With somewhat regular frequency, people will ask me: “So, when did you know that you wanted to be a priest?” I suspect these people are interested in knowing precisely how and when God manifested Himself so I knew with absolute certitude that God wanted me to be a priest. Normally, if the person asking the question is married, I respond by asking this question: “Just when did you know for sure that your spouse was the person you wanted to spend the rest of your life with?”
Like the Magi in today’s gospel, the journey to discover God’s will for us—the person God is calling us to become as a “genuine article” and not a “generic clone”—normally begins not with a mighty thunderbolt sent from heaven nor with a voice emanating from somewhere deep in outer space, as helpful as either of those two signs would be to have greater certitude about God’s will. Instead, the journey to discover God’s will—and one’s personal vocation—normally begins with a flicker of light on the horizon that catches the imaginative powers. Captivated by that tiny flicker, God draws us drawn beyond the realm of the comfortable and familiar that we like so much into the realm of the more uncomfortable and unfamiliar that we might not like so much. Then, against the backdrop of all that we possess or don’t possess, the talents and abilities we have or don’t have, of all that we have been for better or worse, and of all of the plans we’ve made for the future, that tiny flicker of light sparks possibilities we may not have previously considered…or perhaps even dreamed possible. As our imaginations contemplate those possibilities, that tiny flicker grows into a bright star illuminating the dark mystery of who we are…not in terms of an occupation, a profession, or a lifestyle, but in terms of a personal vocation by which God invites each and every one of us to become a distinctive “light to the nations.”
Especially when it comes to as important a matter as figuring out our personal vocations, many people believe that God’s manifestation should be something more dramatic and self-evident. Despite this persistent belief, however, today’s gospel reminds us that this is not how it normally happens. God doesn’t normally manifest Himself through the spectacular but, instead, through a gradual, slow, developmental, and evolving process where, bit by bit and step by step, God provides the light we need to envision the deepest hopes and dreams God has already breathed into our souls. Then, as we allow this light to shine in those darkest recesses of our souls, we begin to see more clearly the unique and distinctive person God is calling us to become.
For example, take a young person contemplating marriage. How is this individual to know with certitude this is the person God intends to be one’s spouse?
Again, God’s manifestation normally comes not in loud clashes of thunder and not in lightning bolts blazing across the skies, but in the first tiny flicker of light on the horizon of one’s life that suddenly captures one’s imaginative powers. As a young person pursues that flicker of light and as it grows brighter in the darkness, that young person experiences a calm sense of assurance and peace in the midst of all the doubts and questions assailing the young person from within and from without. It’s not just “feeling good” when the other person is around. Nor is it just learning new things about the other person and oneself. Instead, God normally manifests Himself as that young person experiences a calm sense of assurance and peace in being oneself and becoming someone different—a more authentic, genuine, loving and forgiving human being—with that other person. In the context of this tremendous personal change, things begin to make great sense, even if one’s parents or future in-laws can’t figure out what the two young people see in each other.
On Thursday evening, some friends took me to Lonestar Steakhouse for a hamburger. From our table, I spied a family who belong to the parish. Seated with the family were the grandparents. I didn’t even know that they were related to each other because they normally sit on opposite sides of the aisle when attending Sunday Mass, but I could now clearly see the close family resemblance. As a young man, just how and when was it that this grandfather knew with certitude that God created that particular woman to be his wife? And, how and when did she know with certitude that God created that particular man to be her husband?
As we know, the story doesn’t end there.
How and when did they know with certitude that God was calling them to be parents and, not just generic parents, but the genuine article type of parents they only could be? I’m sure they just didn’t walk blithely into marriage and family life, blink their eyes, and presto-chango, they lived happily ever after to the point that the grandmother now is seated at the table with her children and grandchildren, beaming with that grandmotherly glow which lit up the entire steakhouse.
The story doesn’t end there, either.
Just how and when did their daughter know with certitude that God was calling her to be this particular man’s wife and mother of their children? And, likewise, just how and when did he know with certitude that God was calling him to be this particular woman’s husband and father of their children?
And, then, there’s the grandchildren.
They look and sound pretty normal. There’s the teenage daughter who used to serve at Mass and her two young brothers. At some point during the meal, one of the boys evidently was pestering his brother and the one being pestered shouted out for all in the restaurant to hear: “Stop bothering me! Mom, tell him to stop bothering me!”
Just how and when do parents know with certainty what God is calling them to say and to do in order to raise their children as Catholics?
