I really don’t feel ready to be a godmother. I’ve been in a “wait, wait, are you sure about this? I… I disagree with some of this!” questioning phase about Catholicism (what I was raised in) for 12 years now, and can’t recite the Nicene Creed (the Catholic profession of faith) and say honestly that it’s what I believe, but I do think the spiritual journey is an important one. (It just sometimes means leaving the path you started on.) Fortunately, my new godson Ewan is still a baby and isn’t asking much in the way of questions about divinity yet (I think Elinor and Ian are still working on getting him to walk and talk).
However, my 9-year-old cousin Audrey is asking questions about “God and Stuff” — her parents aren’t religious (mine are devoutly Catholic) so she’s got to figure things out on her own. And maybe I’m not ready to be a godmother, but I can be a god… cousin? A godbuddy! Whatever the word would be. So here’s an experiment. I’ll send it to Audrey (actually, my aunt) after I write it.
Okay. Audrey, I don’t know how to start something like this, but today’s Mass is in celebration of a story that you probably already know, so let’s start there. You know the song “We Three Kings of Orient Are,” and the story of the 3 Wise Men (or the 3 Magi, same thing) who brought Jesus his first birthday presents? That’s this week’s topic.
Here are the readings for this week’s service. Let’s skip the Reponsorial Psalm because I dont know what to do with it, and look at the two readings and the Gospel. Here are my notes and thoughts and questions; looking forward to hearing yours.
Reading 1:Isaiah 60:1-6
This is basically a “hurrah, let’s play the trumpets; everyone be happy at this wonderful thing!” reading, as far as I can tell. It’s Old Testament, meaning that it was written before Jesus was born; specifically, this one was written around the time the Jews were finally allowed to leave Babylon (they used to be stuck there because of war and politics) and go back home, so there was plenty of happiness about that going around.
What does this have to do with the Magi? I’m not sure (I’m also not a scholar on this stuff), except that there’s the bit that says “all from Sheba shall come / bearing gold and frankincense,” which were two of the three presents the Magi gave — and this was written a long, long time before they gave those gifts, so it’s probably a “look, the old stories match up with the new ones; the Bible is consistent!” thing.
The gold symbolizes Jesus as king in a more earthly sense (kings have lots of gold, wear gold crowns, etc) and the frankincense symbolizes his divinity (many religions have the tradition of burning incense as an offering to God). The third gift, myrrh, is left out here — which makes sense, since the first reading is about celebrating, and myrrh is something that was used in funerals, to anoint dead people… so it kinda doesn’t fit the festive mood.
Reading 2: Ephesians 3:2-3a, 5-6
Okay, backstory on this one. This is written after Jesus has died/risen/gotten back to heaven, but not very long after; Christianity is a new religion and everyone’s trying to figure everything out. And they are arguing. A lot. One of the big topics of argument is between the Jews (who had been waiting for the Messiah for thousands of years) and the Gentiles (“people who aren’t Jewish”). These groups are different peoples, languages, cultures, traditions, genetics… and they’ve historically stayed apart, not mixed, separated themselves from each other. A summary of the argument might go something like this.
Jews: Yay! The Messiah has come! I believe in Jesus! I’m a Christian!
Gentiles: Yay! The Messiah has come! I believe in Jesus! I’m a Christian!
Jews: Wait, who invited you to the party? You… you can’t be here. You’re not Jewish.
Gentiles: But I believe in Jesus, just like you. I’m a Christian too!
Jews: But… but… we and our ancestors spent our whole lives for generations prepping for this, studying for this, learning all the laws and rituals and signs and everything — that was hard work! We’re prepared for this whole Messiah thing! You think you can just walk in off the street and go “yay, Jesus!” and get a membership card without any of that background?
Gentiles: Yes! Yay, Jesus! We’re Christians!
Jews: No you’re not! You’re like… if anything, you’re… lesser Christians, special Gentile-variety Christians, Christians Jr., something… maybe we can make a special category, but you’re not one of us!
Gentiles: Are too!
Jews: Are not!
Gentiles and Jews: PAULLLLL!
Paul is a leader of the early church. He’s got an interesting backstory that you’ll probably read about somewhere else someday (it involves killing people, going blind, going un-blind… long story). In any case, he’s supposed to settle this dispute. And so he wrote this letter, which basically says: “Jews, shut it. The Gentiles are Christians just as much as you are. Get over it.” (It’s the bit that goes: “…the Gentiles are coheirs, members of the same body, and copartners in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.”)
In other words, Paul’s advocating multicultural awareness and acceptance — the kind of thing your Mom works on in her school.
