to open our ears, and more importantly our hearts, if we are going to get the message.

Today's gospel tells the story of the calling of Jesus' first disciples. They were among those who answered the call of John the Baptist to be baptized for the forgiveness of their sins in preparation for the coming of the Messiah. John points Jesus out to them, and they decide to follow him. But something interesting happens. Before they could speak a word to him, Jesus turns around and asks them, "What are you looking for?" Jesus makes it clear to them that it is not they who are choosing him, but he who is choosing them. Throughout the gospels, no one follows Jesus on their own initiative. It is always Jesus who picks out and calls those who will be his disciples.

Just so, none of us can make our own path in life. None of us can live our lives "our way." God has a plan for each of us. We can either say "yes" to God, or "no". But our lives belong to God, and our peace is only in doing his will.

We all know how true this is by looking at our own lives. We have all tried forcing things to work out, and they just didn't. We may have wanted to be doctors or rock stars when we grew up, and it just didn't fit. Or there may have been that one woman or one man we wanted to spend our life with, and the relationship just wouldn't work. For some reason, the pieces didn't seem to fit no matter how hard we tried. We had to finally stop trying to force things to happen and let events take their course. We then started to experience peace as things began to work themselves out on their own. We could then look back and thank God that the course of our life worked out his way and not our way.

It is not always easy to know what God's will for us is. If it wasn't easy for young Samuel in the temple nor for the followers of Jesus, then we cannot expect it to be any easier for us. Like the decision to get married, it takes time for the right course of action to become clear to us. It takes much patience and a heart willing to listen for God's voice. But there is also great relief in knowing that an almighty and all-loving God is in control, and that he has a plan for us.

The Catholic spiritual writer, Thomas Merton, put together the following prayer for people like us who want to serve God but are not always sure how:

My Lord God, 
I have no idea where I am going.
I do not see the road ahead of me. 
I cannot know for certain where it will end. 
Nor do I really know myself,
and the fact that I think that I am following your will
does not mean that I am actually doing so. 
But I believe that the desire to please you 
does in fact please you. 
And I hope that I have that desire
in all that I am doing.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Cleansing The Water

On Christmas Day of 1988, Walter had a strong conversion experience. Though he had been a Catholic all his life and gone to church faithfully every Sunday, he realized that it was all a show. The gospel of Jesus Christ had never really reached his heart and changed him. Deep within, he felt a need to welcome Jesus and to put him at the center of his life rather than just going through the motions.

During the weeks that followed, Walter could not read enough of the Bible. He poured over the stories of Jesus’ birth, the appearance of the angels to the shepherds, the journey of the Wise Men, Jesus’ presentation in the temple and His baptism in the Jordan River. He reflected on what it must have been like to actually be there when these mysteries took place. The more he prayed, the more determined he was to one day make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land to see for himself where all these stories took place.

When he did finally have enough money saved and was able to book a trip to Israel, he began to feel excited about going to the Jordan River where Jesus was baptized. Like most Catholics, he was baptized as a baby. He saw this visit as a chance to renew his baptism vows as an adult and to recommit himself to his faith. In his mind, he imagined himself standing in the waters feeling his sins washed away and God’s grace rushing in.

The day he had been waiting for finally came. When the bus pulled up to the parking lot at Qasr el-Yahud, the place where tradition tells us John the Baptist baptized Jesus, Walter ran down to the bank of the river. However, what he saw surprised him. It was not the beautiful place he imagined it to be. The water was brown like coffee with not enough milk in it. Where he expected to see white sand, there were rocks and reeds. His first thought was that there was no way he was going to get into that filthy water. He just wanted to get back on the bus and return to his hotel room.

However, another thought came into his head at that moment. When Jesus came to earth, there was nothing glamorous about it. Our sinful humanity was no more appealing to God than the brown water running through the Jordan River. Yet, out of love for us, Jesus took on our human nature with its weakness and suffering. He experienced rejection, ridicule and death for us. Reflecting on this, Walter also realized what the vows of baptism mean. When he said, “I do”, it meant going with Jesus into the dark places of our world to bring His light. It meant going with Jesus into the sad places of our world to bring His joy. It meant following Jesus even when it meant getting dirty.

So, with tears in his eyes, Walter stepped into the waters of the Jordan River and renewed his baptismal vows with a full sense of what God had done for him and what he would be called to do for God and for his neighbor.

Today, we celebrate the feast of the Baptism of the Lord. Though sinless, Jesus submitted himself to the baptism of John the Baptist. He entered the waters of the Jordan River to purify them so that we could be baptized not just with water but with the Holy Spirit. Just as Walter realized when he stood at the banks of the river, Jesus humbled himself throughout His life on earth to bring us all the gifts of God’s love. The first gift is baptism which opens us up to faith, to the Holy Spirit and to all the other sacraments which follow.

