I was in NYC over the Christmas holidays and sitting in the foyer of a hotel waiting for a friend. A woman sat down on a sofa opposite mine. She was wearing a huge diamond ring. Curiosity got the better of me and I asked: pardon me, Ma'am, but the ring you’re wearing…I’ve never seen a gem that large. What is it? She said: it’s the Smith diamond, named for my husband; it’s like the hope diamond. It comes with a curse. And I said: what’s the curse? “Mr. Smith.” That could only happen in NYC.
The holidays are over; we're ready to get back to work; and perhaps we have made a few resolutions for the New Year. This year, I didn't make any. How about you? There are books, e. g., I always thought I should read and never have; I'm not going to read them this year either. There may be a day I miss reading the newspaper, too, and I'm not going to kid myself this year. So, if I haven't read today's newspaper by tomorrow, I'm throwing it out. I'm giving up on resolutions in 2017.
Today we celebrate the Epiphany or the manifestation or showing forth of the child Jesus as the messiah to the magi. We really don’t know who these visitors were--wise men or astrologers or spice traders. All we know is that they were non-Jews who came from far away, guided by a mysterious star, to pay homage to this Jewish baby called Jesus.
The Word of God from Isaiah takes us back in our imaginations to the 6th century before Jesus, the 500s. The 6th century was a catastrophe for the Jews. They lost everything they thought would continue forever: Jerusalem, the temple, and the monarchy. Ancient Babylonia conquered Jerusalem, razed the temple to the ground, eliminated the monarchy, and deported many Jews to Babylonia. But then Persia conquered Babylonia and set the Jews free to rebuild their city. In this passage, the author speaks about a new Jerusalem. A divine light will emanate from this shining city on a hill and all people, Jews as well as non-Jews, will acknowledge and walk by this light.
Christians see Jesus as this light who illuminates darkness, the light who shows human beings the ultimate purpose of life: to be in relationship with God and thereby manifest the glory of God through who we are and what we do.
Paul's letter to the Christian community at Ephesus in Turkey speaks about our future: we are coheirs to the kingdom of God, co-workers of Jesus in bringing about the fullness of the kingdom. Jesus is indeed our guide in this work: a path to the lost; a loaf of bread to the spiritually hungry; an arm for the weak; a companion to the lonely; and a beacon of hope for all.
In the Gospel according to Matthew, we have all the ingredients of a great story: exotic visitors, a wicked king, court intrigue, a mysterious star, precious gifts, a new child. The magi give homage to this child with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, highly symbolic gifts about the identity of this child.
Gold can symbolize kingship or divinity, the things of God; and the coin of this child’s heavenly realm are the virtues of self-discipline, compassion, responsibility, friendship, courage, perseverance, honesty, decency, respect and faith in God. But are these virtues the “coin” of our own lives.
Frankincense with its wonderful fragrance and medicinal magic can symbolize healing, and this child came to heal our wounds and bridge the chasm that separate us from God and one another. We too are called to be healers to one another.
Myrrh or ointment can symbolize a burial embalmment, and this child through his dying/rising re-established our relationship with God and made us co-heirs to God’s promise of eternal life.
Now who is this child to whom the magi give their homage? This newborn messiah, soon to grow into the adult messiah, completely human and completely divine, is the exemplar or prototype or model of what it means to be an authentic human being.
That is why some ask themselves as they go about their daily routine: what would Jesus do in this or that circumstance?
With Jesus—his life, ministry, dying and rising-- as our model, God invites us, from an infinite number of possibilities, to become the best version of ourselves.
But what is that? In other words, what is our essential purpose? We are called to be in relationship with God by living holy lives, every man and every woman, without exception, regardless of our age, color, socioeconomic background, career or calling in life.
Holiness is allowing God to enter into every part of our lives so that we can become the best version of ourselves through who we are and everything we do. It's trying to be true to our inner best selves; it's a willingness to go the extra mile to make something “just right” because it’s the better thing to do; it's striving to choose what's the right thing to do in all our decisions, small and great, that affect our work, career, family and social life, the rearing of children, relationships with others and yes, even our leisure time.
Yes, with Jesus as our model, and trying to become the best version of ourselves, now is the time to renew ourselves spiritually as we begin 2017.
A wise old man said this about himself:
I was a revolutionary when I was young,
And my prayer to God was:
“Lord, give me the energy to change the world.”
As I approached middle age
And realized that my life was half gone
Without my changing a single soul,
I changed my prayer to:
“Lord, give me the grace to change
All those who come into contact with me.
Just my family and friends and I will be satisfied.”
Now that I am an old man
And my days are numbered,
I have begun to see how foolish I have been.
My one prayer now is:
“Lord, give me the grace to change myself, to become the best version of myself.”
If I had prayed this right from the start,
I would not have wasted my life.
The new year is indeed a time to change ourselves, to re-create ourselves, to re-energize our life with God and with one another. It's time to try to become the best version of ourselves.
How? I like this simple suggestion: each day, do a bit more than we think we can.
Each day, love a little bit more than we think we can; forgive a little bit more than we think we can; reach out to someone who is hurting a little bit more; sacrifice for others a little bit more; and encourage one another, especially our families, a little bit more than we think we can.
So I do have a New Year’s resolution!
And you know what? God will give us strength to do more than we think we can.
And if we do a little bit more than we think we can each day, then when our earthly life ends, we will approach God a little bit closer than we thought we could.