Sunday, January 8, 2012


When God made the covenant with Abraham
and established the Israelites as God’s people,
God made clear that this was not simply 
for the benefit of Abraham
or of the nation that his descendants would become,
but it was for the blessing 
of “all the families of nations” (Genesis 12:3).
Over the centuries the Jewish people 
came to think of this
in terms of the “pilgrimage of the nations”
that we hear spoken of in our first reading:
“Nations shall walk by your light,
and kings by your shining radiance.
Raise your eyes and look about;
they all gather and come to you. . . .
the riches of the sea 
shall be emptied out before you,
the wealth of nations 
shall be brought to you. . . .
all from Sheba shall come
bearing gold and frankincense,
and proclaiming the praises of the Lord.”
In other words, if the descendants of Abraham
are faithful to their covenant with God
then they shall be a light to the “nations” – 
the Gentiles –
who shall see that light and come in pilgrimage,
bringing with them all the riches of their cultures,
to worship and serve the God of Israel,
the one true God,
under whose rule all the nations of the earth
shall become one people of God and live in peace.

This was the hope.
This was the dream.
This was what the Jewish people 
looked for God’s anointed one,
God’s messiah,
to do.
When the messiah came, 
he would make Israel
a light to the nations,
to draw all the families of nations 
into God’s family.

The nineteenth century Jesuit poet, 
Gerard Manley Hopkins,
in a journal that he kept while on retreat,
remarked, after spending a day 
meditating on the events of the Epiphany –
the story we have just heard in today’s Gospel –
that the Jewish people had looked 
for the pilgrimage of the nations,
but, “when it came it brought 
an unexpected circumstance with it,
as God’s works always do” 
(Sermons and Devotional Writings, 269).

This is something worth pausing over, for just a moment:
when what they had been hoping for from God
came to pass: 
“it brought an unexpected circumstance with it,
as God’s works always do.”
As God’s works always do:
isn’t this always the way?
What we hope for,
what we wait for,
what we pray for,
never arrives 
in quite the way that we expect it to.

In the case of the story of the Epiphany,
the pilgrimage of the nations
is represented by the three Magi
who come from the east 
seeking “the newborn king of the Jews.”
But they do not find him in King Herod’s palace,
but in the humble dwelling place of Mary and Joseph;
the savior does not arrive with the splendor of a king,
but with the humility of a child;
his parents are not powerful and secure,
but weak and threatened, 
and soon enough in flight for their lives.

“It brought an unexpected circumstance with it,
as God’s works always do.”
The one who summons the world’s nations
to bring their gifts to the God of Israel
and to become part of God’s people
appears among us as what St. Augustine called
the verbum infans – which we might translate as
“the infant Word, unable to speak a word.”
He is offered gold and incense, 
because he is king and God,
but he is also offered myrrh, 
a spice used in burial,
because he is a king who will rule 
and a God who will save
by living among us as one of us
and by giving his very life for us.

Unexpected circumstances indeed –
circumstances that should drive home for us
that truly it is God who is at work here,
in that typically unexpected way that God has.
It should remind us also that, 
while the work of God in our lives
is also a part of these unexpected circumstances,
God’s work in us is not a puzzle to be solved
but a mystery to be pondered and celebrated:
the mystery of God’s Word found in a speechless infant,
the mystery of life found in death,
the mystery of power found in weakness,
the mystery of the love that unites us as one people of God.