However, as Walter also realized, our baptism is not only an occasion to get dressed up and to celebrate with family. Rather, it is a commitment we make to share Jesus’ concern for the lost and the broken. As Isaiah tells us in today’s first reading, Jesus came “to open the eyes of the blind, to bring prisoners out of confinement, and from the dungeon, those who live in darkness.” If Jesus is willing to stoop down and live a life of service for the poor, we must be willing to do the same or we cannot call ourselves His followers. All we would be is secret admirers.

It was also at Jesus’ baptism that the Holy Trinity revealed itself for the first time. We see Jesus, the Son, descending into the waters. We see the Holy Spirit, the third person of the Blessed Trinity,  descend from heaven like a dove and alight on Jesus. Finally, we hear the voice of the Father, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.” God reveals Himself as Father, Son and Holy Spirit through Jesus’ act of humility.

This mystery reveals to us why it is that we must seek out the needy. In serving them, we discover God. By bringing bread to the hungry, we encounter Jesus who is suffering in them. By teaching the ignorant, we feel the presence of the Holy Spirit burning within us. By embracing the lonely, we experience the embrace of our Heavenly Father who calls us His beloved daughters and sons. When we stoop down in humility to serve others as Jesus did, no matter how dirty it may get, we come face to face with the God who humbled Himself for us.

We are all searching for God. If He has seemed distant and hard to find, it could be that we are looking in the wrong places. Perhaps we are looking on the mountain tops when we should be looking in the ghettoes. Perhaps we are reading books when we should be feeding bellies. Until we are ready to get ourselves dirty, to risk our safety and to give without counting the cost, God will continue to remain elusive to us. However, if we can follow Jesus into the dark places of our world, it could just be that we will be surprised by His marvelous light shining out where we least expected to find it.

Monday, January 8, 2018

The Power Of God At Work In Us

In the Old Testament, we read about God's mighty works and the words he spoke through the prophets. God spoke face to face with Adam and Eve, called Abraham to be the father of his people and gave the ten commandments through Moses. The people of Israel witnessed God's power as he led them out of slavery in Egypt. It is in the Old Testament that God, the Father, reveals his tender love for his people and his desire to save them.

In the New Testament, we witness something altogether different. God the Father remains silent throughout most of the gospels. In fact, there is only one time we hear the Father's voice. It is in today's gospel, at Jesus' baptism.

As Jesus emerges from the waters of the Jordan River a booming voice from heaven is heard: "You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased." God the Father uses the opportunity of Jesus' baptism to let the whole world know that this is his Son, his beloved. But from here on, God the Father will remain silent. It will be Jesus who now speaks for him and performs mighty deeds in his name. With his baptism at the hands of John the Baptist, the torch is handed on to Jesus.

Before this time, Jesus lived an ordinary life among the people. No one besides Mary and Joseph knew his secret that he was the Son of God. But upon his baptism, Jesus begins to proclaim the kingdom of God with an authority that no other man had ever claimed for himself. It was clear to all who heard him that Jesus was no ordinary rabbi. John the Baptist even recognized this when he claimed that one was coming who was even mightier than he. No one had ever seen anyone like Jesus of Nazareth before.

Where did this power to teach with authority and to perform miracles come from? It came from the Holy Spirit.

The word "Messiah" means "anointed one." According to the Old Testament, the Messiah would be anointed by God with the Holy Spirit to save his people. The prophet Isaiah says of the Messiah: "Here is my servant whom I uphold, my chosen one with whom I am pleased, upon whom I have put my spirit." The gospel tells us that it was the Holy Spirit who descended on Jesus like a dove as he was baptized. The Holy Spirit empowered Jesus the Messiah to touch hearts, to free those held in bondage and to speak the truth with conviction and courage.

Now that Jesus Christ has risen and ascended to heaven, we are living in a different time. Just as God the Father remained silent throughout much of the New Testament, Jesus the Son is silent now. He does not appear from heaven to speak to us directly. He does not show up at hospitals to cure the sick or at the scene of accidents to raise the dead. As God the Father passed the torch on to Jesus, Jesus has now passed the torch on to us! It is now up to us to witness to God's love.

And so, if our family members have questions about their faith, how else will they learn the truth unless we witness to it? If our classmates are being picked on, how else will they learn about Jesus' love unless we stick up for them? If a beggar is hungry, how else will she eat unless we feed her? Jesus wants every confused person to know the truth, every suffering person to be comforted and every lonely person to have a friend. But he will not rip open the heavens and come down in a fiery chariot to do it. He will use us.

