Tag Archives: Psalms

Sunday Sermon: the Epiphany of the three Magi

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Any number of times over the years the inspiration for these “Sunday Sermon” pieces has been drawn from some idea put forward by the priests at my church.

Today, Father Sean English provided that inspiration with his sermon in which he spoke of the “Three Kings” in relation to today’s celebration of the Epiphany.

The Epiphany goes by a few other names as well, depending on your cultural background or the specific church to which you may belong. The most frequent are for “Little Christmas” or “Three Kings Day” celebrations.

In today’s world, when someone is said to have an “epiphany” it means that some sudden realization has come upon them. A moment of clarity in which something fundamental is revealed to them.

The “three kings” or “three wise men” or even the “Magi” as they have alternately been known through history are credited with both having and passing on such an epiphany following the birth of Jesus Christ more than 2,000 years ago.

The word “Magi” is an ancient one. It referred to those who practiced what was known as magic, usually including incorporation and study of alchemy and astrology. These were extremely learned men, bordering on what today would be called scientists more than true magicians.

As Father Sean explained today, the Magi of Jesus’ time were not necessarily aligned with any particular religion. However, they were acquainted with all faith systems, including Judaism.

The Magi may have been followers or even priests of Zoroastrianism, one of the world’s oldest monotheistic religions. No matter, they certainly would know of the ancient Jewish prophecy regarding the coming of a Savior.

The western Christian churches, including the Catholic Church founded by Jesus himself, believe and teach that there were three of these wise Magi men. That theory was drawn from writings showing that three gifts were brought: gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

One thing is almost certain, they were not “kings” in the classic sense of the word. The reference to “three kings” is almost certainly drawn from prophecies such as Psalm 72 which said “all kings shall fall down before him” in the Jewish Torah, or Old Testament.

The three were said to have come “from the east”, drawn by a star in the sky which their calculations led them to believe would lead to the Savior foretold in the Jewish prophetic writings.

In the western tradition, they went by the names Melchior, Caspar, and Balthazar, and hailed originally from Persia, India, and Babylonia respectively. Some claim that they actually are meant to represent Europe, Asia, and Africa.

As the Magi neared the end of their long journey, possibly from a home base in the Parthian Empire, the three received word that King Herod, the ruler of Judea, wished an audience with them.

At this meeting, Herod asked that when the Magi found this newborn future “King of the Jews”, that they return and let him know the location of the child. Herod alleged that this was so that he too could go and worship the child. However, his later actions revealed that Herod was actually plotting to kill the child, thus defeating the prophecy and a snuff out a future threat to his rule.

The traditional date of the Epiphany within Christianity is January 6th. However, the Catholic Church celebrates on the Sunday falling between the 2nd and 8th. It is celebrated on other dates by other Christian churches.

When you sing or hear the Christmas song “The Twelve Days of Christmas“, January 6th is that 12th day – exactly twelve days having passed since December 25th, Christmas Day.

The traditions and teachings hold that the Magi followed the star until it came to rest over the little town of Bethlehem in Judea. There, inside of what was essentially a cave-like shelter, lying in a manger, the Magi found the child.

Surrounded by the child’s parents, Mary and Joseph, as well as shepherds who had been visiting since the child’s birth, the wise men presented their gifts.

As pointed out in an article at The Telegraph, the gifts which the three Magi bore were each presented for a specific reason:

The gifts were symbolic of the importance of Jesus’ birth, the gold representing his royal standing; frankincense his divine birth; and myrrh his mortality.

The realization, the moment of clarity, the “epiphany” experienced by the Magi had come with the revelation that this child, this Jesus born in such humble circumstances, was indeed the Savior of prophecy. And this Savior came not only to and for the Jewish people, but all people.

When they had completed their visit, the Magi decided not to return to their homeland by the same route which they had arrived. This would take them past Herod, whose true intentions had been revealed to them. And so they returned to their homes a different way.

It is important that we not only accept Jesus as our personal Savior, but that we do our best to practice that faith and pass it along to our families and other loved ones.

Even should they decide not to follow our example, it remains important to continue demonstrating our faith. At some point, we changed. We accepted Christ into our lives. Our continuing example could prove to be the very thing that opens the eyes, minds, and hearts of others.

