Tag Archives: Saint Joseph

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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NOTE: all of the prior “Sunday Sermon” pieces can be found simply by clicking on that ‘Label’ found below this piece when viewed in its web version. You can also find them by clicking on the ‘Faith’ tab in the website toolbar.

Jesus ‘Lost Years’ far from a teenage wasteland

Approximately 2,000 years ago today, Jesus Christ was alive and walking the earth – and he was becoming a teenager! Wrap your mind around that one.

What must life have been like for, and with, a teenage Jesus? The last thing that we know for sure about him is just before this period, and comes from Luke’s Gospel.

At age 12, Mary and Joseph took Jesus to the Jewish Temple at Jerusalem during the Passover festival. When the festival was over they left, and at some point realized that Jesus was not with their traveling party.

The worried parents returned to the city and searched for three days. Finally they found him, sitting in the courtyards at the Temple, questioning the teachers.

It was at this point, if they didn’t already have an idea, that Mary and Joseph got some sense of what was in store for the family. Jesus was amazing the teachers with both his questions and with his own comments in his understanding.

But while they were themselves impressed to hear their pre-teen son, they were also worried parents. Have you ever lost a child, even for a moment? Remember how frantic those few moments were? How about three days lost?

Son, why have you treated us like this? Your father and I have been anxiously searching for you!” said Mary, his mother. And what was Jesus’ reply? An apology? To run crying into his mommy’s arms? Not even close. “Why were you searching for me?” he asked. “Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?

By all accounts, his tone was innocent and matter-of-fact, not wise-cracking. Luke relates that he returned to Nazareth with them, and was obedient to them, and that Mary treasured all she had seen and heard in her heart. So she obviously took it well, not as an incidence of insolence or disobedience or disrespect.

Luke then goes on to tell the only ideas that we know about Jesus from that point until his public ministry begins a decade and a half later: “And Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and man.” What must those years have actually been like? Especially those next few teenage years, with puberty and hormones and body growth for our Lord?

Anything that anyone tries to say, and many have, is purely speculation. But there are some things that we should be able to surmise as being fairly certain, especially in light of Luke’s glowing words about his apparently steady growth as a young man.

Jesus did not grow through those teen years in isolation. His mother and father were with him, of course. His mother for the entirety, and his father for a significant portion of his teenage years. Various accounts of his later life also refer to brothers and sisters. This could, however, mean almost anything.

A respected account written in the years immediately after Mary’s lifespan known as the ‘Protoevangelium of James’ teaches that she was indeed a virgin for life, raised holy by her own mother Anne, to be devoted in service to the upbringing of the Lord. It is not hard to accept that Mary, a teenager herself when Jesus was born, would remain a virgin devoted to raising, educating, and serving him. A real key to his teenage years lies with his earthly ‘father’, Joseph.

So what was Joseph’s role and why was it so vital? James tells that even though Mary was dedicated to her purity, her family still required a guardian, or a chaperone of sorts, to guarantee this reputation of her cleanliness. Joseph was a respected elderly widow in the community who already had children, and was chosen for all these reasons by the family for the role.

So Jesus was raised in a household that included his mother and father, his stepbrothers and sisters, and possibly even more children from extended family such as cousins, as put forth by Jerome in his fourth century scholarly writings. A bustling home where Jesus got to play, work, learn, and otherwise interact with others in a family setting.

It is not too hard to understand how Jesus spent his time in these years either. With Joseph known to have been a carpenter, likely a highly skilled and well-paid one with a strong professional reputation, Jesus would have been taught this craft from his earliest years. He and his male family members would have been raised to be such craftsmen as well, and they would likely have been working regularly.

So for those who need a clearer picture of the teenage Jesus, and then on into his early-mid 20’s during his pre-ministry life, the picture is simple: a young man growing in an active, large family setting, working in his father’s business, and also being trained religiously and spiritually by his mother. It is a decade and a half to be noted for it’s normalcy in the human world of 1st century Palestinian Judaism.

