Monday, January 6, 2014

Time Wasted Well

Readings for Sunday, January 5/ Epiphany Sunday:

Isaiah 60:1-6
Psalm 72:1-2,7-8,10-13
Ephesians 3:2-3,5-6
Matthew 2:1-12

The other night Fr. Vincent (the pastor) and I were talking about the feast of the Epiphany and the readings this weekend and between us we came up with around two dozen different homily ideas about the gifts, the Magi, Herod, and a whole list of aspects, but what has been resonating most in my heart was the star, on account of an article I read about Dr. Frederick Larson, who managed to take a computer program and chart out what the sky would have looked like 2000 years ago right around the time Jesus would have been born. What he found was interesting and I’d like to take a few moments to share it.

He noticed, looking from the east of Jerusalem where the Magi would have been, Jupiter, the brightest planet in the sky, moved back and forth in the sky in an elliptical motion that like a crown. This crown was directly above a star known as ‘Regulus’ or ‘King’. A king was being crowned. Interesting.

That ‘crowning of a king’ took place within the constellation ‘Leo’ or ‘The Lion’ and, as we heard in the scriptures tonight, the Messiah, was predicted to come from the tribe of Judah, which was illustrated as a Lion. This was widely known in Jewish culture, but the surrounding peoples also knew it since Jerusalem was a major city between Africa, Europe, and Asia where other cultures would interact with the Jewish people. So now there’s a king being crowned and it is taking place in Leo. Fascinating… but there’s more.

As we know from our astrological signs these days, the sign that follows Leo is Virgo, the Virgin. But this wasn’t just the ordinary appearance of Virgo. This time, at the feet of the Virgo constellation was a crescent moon, knowing in the culture of the day as the ‘birthing moon.’ So in addition to the ‘King’ being crowned in the Leo constellation we now have a birth in connection to a Virgin. All of these things make perfect sense to us, but at the time they were having to put all of this together to try to grasp the meaning. When they did, the immediately hopped on their camels and rode toward Jerusalem to greet the new king. This is where we picked up in the Gospel today, with the Magi going before King Herod inquiring where the newborn king was so they could do him homage. When they finally learn that the child was to be born in Bethlehem they prepare to head out.

Going back to Dr. Larson’s work, though, we also find something very interesting taking place. Fast-forwarding some months we see that Jupiter is not longer crowning Regulus but is now intersecting with the planet Venus, so the brightness of the two planets was then magnified to form an even brighter light in the sky which the Magi would never have seen before! And because the star was moving in the sky and they were moving as well in geographical location, the bright star seemed to stop in the sky. And from the perspective in Jerusalem, guess where it stopped directly above – Bethlehem. Just like it said in the Gospel. 

That seems absolutely incredible to me to think that all of those things were used so that the Magi would find Christ. God made the stars and planets, set them in motion, arranged for all of those things to happen as they did so that the Magi would be able to read the signs of the times and encounter God in the flesh. It shows the extreme love that God has for the Magi, and the reality is that He has the same love for each and every one of us. Who knows what great lengths God has gone to in making it possible for each of us to come to know Him in our lives today, to have encountered Him when we did for the first time and to continue that encounter daily.

To aid us in benefitting from the encounter and sometimes being able to have it in the first place, there are three things that the Magi can teach us to do better: waste time well, study, and follow.

I can waste time on anything under the sun. I have no shortage of things fighting for my attention, but the thing is to waste time well. Think about how much time we spent with our family and friends in recent weeks celebrating the holidays. Countless dinners, parties, visits, and simple gatherings where we just sat with loved ones and talked or watched Christmas movies and football games together. How much of that was really ‘productive time’ in the sense we normally think of it? When we’re enjoying a good gumbo with friends are we really able to say we’ve checked things off of our ‘to do’ list? No. It’s wasted time in a sense, unproductive time. And yet it was incredibly valuable time wasted because we strengthened our relationships or built new ones. And just the same with our relationship with the Lord. Many saints and holy people have spoken of prayer as time ‘wasted’ with God. It’s not productive. We’re not getting a list of things completed, but we are growing in faith, hope, and love. The Magi wasted a ton of time simply star-gazing, watching how things love around at night. For months and years they simply stared into the heavens. It wasn’t all for nothing, though. It led them to God. Are we willing to set aside time in order to simply waste it on the Lord? Are we willing to encounter Him?

The second thing the Magi can teach us is to study. They had to spend many hours grasping the movements of the heavenly bodies, surely much recourse to mapping the skies was had, and they had to have a working knowledge of these many things going on all at once so they could make sense of the signs they saw. Are we willing to study for the Lord? If they hadn’t studied the skies, they would have done exactly what Herod did and what most of us do: look up at the sky, remark about how pretty it is, look for a bit and then move on. They would have missed the signs that led them to God. There are so many things these days that can help us to grow in our faith and to understand the ways that God is speaking to us throughout our days and how to respond better. There are books and magazines, tv stations, online videos, blogs, and news sources galore to learn about our faith and to learn about the things of the world that can permit us to draw closer to God. We can stay at the surface level or we can commit to even just a small bit of reading and really deeper our understanding, love and appreciation for our faith in God and God Himself. The choice is ours. Are we willing to study and find God more easily?

The last thing is following. It’s hard to follow because that means we give up control. I know that in a very real way as a priest. You know that priests make several promises at their ordination to the priesthood and diaconate ordinations. At diaconate I made the promise of permanent celibate chastity and the commitment to praying the Liturgy of the Hours, the official prayer of the Church recited throughout the day. At priesthood I made the promise to imitate the mysteries that I celebrated and daily conform my life to Christ. All of those things I promised once. Guess what you have to promise twice – obedience! You have to make the promise at diaconate and again at priesthood ordination. It’s tough to follow when we want to lead. The Magi saw the signs in the sky and they simply left to follow after it. They didn’t know what they would find or how things would pan out in the end. They followed the invitation of God. Are we willing to do the same? Often the Lord invites us to things – to a particular act of charity towards another, to service in the Church or community, to a deepening of prayer and a call to set aside something to grow in holiness. Are we willing to follow or do we seek to excuse ourselves. There’s always an excuse, always a reason why I shouldn’t so this or that which the Lord may be inviting me to. But there is one reason why I should do it: Jesus Christ wants it. Are we willing to follow Christ or have we chosen our own way?

May God grant us the wisdom to see the many ways He speaks to us, that we may rejoice in those gifts and seeks to increase their number by our openness to waste time well, to study, and to follow always the Light that is Christ Jesus. Amen.