This leads us to a final important point that Father Sean made in his sermon. Each of us, having had the truth of Jesus Christ revealed to us, should return to our lives in a different way than we traveled prior to that moment. That pivotal revelation marked our individual, personal epiphany.

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What’s so funny, God?

There is a famous old Yiddish proverb that has had many takes on it over the years, widely attributed to Israel Furman in 1968, which is itself a take on the Bible’s Psalm 33:10 verse reading “The Lord brings the counsel of the nations to nothing; he frustrates the plans of the peoples.”

That saying of Furman’s? “Man plans, and God laughs.”

The actual translation of the Yiddish would be that man proposes, and God disposes. In other words, we can make all the plans that we want here on Earth in regards to our lives, but in the end it will be God’s plan that will come to pass, whether or not that coincides with our own plans, hopes, and dreams.

The saying came to me this morning as I contemplated a recent dual tragedy which has struck a family that I know personally. They suffered a sudden, recent, untimely death, and now immediately on top of that tragedy have suffered yet another major blow. Without going into details, still fresh and painful for many, there are a number of people suffering because of these twin tragedies right now, and a few whose lives have been completely devastated.

How do we possibly make sense of such apparently senseless tragedy? How can any of that be a part of God’s plan for those individuals, for that family? And what does it have to do with that old Yiddish saying that I mention in the beginning of this piece?

No matter what age, we all make plans. Young people plan on where they’re going to meet after school, what they’re going to do this weekend. Students plan on what courses they are going to sign up for in the next semester or school year. Folks make plans for with whom they want to begin or continue a relationship, how many children to have, their career choice, where they are going on vacation, what’s for dinner tonight, and much more.

But how many plans have you made in your life, small or large, only to have something intervene to delay, change, or completely thwart those sometimes well-conceived plans?
How many times did you make a wrong turn, depend on the wrong person, fail to receive some type of anticipated support, gotten sick, lost something, run late, or had any number of other scenarios occur to interrupt and disrupt those plans?

Today, the life expectancy of an average American is up to almost 79 years. For Canadians and Brits, that number is almost 81. And for the Japanese, their life expectancy is over 82.5 years of age. In China, life expectancy is almost 73.5 years, and in India the number is at almost 65.5 years.

When people look at these numbers and see disparity between a native of China expecting to live to 73 years of age, and a Japanese native expecting 83, we wonder about that decade of difference, and we rightly try to examine the many factors that go into one group of people having a longer life, and in many cases, a better quality of life, than others.

But the fact is that whether you live in India or China or the United States, those are average numbers. They are the “expectancy” based on any individual living out a full, “natural” life span. We all know that there are people who live to be 80, 82, 85 and even higher in the United States.

To keep that expectancy number at 79 years on average, there is a trade-off. For every American who lives to 85, and there are many, there are just as many only living to 73. For everyone living into their 90’s, there are people dying in their 60’s.

How about this one? You live to be 100 years of age or more! Congratulations to you, at least assuming you have most of your mental faculties and physical capacities, adjusted for aging, of course.

So you’re 100 or over? Well, there are more than 53,000 of you right now in the United States alone. 53,000 who beat the expectancy age of 79 by 21 or more years. But all that means is that there are at least as many who have died at age 58 or less.

Now that phenomenon and those statistics may not be exact, but you get the idea – there are no guarantees. You might make 79. You might make 100. You also might make only 58, or less. And there is nothing unnatural about it. In fact, it is to be expected.

Why does God allow some people to reach 100 and others to be taken from their families at birth? Why do some die quietly in their beds in their 80’s after a mostly healthy life, while others die broken and bloodied on a battlefield thousands of miles from their homes? Who do some commit murder and go on to live 50 years in prison, while an innocent 12-year old is killed riding their bicycle outside their home?

Why do you decide you want to be a priest, enter the seminary, and end up 10 years later as a firefighter, married with 3 children? Why do you look forward to celebrating your wife’s 39th birthday with her in a couple months, planning a dinner or party, only to have her die from a massive heart attack two days after you make the reservations? Why do you move your family across town to your dream house in your ideal neighborhood, only to find the home destroyed a year later by flood, fire, or storm?