As Jesus emerged into his public ministry, we can also glean another important incident that happened at some point during those ‘missing’ years: the death of Joseph. Such an important event would absolutely have been documented by his followers during the Gospel years. And at his crucifixion, he entrusts Mary’s care to one of them, not to Joseph.

Joseph was much older than Mary. He took on the role as protector of her honor. When she turned up pregnant due to the Incarnation of Jesus, he continued to fight for her honor, and in part thanks to his own spiritual awakening and inspiration he raised Jesus as his own. And then at some point, most likely when Jesus was well-trained, Joseph passed away.

It is not hard to imagine the family, with Jesus around 20 years of age, having been formally trained and working with his father and his ‘brothers’ for years in the surrounding community, suffering the loss of this elderly patriarch. They would have mourned and buried Joseph together, and Jesus would have provided both emotional support for his mother, but also material support in continuing his earthly work.

This was the life of the teenage Jesus of Nazareth: learning the carpentry and artisan craft from Joseph, gaining a familial and spiritual foundation from Mary, interacting with his adoptive brothers and sisters in this setting. He helped support his family during the period around the death of Joseph, and into his early adulthood.

It is here that we formally pick up the story in the Gospels. Jesus’ life will change forever with two primary spiritual events: his baptism at the river Jordan by his cousin, John the Baptist, and his subsequent 40-day and night stay in the Judaean desert where he meditated and where he was tempted by the devil. On emerging from the desert, Jesus will begin his public ministry.

The Nativity story

On December 1st, 2006, one of the most underrated Christmas movies of all-time was released, and if you have never had a chance or made the time to watch “The Nativity Story” you should make this the year. I’ve noticed that it is playing a few times in the coming days.

The movie features a starring performance by Keisha Castle-Hughes, the young Australian actress who was just 16 years old at the time of filming.

She delivers a commanding yet understated performance as Mary, the mother of Jesus, in a manner that anyone familiar with her story would find credible.

Guatemalan actor Oscar Isaac takes on the hurt skeptic-turned strong and loyal supporting partner Joseph role well here.

The strongest male acting performance is turned in by Irish actor Ciaran Hinds, familiar to many from his starring role as Caesar in the HBO epic series ‘Rome’. Hinds gives perhaps the finest performance of Herod to ever grace the silver screen.

Brought to life here by ‘Twilight’ director Catherine Hardwicke, ‘The Nativity Story’ is, as always, all about the story itself.

As one of the film’s taglines tells it, the story is about “a message foretold in the heavens…a prophecy that would threaten an empire…a miracle that would change the world.”

There is nothing overly dramatic about that tagline. It is the simple truth.

No matter what your view in your own life towards Christianity in particular or religion in general, there is no valid way to argue the fact that the life and death of Jesus Christ and the message that he delivered has changed and shaped the entire world over the ensuing two millenia.

This film and the whole of the Nativity story covers that period in the life of Mary and Joseph from the time of their engagement on through to the birth of their child.

The story is far from comfortable. Mary is a teenage girl from the small town of Nazareth who is forced into an unwanted engagement with a much older carpenter whom she barely knows.

During the time of their engagement and while still a virgin, Mary is visited by the angel Gabriel who tells her that God has chosen her to bear His Son. Mary is also told that her cousin Elizabeth, believed far too old to bear a child, is also pregnant. Both pregnancies end up coming to fruition.

Joseph becomes understandably angered by the fact that his young fiancee, with whom he knows he himself has not had relations, has turned up pregnant. Prepared to set her aside quietly, he is also visited by an angel who tells him of God’s special purpose in their lives. In staying together despite the scandal, both are ostracized by their community.

During this same time, King Herod, who had been appointed as the Rome-backed ruler of the small Jewish nation of Judea, was fearing the realization of an ancient Jewish prophecy. This prophecy revealed that a ruler would emerge from the lineage of the ancient King David.

Herod decides to command a census of all people in which they must return to their ancestral homes in the hopes that he could sort out the identity of this future challenger to his rule.

Joseph was from the town of Bethlehem, known as the City of David, and so was forced to return there for the census. He took Mary along with him, and during the trip she began to appreciate him for his good nature and their affection for one another grew.