There was nothing overtly pious or holy about these people. Just solid, good, loving people who seem to have done right things as young people, continue to do right things as spouses, and continue to do right things as a family. So, it should be asked, as people ask of me: How and when did these people know with certainty their personal vocations and how God has called them to be a light to the nations?
Then, there’s the story of a young Catholic boy in war-torn Poland whose mother died when he was in grammar school. A good athlete, he played soccer and was the goalie for the Jewish team because they didn’t have a full complement of players. The young man was also bright and performed very well in school. And, he served Mass at his local parish.
As World War II became more intense, the young man was forced into hard labor by the Nazis. Part of the underground, he studied and performed as an actor. People looked up to him. His nickname was “Lolek,” a wonderful friend but not a particularly pious or holy person.
Yet, he had thought all of his life about maybe becoming a priest. But, Lolek loved life more. He was passionate about the theater, abstract philosophical speculations, and sports, too. He loved his wide circle of friends and thought a lot about being married and raising a family with his wife. She could be their mother, the mother he never had.
But, as events coalesced, Lolek decided eventually to try out the seminary and maybe become a priest. Having studied philosophy and theology underground as a laborer, following the War he eventually earned doctoral degrees in both. He was ordained a priest and eventually ordained a bishop, then he was created cardinal and, in 1978 was installed as Pope John Paul II.
Just when and how did “Lolek” Wojtyla know with certainty that God was calling him to become a priest, bishop, cardinal, Pope, and light to the nations rather than an actor, husband, and father?
Whether it is that grandmother or grandfather, their child and her husband, or Pope John Paul II, each perceived that glimmer of light on the horizon, became captivated by it, followed it, and eventually allowed that light to illuminate their souls to the point that each of them knew with certitude their personal vocation. When and how did they know it?
Three Magi from the East named Melchior (the elderly Persian with the long beard bearing gold—the symbol of kingship), Caspar (the young, beardless Indian bearing frankincense—the symbol of divinity), and Balthazar (the black Arabian bearing myrrh—the symbol of sacrifice) weren’t pious, religious figures actively searching for God. Nor were they Jews. No, these Magi were Gentiles, secular Albert Einsteins of their days who believed the tools of astrology could divine the future.
However, when the Magi saw that glimmer on the Western horizon, their hearts alighted. As they contemplated what the light could possibly mean, everything began to make perfect sense…to the point the Magi thought about leaving behind not only their homes and families but also their social status and profession to set off on a long and arduous journey to discover what this star might portend.
As the star on the Western horizon captured the Magi’s imaginations, the light manifested by that star grew in intensity to become the only thing that mattered. Yes, the Magi knew sacrifice would be required if they were to learn what that star portended. But, those costs paled by comparison if the Magi were to decide not to follow that star. In the end, they discovered God’s manifestation not in what they had studied and knew so well—astrology—but in something they had never studied and didn’t know at all—God’s only begotten Son in Nazareth.
So, too—and especially when difficult challenges confront us—the personal vocation God entrusts to us isn’t the personal vocation we want. Seeking God’s will requires sacrifice. But, in retrospect, those costs pale in comparison if we don’t follow that star.
Melchior, Caspar, and Balthazar show us not only how God normally manifests Himself, but they also show us the pattern by which we can respond to God’s manifestation in our own lives. Like the Magi, we can seek God with a sincere heart, we can be alert for the glimmer of light pointing us in the direction God has chosen for us, we can be open to new possibilities and the unforeseen, and we can be humble enough to ask for directions along the way. (After all, guys, didn’t the Magi ask King Herod for directions?)
But, what’s really important isn’t found in all of that. The gospel tells us in addition that when the Magi came to the place where the star pointed, they were changed. They bowed in worship and presented their gifts to God’s only begotten Son. They found truth in God’s manifestation not in astrology.
Epiphany is a Greek word meaning “manifestation.” This celebration, then, reminds us that God normally manifests Himself in the tiny flicker of light that grows into a bright star illuminating our personal vocations. But, this celebration also presents us a challenge. When we come face-to-face with God’s manifestation in His only begotten Son, will we be changed—bowing down in worship—and what gifts will we give? As Pope John Paul II noted in a homily he preached on this day: “…do everything the Magi did—offer gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh: the gold of love, the incense of prayer, and the myrrh of sacrifice.” Having himself bowed down in worship and having offered his life to God as his gift, today I’d like to add to his list of love, prayer, and sacrifice: give your life to God so that He might make you a “light to the nations.”
of the three astrologers.
Does today’s homily raise any
question(s) that you would like