“This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine. Let it shine, let it shine, let it shine.”
I feel reasonably certain that you all recognize those words as the lyrics of a popular African-American Spiritual. As I pondered the readings for today’s feast, I remembered that song. One of my favorite singers is the operatic soprano, Leontyne Price. I have had the good fortune to attend her concerts and remember that she used to feature this song as one of her encores. The second verse adds “Everywhere I go, I’m gonna let it shine. Let it shine, let it shine, let it shine.”
The reading from the prophet Isaiah for today proclaims: “Rise up in splendor, Jerusalem. Your light has come.” In the Gospel we read the very familiar story of the magi who followed the light of a star to Bethlehem where they found the infant Jesus with Mary and Joseph. It is obvious that Light plays an important part of this feast.
Scripture scholars refer to the story of the magi as “haggadah,” a type of Jewish story fashioned from diverse biblical material to make a theological point. This does not mean that the story is not true. Rather, the truth of the story is more in the total story and its meaning than in any or all of its details. One of the characteristics of “haggadah” is that the story continues to be embellished as it is told and retold. That is certainly true of this story as even today the story continues to grow. Notice that there is nothing in the story that tells us that there were three magi. There were three gifts. There is nothing in the story that relates the gold to the kingship of Jesus, the myrrh to the human nature of Jesus, or the frankincense to the divinity of Jesus. These elements have been added as Christians reflected on the event through the years. There is no indication in the Gospel that the names of these men were Casper, Melchior and Balthazar. Sometime in the last two thousand years, they have acquired those names. The Gospel does not tell us that one of the magi was dark skinned, yet every Nativity crèche has at least one black man approaching the manger. The Gospel speaks of two kings: King Herod and the King of the Jews. However we have placed crowns on the heads of these men and we sing “We Three Kings of Orient Are.” This story, this haggadah has continued to grow throughout the years. As late as the 1950’s, the shepherd boy Amahl was added to the pilgrimage of the magi in the opera, “Amahl and the Night Visitors.”
As charming as the details of the story may be, the truth of the story lies somewhere underneath these details. It is a story of how Gentiles, non-believers, what we would call pagans, were led to the stable of Bethlehem where they saw a baby and fell down in worship. They came to faith, to believe, because they allowed the light of God to enter their hearts and change them. They returned to their homes different men because of their experience of Jesus.
Does this strike you as believable? I do not ask the question because I doubt the Scriptural account. I ask because I am aware of just how hard it is to change. I have never met a person who relishes the notion of change. When asked to change, we usually come up with a thousand excuses not to change. The most popular is “If it isn’t broken, don’t fix it.” Yet what teacher has not told his or her students that there is always room for improvement. Another excuse goes “We have always done it this way.” Yet if we look carefully at the entire Gospel, it is about change - both personal and societal change. God is asking us to change. This has been the case ever since Jesus walked this earth. In his Letter to the Ephesians, St. Paul mentions one of the biggest changes that he and all members of the Jewish race were asked to make; namely, to realize that Gentiles were coheirs, that they were members of the same body and copartners in the promise of Christ Jesus. That isn’t the only change either. Jesus insists throughout the Gospel that God’s Kingdom is for the poor. As a matter of fact, there are those writers who maintain that it was this single proposition that led to Jesus’ execution. Powerful men could not change their way of thinking and accept that God’s Kingdom was the Kingdom of the Poor. To be sure, that same struggle is being waged even in our own day.
The Gospel ends by telling us that the magi went home by a different route. What change of direction is God asking of you and me today? Into what dark corner do we need to shine God’s light and let it shine, let it shine, let it shine.
Fr. Lawrence Jagdfeld, O.F.M., Administrator