How can Jesus expect us to speak the truth with courage and perform heroic deeds in his name? Because he has anointed us with the gift of the Holy Spirit!

At our baptism, each of us received the same Holy Spirit which lived and worked through Jesus. The same Holy Spirit who empowered him to teach with authority and to perform miracles lives in our hearts through baptism and through faith. We have within us the same Holy Spirit who compelled the apostles to give testimony to the Messiah with their words and the martyrs to bear witness through their blood. We have exactly the same tool that Jesus and every saint throughout the ages has had to live the Christian life with power and confidence. Not only has the torch been passed on, but the power to hold that torch up high and carry it proudly has been given us through the Holy Spirit.  

Having the Holy Spirit at work in our lives is like having a billionaire give us a credit card. With it, we can buy things we could otherwise never be able to afford. Just so, with the Holy Spirit we have the strength of God within us which enables us to performs acts of generosity and courage we could never have dreamed of doing on our own. Because of our baptism, we have been made daughters and sons of God and now have access to that great power at work in us who believe.

When someone wins a million dollars, the first thing people ask is, "What do you plan to do with your money?" As we reflect on the gift of the Holy Spirit we have received, we should ask ourselves the same question, "What do we plan to do with the power of God at work in us?"

Sunday, January 7, 2018

By The Light Of That Same Star

During the last century, many great writers converted to the Catholic faith. Some of them are quite well known including G.K. Chesterton, Thomas Merton and Graham Greene. Others were lesser known. Nonetheless, these literary luminaries helped inspire not only the Church but the entire world with their compelling and thought provoking essays, novels and poetry.

One of the lesser known writers who converted to Catholicism was Louis de Wohl. He was born in Hungary in 1903 of a Catholic father and Jewish mother. When Hitler came into power in Germany, Louis fled to England. During that time he became interested in astrology, the attempt to foretell the future by studying the stars. Many influential people came to him to have their stars read. With three books published on the subject, his prominence as an expert grew and won him the attention of England’s intelligence service, MI5. Since Hitler was believed to rely heavily on astrology, they hoped de Wohl could provide them with useful information. However, they soon learned, as many others have since, that looking to the stars to predict the future was a fool’s errand.

Despite the fame it had gained for him, de Wohl was becoming increasingly dissatisfied with astrology. Deep in his heart, he became haunted by Jesus’ parable of the talents. He reflected on the account he would have to give to God one day for the use he made of his special talents and abilities. Eventually, he repudiated astrology and turned his efforts to writing books Catholic history. From the time of his conversion around 1945 to his death in 1961, he had written some twenty books on Catholic saints. To his mind, they were more reliable guides than the soulless stars in the sky.

Who were the Magi who come to visit Jesus in today’s gospel? They were basically astrologers. Though more knowledgeable and sophisticated than the astrologers who write horoscopes in the newspaper, they preoccupied themselves with the same question - What do the stars have to say about my future? Because of their talents, they became very rich and powerful. It is clear how wealthy and influential they were  because of the very valuable gifts they brought to Jesus and because of how quickly they were able to get an audience with King Herod.

Nonetheless, like Louis de Wohl, they must have been growing dissatisfied with the knowledge they gained through the stars. They must have wanted more. Nothing else can explain why they would have made such a dangerous trip from their homeland in modern Iran to Jerusalem and then on to Bethlehem. A journey like that would have required months of planning to hire people to accompany them, to put together all the supplies needed and to arrange the security. Then the journey itself would have taken many months if not a full year through what was still then some of the most barren and dangerous areas of the Middle East. Seeing the star and predicting His birth were not enough for them. They had to see the child for themselves, so strong was the longing that burned within them.

We do not know what happened to the Magi once they visited with Jesus in Bethlehem. All Saint Matthew tells us is that “...they departed for their country by another way.” They did not go back the way they came not only to avoid Herod but because they were changed persons. They had devoted their lives to studying the stars but they had now encountered the Light of the World. They had sought to know the future but they had seen for themselves the Lord of all History. They had looked for power over others but they held in their arms the One who created all things and sustains them in being. How could they go back the way they came? How could they continue to follow any other star than Jesus,  King of the Jews?

Like the Magi, we have been on a journey that began on the First Sunday of Advent when we lit the first candle on our Advent Wreath and heard Jesus warn us to keep watch. Since then we have burned the candles down, decorated our trees, set up our mangers and exchanged presents. In this month long journey, have we met Jesus, the star which enlightens all hearts? In His light, have we learned how unreliable are the other stars which have led us whether they be comfort, pleasure, wealth or power? Can we abandon our desire to know the future and to have power over others, even over our own lives, so that we can place all our faith in the God who loves us? Like the Magi, are we prepared to go back to our homes “a different way” because we are no longer the same?

