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When the Signs Say, “One Way”: Sunday Reflection – HotAir

[The following is a republication of a previous Sunday reflection from the same period last year. It still seems relevant today.]

This morning’s Gospel reading is Matthew 2:1–12:

When Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, in the days of King Herod, behold, magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem, saying, “Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We saw his star at its rising and have come to do him homage.” When King Herod heard this, he was greatly troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. Assembling all the chief priests and the scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born. They said to him, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for thus it has been written through the prophet:

And you, Bethlehem, land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; since from you shall come a ruler, who is to shepherd my people Israel.”

Then Herod called the magi secretly and ascertained from them the time of the star’s appearance. He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search diligently for the child. When you have found him, bring me word, that I too may go and do him homage.” After their audience with the king they set out. And behold, the star that they had seen at its rising preceded them, until it came and stopped over the place where the child was. They were overjoyed at seeing the star, and on entering the house they saw the child with Mary his mother. They prostrated themselves and did him homage. Then they opened their treasures and offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed for their country by another way.

Way back in the day, my high school had a club for evangelical youth called the One Way Club. One of my girlfriends belonged to it for a short while; in those days, I had no interest in religion. They used a specific version of the Bible aimed at teens, if I recall correctly, and the members seemed pretty committed to the effort. Perhaps these clubs still exist in high schools, although I have not heard of them for many years.

However, the name and the meaning it clearly carries has stuck with me — even before I became a revert Catholic in my mid-twenties. Christianity in its earliest days was referred to as “The Way,” with several occurrences of this phrase in the Acts of the Apostles. Both of these carry several implicit messages, exclusivity being foremost among them. There may be many “ways,” so to speak, but only one way to salvation — The Way, or One Way.

Regardless, the choice of which way we take remains with us to make of our own free will. We are given signs to guide us but not to impose upon us, and our ability to grasp the signs and make the right choice depends entirely on how we form our own hearts. Today’s readings at our solemnity of the Epiphany show us several ways in which these signs and choices surrounded Christ’s entry into the world.

The first of these signs was obvious at the time and remains obvious to this day: the Star of Bethlehem. This astronomical event was profound enough to stir curiosity and concern at the highest political and academic levels of the time, and across a wide distance.

We see two very different reactions to this sign; in Jerusalem, it worried an already power-mad despot who wanted to establish a dynasty of his own line in Jerusalem. Herod didn’t want signs from God, and he certainly didn’t seem interested in seeing what it meant. From the east, however, come a number of magi — the Gospel never actually numbers them — who wish to follow the sign to its conclusion to learn what it means.

At this point, it might be helpful to remember precisely what the word “epiphany” means. In its generic meanings, apart from connections to this event, Merriam-Webster defines it as:

3 a (1) : a usually sudden manifestation or perception of the essential nature or meaning of something
(2): an intuitive grasp of reality through something (such as an event) usually simple and striking
(3): an illuminating discovery, realization, or disclosure
b: a revealing scene or moment

To have such an epiphany, however, one has to be open to it. In fact, one has to actually show up for it. This passage and that definition raise a key question: why didn’t Herod himself go out to see what the sign meant? Even if it filled him with dread, wouldn’t it have been better for Herod to see for himself, or at least send a trusted adviser? Why leave that task to traveling strangers?

The contrast in this decision could not be starker. The magi traveled a very long distance to see what the Lord might be telling them with this stunning astronomical sign. Despite the relatively short distance between Jerusalem and Bethlehem, Herod couldn’t be bothered. Instead, he deputized the academics, who likely knew Herod’s nature well enough even before grasping the sign’s meaning.

The Magi traveled the road and opened their hearts. Herod did neither. The Magi discovered the Christ child and paid Him homage; Herod cowered in fear and plotted the destruction of all male firstborn children in Bethlehem. The Magi experienced an Epiphany of the Lord and in a very real sense a theophany. Herod fell even further into the darkness.

What happens at the end of this Gospel is equally meaningful. Once the Magi have this epiphany and recognize it, their hearts are further strengthened by it, enough so that they recognize that their dream is in fact a message from the Lord. What does the dream tell them? Not to go back the way they came.

This may be the most profound message of all. Once we have had this Epiphany in our lives, we can never go back to the way we came. The road at that point is a one-way street. We can return home and return to our lives, but the Epiphany forever changes us. If we try to pretend that it hasn’t, we are running away from salvation, and we risk a head-on crash into our previously corrupted world. We must go back to our “country” by another way — The Way — if we hope to find salvation in the Lord.

This choice is ours, and we make it every day. Once we have seen the signs and heard the Gospel, we can choose as Herod did to close our eyes to it, or worse, become hostile to salvation and destroy it. Or, as the Magi did, we can come in curiosity with our hearts opened to the possibilities and let the Lord speak to us in the signs and scriptures. Do we choose our way — or The Way?

The front-page image is “Christus, der wahre Weinstock” (Christ the True Vine), early 17th century. Artist unknown, on display at St. Castor Collegiate Church in Karden on the Moselle. Via Wikimedia Commons.

“Sunday Reflection” is a regular feature, looking at the specific readings used in today’s Mass in Catholic parishes around the world. The reflection represents only my own point of view, intended to help prepare myself for the Lord’s day and perhaps spark a meaningful discussion. Previous Sunday Reflections from the main page can be found here.  

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