On arrival at Bethlehem they can find nowhere to stay thanks to the increased population due to the census, and they are forced to stay in what amounts to a cave-like stable.

While Herod is fretting and Mary goes into contractions, three ‘Magi’, or wise kings, arrive from Persia at Herod’s court in Jerusalem. They have been studying the prophecy and also believe that the time is at hand for the birth of this special king. Learning from them that the king is a child to be born and not a grown man, Herod orders the murder of all babies in Bethlehem.

As we all well know, Herod’s plan is unsuccessful. Mary gives birth in the stable, laying her boy child in a manger and naming him Jesus. Shepherds tending their flocks nearby have been told of the miraculous birth by an angel, and they show up to greet the newborn. They are quickly followed by the Magi, who come bearing gifts for the young king and the family.

Just as Herod’s troops arrive and begin their unimaginable slaughter, Joseph is again visited in a dream by an angel who warns him of the pending attack. Joseph rouses Mary from sleep, they gather the infant Son of God, and make their way out of Bethlehem just ahead of the wave of death falling across the city.

This is the story of the birth of the baby Jesus, who would grow to become the Christ, the saviour of mankind, a great king as foretold in the prophecies. A king not of this world, but of a higher kingdom ruling over all mankind based on God’s laws and His own teachings of love and peace.

It is the story of Mary and Joseph saying “Yes” to God’s calling, and overcoming numerous obstacles placed in front of them by family, community, and royalty to bring Jesus into the world. It is simple and yet commanding and compelling.

It is ‘The Nativity Story’, the beginning chapter in the greatest story ever told in the entire history of humanity. It is a film suitable for  the whole family, and one that everyone would enjoy, whether for its value in faith, or its value to history.

Christmas thanks to a young mother

We began to celebrate the Christmas season over the past week, the celebration of the birth of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Providing for humanity to be saved by God taking on a human role, however, required first a perfect vessel to deliver that physical birth to the earth.

In his gospel, Saint Luke tells us the story of how the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary saying “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee! Blessed art thou among women!” Gabriel was sent by God Himself to the teenage virgin who had been chosen as being worthy of body, mind, and spirit to bear the Lord in her womb, give birth to the infant, and be responsible for raising Him as a child.

At the point at which Mary is presented with the idea of becoming the Mother of God, she has a choice. Mary’s body wasn’t taken over by God, she was not forced to take on this responsibility. She was not herself bred for this sole purpose. She was a normal, young, human woman.

One thing that we know about human beings in their relationship to God is that we have been given a ‘free will’, the ability to make our own choices and decisions. We have the choice to accept or reject God and His plan for the world and for us as individuals. Mary was given this same choice, and she chose to say “Yes” to God.

This is not at all the same idea of ‘choice’ involving a pregnancy that has become a hot political and social topic in todays world. In todays arguments, the ‘choice’ is not between becoming pregnant or not, in having a child or not. Today the alleged ‘choice’ is between killing a baby that is already in a mothers womb, or of delivering that baby fully and allowing it a chance at a full life.

What a brief look at the difference between Mary’s very real choice and that of women today in the abortion debate does highlight is the idea of consequence.
If a woman today chooses to continue her pregnancy, she is allowing the natural process to go forward, and allowing another human being an opportunity at a full life. If she chooses to kill the baby, the baby is dead and has no chance at life.

What would the consequences have been for humanity had Mary said “No” to God? Could anyone have blamed her? She was, after all, just a teenager, already engaged to be married to an older man. How would she explain the pregancy to her fiancee’, to her family, to her community? Would anyone, even the most ardent of believers in the idea that God would one day send a Savior, believe her story?

At the point that she made her choice, Mary did not know that God would send his angel to Joseph in order to ease his own mind. In fact, she had no idea exactly what God’s ultimate plan would be for the baby as He grew into adulthood and beyond. Would God have moved on to another young woman? Would God have delayed his plan for mankind’s salvation for years, decades, generations?