There are many people out there who promise us security, happiness and peace. They tell us it comes from money and possessions. They tell us that it comes from consuming drugs and alcohol. They tell us that it can be found in crystals, exotic mysticism or by studying the stars. At one time or another, we have all fallen into their trap. Though it seemed alluring for a time and maybe even liberating, in the end we found ourselves depleted, confused and lost. We asked ourselves, “Is this all that there is?” Maybe there are some here today who are still asking that question.

There is no need to keep on searching. The truth has been revealed. He was revealed to shepherds tending their sheep at night. He was revealed to  Magi who traveled hundreds of miles to see Him with their own eyes. He was revealed to fishermen who left everything to follow Him. He has been revealed to women and men of wisdom down through the ages. And He is revealed to us in the Scriptures and in His Body and Blood. Here, in this place, is to be found the One your heart has been aching to encounter. Here is to be found the One who can change our lives. All we need to do is welcome Him into our hearts and our homes. Then the real journey can begin.  

Saturday, January 6, 2018

Too Busy For Jesus

There is no other holiday with as many traditions surrounding it as Christmas. Setting up Christmas trees, decorating with lights, carolling and exchanging gifts are all a part of what makes this the most beloved holiday for so many of us. All these traditions can help us to celebrate what Christmas is really about - the birth of our Savior, Jesus.

Since Christmas is celebrated throughout the world, every country has developed its own stories and traditions around the holiday.

One interesting Christmas tradition comes from Italy. It is the legend of the Befana. As the story is told, Befana was a woman who kept a very clean house and was always hospitable to strangers. So when the wise men were making their way to Bethlehem to see the Christ child, they spent a night at her home. Because she was so kind to them, they asked her if she wanted to join them to see the baby Jesus. However, she said that she was too busy with her chores around the house to go on the trip. Later, she regretted not going along with them and so every Epiphany night she goes out to visit every home with small children in it leaving gifts in hopes of finding the Christ child.

Like many children’s stories, the legend of the Befana has much to teach us in today’s fast pace world. Just as the decorating and gift giving surrounding Christmas can help us celebrate Jesus’ birth, it can also distract us from what is most important. All the busy work we fill our days with can keep us from taking the opportunity to go out and meet the Christ child who comes to save us.

In today’s society, we value keeping busy. When we have a lot to do, we feel needed and important. But all the busyness of today’s world is also a way of avoiding reality. Just as an alcoholic drinks to avoid dealing with his problems, so we often keep ourselves busy to avoid dealing with issues we may be having in our relationships or with painful emotions we may be feeling. If we are feeling ragged and irritable or if we are feeling unappreciated, it is important for us to make some time to look at why we are so busy and whether what we are filling our time with is really as important as it seems. Most especially, we must take a good hard look at what we may be trying to avoid and what we may be missing out on.

The wise men are a good example for us. They were obviously highly educated, wealthy and important men. They would have had many responsibilities in their native lands. However, when the star announcing Jesus’ birth appeared in the sky, they dropped everything to follow it. They understood that nothing was as important as finding the newborn King of the Jews. They were not going to let other responsibilities keep them from seeking out the Christ child.

If we look at ourselves honestly we would have to admit that none of us here today is as important as those wise men were. None of us is as busy as they were with all the responsibilities they would have had in their countries. If they were able to make the time for a long, dangerous journey through the desert to seek out Jesus, what is our excuse for not spending time every day seeking him out ourselves?

We may not be as important or as wealthy as the Magi were, but we can be as wise if we seek out the Christ child. In our case, we do not have to travel across the desert to a far off land to find Him, for He is already among us. We only have to train ourselves to recognize Him. The only way to do that, however, is to make time for prayer everyday and for reading the Bible. Then we must make time to serve Jesus in the poor and needy. And, finally, we must receive the sacraments, especially Reconciliation and Eucharist, as frequently as possible.

It takes time, and often time is what we have the least of. But whatever we give to God will be given back to us many times over. When we make time for prayer, we will find that we have more time for ourselves. As we grow closer to Jesus, we will be more focused on what is really important in life and will make better use of our time. Though the wise men left very expensive gifts at the feet of Jesus, they nonetheless felt richer for having seen the Savior of the World. In the same way, we will find our lives blessed and fulfilled many times over for making the time to seek out our Lord.