What does this have to do with the Magi? Well, according to historical tradition, the Magi were… Asian. Which is weird. You don’t usually think of the Bible as a book that’s full of Asian people, but whoop, here they are.
Which means something else: those three Magi took one heck of a crazy trip to get there. (Asia is not close to Bethlehem at all.) Imagine if your dad was one of the Magi, and you saw him packing for the trip.
Kid: Dad, where are you going?
Dad: I’m not sure, actually. I’m going to follow this very, very bright star across the entire known universe to find a newborn king.
Kid (doing some rapid mental math): That journey will take weeks. Or years. Or a very long time, in any case. That baby is definitely not born yet. Which country is it? How do you know you’re aiming for the right palace?
Dad: Actually, um, it might not be a palace. The baby might be in a barn, for all we know. If the star takes me to a barn, I’ll go to a barn. It’s like a GPS.
Kid: That sounds like a broken GPS. Will you at least bring me a present when you come back?
Dad: Actually, I’m bringing the baby a present. I found some very nice myrrh.
Kid: You mean… the stuff we use… on dead people… before we bury them?
Dad: Yep, that’s the stuff!
Kid: Dad, that’s like giving the baby a coffin. People don’t do that. Bring… like… a rattle, or a bottle, or something more baby-like. What are the parents going to think? Remind me why you’re going on this trip again?
Dad: Because! The star! The newborn king!
Kid: But you’re a king, dad. Are you sure you’re not going crazy?
It’s almost as if the President decided he was going to get in a rocket ship and blast off in the vague direction of Mars (but he’s not sure he’ll end up on Mars, it might be somewhere else, we’ll see!) because that’s where he thinks he’s going to find God. We’d be… concerned.
Also, the kings did end up in a barn, staring at the illegitimate child of an unwed teenage mother. His foster father was a not-particularly-wealthy carpenter. It didn’t look particularly kingly. But the star was there. What did the Magi do?
Gospel: Matthew 2:1-12
Maybe the logical thing to do might have been to check their GPS: “Geez, this star totally got us to the wrong address; let’s look for the nearest palace, because this map is obviously broken and outdated.” But… nope. They fell on their knees and bowed and gave that poverty-stricken baby some very, very weird gifts: a king’s gold, a god’s incense, and burial ointment. Imagine a new cousin being born, and your mom saying “we should take some gifts to Auntie Ipi — I know, let’s bring her a Ferrari and an altar and a headstone for the baby!” (Kiddo, if you’re thinking that religion will give you answers that will help the world make more sense… good luck with that.)
In any case, this gospel is the actual story of the Magi. It’s not written in the most gripping prose ever, so one thing you might want to do is go to the library and check in the picture books section to see what storybooks have been written about the 3 Wise Men. Yes, they will be way too easy for your reading level; it’s okay. But it is interesting to see how people draw the Magi (do they look like they come from Africa, from India, from China, from Arabia — where?) and what alternate perspectives the story can be told from. (Who’s the narrator? A watching goat? The son of the man who sold the 3rd Magi the myrrh?)
The other bit you might want to look at more is King Herod, the other guy in the story. He’s also a king, and also gets the whole “Look, a star — a baby king is born!” message. But he doesn’t go looking. Actually, he freaks out and starts planning to kill the baby because he’s the king, not some upstart infant with a very improbable star. (Herod was probably worried that Jesus would grow up to become some kind of guerilla warfare grassroots revolutionary that would recruit and lead an army against him. Those sorts of things happen sometimes. It’s why people would occasionally kill the kids of the rulers they conquered; they didn’t want anyone to grow up to lead a rebellion.)
And because the Magi don’t come back and tell Herod where the baby is, Herod eventually decides that he’s just going to kill all the boy babies he can find, because that ought to take care of that one that’s going to be king, right? Anything to maintain his throne, even the grief of thousands of families caught in the cross-fire. But that’s another story (and yeah, it’s a gory and sad story, and there are those in the Bible as well) that you might read another time.
Gosh, that ended on a somewhat… depressing note. Um… children’s books! Stories about the Magi, with pretty pictures! To the library, quickly — go, go, go!
But really, Audrey — the world is an awesome place, but ugly and sad and scary and painful things are also part of life, and we do need to know they have and do and will happen, and we do need to learn how to deal with them. That’s a big part of growing up. Everyone — even the grown-ups — are still trying to figure that out, and so are you, and so will you more and more as you grow older. You’re doing a great job already.
Okay, small one. Thoughts, comments, notes, questions?