All of that is pure speculation, of course. But considering the idea that Mary had a choice, and that Mary said that “Yes” to God, provides us with an example. During this Christmas season more than any other, God is calling us all to say “Yes” to Him and to His Son, Jesus Christ. Every one of us now has the same choice as given to Mary.

Over the next few weeks most of us will be pretty active in preparing for the Christmas holiday. We will be shopping for toys, games, and gifts for family members and friends. We will be decorating our homes. We will be buying food and cleaning our houses in preparation for parties, guests, family gatherings. We will be taking pictures and wrapping presents and attending parties at which we will drink too much.

How much time will you take over these next few weeks to consider the reason that all of this is happening? How much time will you be taking to think about the birth of Mary’s baby, your Savior, Jesus Christ? Will you give him an hour every Sunday? Will you give him an hour or so on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day? Are you willing to give Him even that little bit? Is that even enough?

Maybe all of those gift, decoration, and party considerations should really be secondary considerations for us. Perhaps we should be thinking about Mary’s initial decision to choose to accept Jesus into her life, and about Jesus’ ultimate gift to all of us in his death for our sins.

I hope and pray that during this Christmas season while doing all of the fun things in today’s commercial world, we truly keep with us at all times that ‘reason for the season’, the welcoming in to the world of the infant baby Jesus, and give thanks to a young mother who made the right choice two thousand years ago.

The Baptism of the Lord

Today we bring the official Church season of Christmas to a close by celebrating another important moment in the life of Jesus Christ, his baptism.

As preparation for His coming, Jesus’ cousin who is known to us as John the Baptist has emerged from the wilderness and is preaching that change is coming. John is telling people that they must turn from their evil ways, repent, and be baptized as new children of God.

John was so charismatic that many were asking if indeed he were the awaited Messiah. These questions became so regular and consistent that John eventually felt he had to answer, and so he did most forcefully:

I am baptizing you with water, but one mightier than I is coming. I am not worthy of loosening the thongs of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. His winnowing fan is in his hand to clear his floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” 

Jesus knew that the time had come for his public ministry to begin, and felt that the most important symbolic measure that he could take in beginning was to be baptized publicly by the most famous baptizer in John.

Jesus had, of course, no need to be baptized. As we have discussed in previous Sunday Sermon entries, the sacrament of Baptism cleanses us from the original sin of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Jesus was the second human being ever, following his own mother Mary, to be born free of sin. But even having no personal need, Christ wished to provide an example of just how important this sacrament was for human beings.

When he showed up in front of John asking to be baptized, John stated that it was Christ who should be baptizing him. But Jesus insisted, and John performed the baptism.

As Christ rose from the waters a dove descended upon him, and a voice from heaven above was heard clearly by all those in attendance: “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased!”

Jesus went forward and began his public preaching ministry, calling his disciples to him, teaching the Word of God, and ultimately dying on the cross to save you and all of us from having to pay the penalty for our sins.

All we need to do is to accept this great gift of sacrificial suffering on Christ’s part on our behalf. But speaking of that gift is for another day. Today is for celebrating the baptism of Jesus Christ, and anticipating the beginning of his mission.

Jesus was 30 years old. The man who had raised him, his human father Joseph, Mary’s husband, was a direct descendant in the line of King David, which traced itself back through Jacob and Isaac to Abraham himself, the grandfather of all the world’s great religions.

This line then traced further back to Noah, surviving the flood through Noah’s son Shem. Finally, the line traces it’s ultimate origins back through Seth to Adam, and ultimately to God.

Jesus Christ healed the sin of his direct family line, which ran back through 75 recorded generations of humanity. As importantly, he healed the sins of every generation to come, including yours and mine, and those of our children and grandchildren and on into the future until he should return one day in glory.

It all begins with the event we celebrate today, the readings that you will hear if you are in church, as you should be. It all begins with the baptism of the Lord, Jesus Christ.

NOTE: This entry is the continuation of the regular ‘Sunday Sermon’ series. You can read all of the articles in the series by clicking on to that label at the bottom of the entry.