We are here today because we seek the Lord. We have left our homes to gather together and celebrate His birth. Like the wise men we acknowledge Him as our King and God. With the angels, we proclaim His glory. And like so many women and men who have found Him, we know that our lives can never be the same. We will receive the Body and Blood of Christ who was born, died and rose again to save us. Now we must continue to seek Him out every day until He comes again.

Friday, January 5, 2018

Adoration Of The Magi

The story of the Magi is among the best known and most popular of the gospels. Whether we know them as the "Three Kings" or the "Three Wise Men", they have a prominent place in every manger scene as well as in the New Testament story of Jesus' birth.

But who were these Magi from the East? The gospel does not tell us much about them. It is assumed that there were only three of them based on the three gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh which they bring to Jesus. But the gospel never tells us how many Magi there actually were.

We do know, however, that they studied the stars.

In Jesus' day, knowledge of the stars and their position in the sky was vital for travelers. There were few established roadways in the Middle East, especially through the desert. Only by coordinating one's journey along the position of the stars could one be assured of staying on the path and not getting lost.

We also know from the New Testament that the Magi were not Jews. Like many pagans in ancient times, it is likely that they observed the stars not only to guide them when traveling but also to predict the future, just as our modern-day astrologers try to do. They would have believed that their fate was written in the stars. Any unusual occurrence such as a comet or a large star would have gotten their attention.

And just such a thing happened. The Magi observed a star which foretold the birth of a great king, the King of the Jews.

As it is usually told, the Magi follow the star all the way to Bethlehem to the stable where Jesus was born. But that is not how the story is told in the gospels. According to Saint Matthew, the Magi go first to Jerusalem. They needed to consult the Scriptures and the teachers of the Law to learn where they were to find this great king. The star by itself only took them so far. They needed to turn to God's word to get the whole itinerary. If they had not consulted the prophecies of the Old Testament, they would have been lost.

The meaning for us who search for Jesus and seek to lead others to him cannot be clearer. Without the Scriptures, we are lost. Relying on the light of our own intelligence and experience, we may be able to grope our way along. Unaided by faith, we may be able to become nice people. But God wants so much more for us. God wants us to know Jesus personally and intimately. He wants to reveal his love and power to us and use us to lead others to him. We cannot do it on our own. Without the Bible and the Church's teaching which helps us to understand it, we can easily get stuck in our journey or lose our way.

In today's world, we see just how true this is. People are lost. Billions of dollars are spent on palm readers, astrologers and other spiritualists. Books on new age spirituality continue to be popular. Everyone is looking for the latest thing, but they are never satisfied. Their conscience tells them that they are lost, that something is missing, but they are unable to find their way back by the light of their own intelligence. They need the light of God's word to reveal to them that it is Jesus that they seek. To fill the missing piece in their life, they need look no further than the Bible they have tucked away in some drawer and the neighborhood parish they pass on their way to work every day. 

Today's readings, however, do not only contain a message for those who seek Jesus and do not know where to find him. There is another side to this coin that has to do with us who claim to already know that Jesus is the answer.

The Magi were seeking the newborn King of the Jews but did not know where to find him. The chief priests and the scribes knew where to find him, but they were not looking! You would think that many of them would have wanted to join the Magi on the trip to Bethlehem to witness the birth of their Messiah. But they were content to let their knowledge of the Scripture and their positions of authority replace their relationship with God. And so they missed out on the blessed event of Christ's birth.

Like these chief priests and scribes, it is easy for us who believe in Jesus to get complacent and even lazy. It is easy for us to make our relationship with Jesus and the Church simply a matter of following rules - going to Mass on Sundays, fasting on Good Friday, going to confession and so on. Rules are important, but they are not the whole life of faith. If we are not actively seeking God in our daily lives, then we are missing out. If our religion is not about a relationship with Jesus the Messiah then it is dry, lifeless and uninspiring.

As followers of Jesus, we have a responsibility to be light for the world. If people are lost, we have to be the light leading them back to Christ. Could it be that our society has turned to palm readers, new age gurus and other quacks because we have not shone forth in our lives the joy and peace that Jesus can give? Rules do not inspire people. Lives of faith and courageous witnesses of truth do.  If we are to be a light to those we meet, we have to ask ourselves - are we seeking to follow rules or are we seeking to follow Jesus? Only by following Jesus ourselves can we hope to ever lead others to him.  

The Magi were not satisfied with merely knowing that a newborn King of the Jews had been born. They wanted to meet him, to pay him homage and to bring him gifts. We cannot be satisfied with just going through the motions when it comes to the practice of our faith. We must seek Jesus daily in a sincere manner. We must study the Scriptures and conform our minds and hearts to its teaching. Then we will become the stars leading others to the desire of their souls - Jesus the Messiah.