Why do bad things happen to good people?

Frankly, each of our lives is visited at some time or other by illness, loss, tragedy, and death. For some, it happens too early, or too often, or too close together, or too painfully or violently. Almost any time, it happens too soon. Sooner than we ever could expect. Sooner than we feel is justified by a benevolent God. Certainly sooner than we ourselves had ever planned.

There are dozens of atheist reasons against their belief in God. I am certainly not going to make these incorrect, flawed arguments on their behalf. But one of those reasons involves this issue of a loving, caring, just God allowing injustice, disaster, destruction, and even murder. Why wouldn’t such a God step in and intervene? How could He allow such pain and suffering?

And if indeed God has a “plan” for each of us, then was a part of that plan for us to be shot by a robber, or stabbed by a jealous lover, or run down by a drunk driver, or have our plane flown into a tower? If not, has that killer intervened in God’s plan, and if so, does that mean God Himself can have His plans thwarted?

And if we are all out here making plans for our lives, and those plans are disrupted by major injury, illness, disaster, or even death, was that God intervening and changing our lives? Is God actually sitting somewhere, waiting for us to make a plan for our lives, watching us, waiting for a chance to laugh on seeing our reaction as his greater destiny for us unfolds? And if so, what’s so funny about it, especially when it involves hurt and pain?

Simply, the answer is a resounding “no”, God is not really out there laughing at us, or waiting to laugh as we make plans that He knows are contradictory to His own, that He knows will ultimately fail. And God certainly is not doing so when that involves our pain and suffering.

There is a simple, although unsatisfying for some, answer as to the ‘when’ and ‘why’ of our ultimate destiny here on Earth. The fact is that we all have a “time” allotted to us. There is a day and an a hour and a moment out there which will be our last. The circumstances surrounding that ultimate final moment for each of us are different, and may seem arbitrary to us.

Why those circumstances? Why do some go with ease while others suffer? Why do some slip away over time while others are snatched away suddenly? The fact is, there are some questions that we must all learn to accept we will never, ever receive an answer to in this mortal, human life.

There is also a simple answer as to the similar question regarding the circumstances of our lives. Why do we make plans, sometimes rearranging our lives, investing our time and talent and treasure, building up hope inside, only to have sudden circumstances alter those carefully conceived ideas? Why would God not reward such dedication, perseverance, and discipline on our part?

The answer is that maybe He will, maybe He won’t – it all depends on what God ultimately has in store for you within His own plan. Perhaps you are being inspired by the Holy Spirit down the right path, and your plans will be rewarded. But perhaps you are making all the wrong plans for all the wrong reasons.

Do we not have a “free will” to choose for ourselves what is best for us? You do indeed have that freedom. However, there are ramifications for each of our choices and decisions. There is a price to be paid for everything. Which direction you drive home today, where you go for lunch, who you have sexual relations with, how many drinks you consume at the bar, what you choose to eat each day  – every decision matters. Those decisions may determine the final “where” and “how” as each of our ultimate “when” becomes imminent.

Every decision isn’t “life and death”, those are just the biggest decisions with the biggest ramifications. We make numerous small decisions each day, some of which we know are wrong, some of which may result in a mild chastisement from that loving God as a direct attempt to teach us a lesson.

In some of those instances, I can definitely see the Lord sitting back and having a little laugh at our relatively unharmed expense, especially when we do indeed learn those lessons. It is only my own personal belief, but I believe in a God with a sense of humor.

But the pain, suffering, destruction, and the death that comes naturally as a part of this human life on Earth? There is nothing funny about those things to our loving God. He suffers with us, indeed, he sent his only Son here specifically to suffer and die on our behalf. He knows our pain.

He asks that we accept Him as our God. He asks that we persevere to the end through whatever the challenge, trusting Him in all circumstances, no matter how challenging or unjust they may seem to us.

He asks that we believe in the truth that we are spiritual beings having a physical experience, knowing that any hurt, pain, sadness, and despair are only temporary. He asks this knowing that heaven is forever, the ultimate reward for those who do remain strong in the challenge of life’s pain and grief, and who choose to remain strong in their faith and belief in Him.