In this reflection, written for a celebration of the feast of the Epiphany Fr. Tom McKenna offers thoughts on how do I understand this particular story — how am I reading the signs — that is so outside my usual way of looking at the world?
You could look on this story of the Magi and Herod as a lesson in “reading the signs,” either rightly or wrongly, or better, generously or selfishly. All four of them know something is in the air (in the sky!). The Three Kings read it one way (they want to revere it, honor it, get near it, bow down before it, follow it, let its light shine on them). In sharp contrast, Herod takes it in as something very different (as threat, a challenge to his way and view of the world, as something to be violently stamped out.) The story lays out those two possible ways of reacting to something that is new, unfamiliar, out there beyond what I already know, reading it as light or interpreting it as fearful dark.
The Jewish Christians in Ephesus to whom Paul is writing are facing something of the same issue. How do you take in this un-thought of, unheard of possibility: these Gentiles, these outsiders, having in them the same Holy Spirit who has come to us in Jesus! “Up until now, the long tradition and accepted wisdom is that they are not like us. They are the unwashed, the ones forbidden entrance into the Temple, the unclean, and in so many ways ‘the Other.’ And here’s Paul telling us that they are “co-partners in the promise in Christ Jesus, heirs in the same family as us, even “members of the same body.” An understandable reaction would have been the Hebrew equivalent of “are you kidding?”
And so again the issue: how do I read this particular sign that is so outside my usual way of looking at the world?
We know from the history that a good number didn’t read it all that openly and generously. They saw it as a gross watering down of the law, an overly practical compromise. They read it as dark. And then there were others (initially just as taken back) who opened to it. They were able to step past their present world views, cross over into territory that looked dark from the distance but nevertheless see some kind of light in that darkness. They read the new situation generously, with trust, willing to bend some and give these “outside” people the benefit of the doubt; i.e., that in fact they too had the same Spirit of Jesus within them, they too were children of Jesus’ loving Father, they too lived in the light. These early Christians caught sight of light in the new situation.
Which brings that same question before us today. How open are we to read new and unfamiliar situations in the world and Church as more light than dark? How open am I to the possible light inside yet unknown realities coming at me from the future rather than taking them in as mostly dark and threatening? It might feel like there are barbarians at the gate, but can I, like the Jewish Christians, see them as more than just barbarians? Can I see that the light of the Spirit is within them too, though in other guises, and that at a deep level they are indeed co-heirs in much the same family?
You and I could bring up many examples of outsiders, those who are different. We could do it racially, ethnically, economically, religiously, gender-wise. So much of the rhetoric in the run-up to the Presidential campaign gets its fire from the dark and threatening possibilities in just those differences.
But let me stay with one: those outsiders whom the media has describes as the “N-O-N-E-S,” those who when asked on some form for their religion say “none,” those who profess to being spiritual but not religious. Those who say that they belong to no religious denomination but still believe in God, and that there’s more to life than material reality, and that a basic path of goodness is to be followed. And as the poll takers tell us, so many of them in the younger population, the Generation Xer’s and the Millennials and beyond. These are the non-church goers, the ones who have left behind the practices and rituals of what we call organized religion.
A piece in the paper the other day styled them “the Star-Wars believers.” They claim they’ve dropped their religious traditions, but in fact find themselves caught up in that symbolism of the Light Side in conflict with the Dark Side – and they would identify themselves with the Light. The movie is set up, as you know, as a battle between the oppressive, evil forces of darkness and the liberating, generative, justice-seeking forces of light. So many of the characters are portrayed as trying to tune into this invisible light, let it grow stronger inside them, follow it more readily, spot it more quickly, resist the dark force.
The column went on to observe how deep inside the mainline religious traditions these symbols and ideas actually are. The writer wasn’t proposing a new Star Wars religion, but rather saying how the pull of these images has spread so widely and how closely they reverberate with things like overcoming temptation, sacrifice for the good of the other, getting beyond self-interest, contact with something good and more powerful that’s beyond one own person. In other words, it pointed out how profoundly and extensively these traditional religious themes are sounding through the younger generation.
Putting all this in terms of our original question: how might I read this particular unknown, the NONES? Can I do some stretching to read light in it? Not bringing back Star Wars itself, but spotting the presence of the Holy Spirit in the awareness such a fable can still awaken in younger people, so many of whom would not call themselves religious?
Can I read this seeming falling off of organized religion as not entirely dark, but as a stirring of the Spirit in people “outside the walls?” Can I look to see the genuineness of the spiritual experiences happening in our sons and daughters, grandchildren and nieces and nephews and younger friends –but not in necessarily in church? To make a finer point of it, can I extend the benefit of the doubt to these NONES? That is, that for whatever reason they don’t practice our practices, they nonetheless are in touch with the grace and God-life that flows both here in Church and out beyond the Church too? Can I say that the goal and longings of their search are real?
And can I go the further step, one you might call it the missionary move? And that is to let them know that the very same impulses and aspirations they feel moving inside themselves are in the Church and can be strengthened by being in the Church. Can we who practice our religion make the effort to show that the spiritual call they experience can get firmed up and validated and supported by an active life within the Church? Can we make the case that what they’re seeking outside religion actually has a better chance surviving and flourishing inside religion?
Be clear about what I’m not saying: you don’t have to go to church anymore; religious traditions (Catholicism) doesn’t make any real difference; it doesn’t matter what you believe as long as you’re sincere. I’m not saying anything like these things.
What I am saying is – is there another way to read this relatively new phenomena of “spiritual, but not religious?” Is there another way to take in this growing phenomenon of the N-O-N-E-S? Can I see this mostly new and unfamiliar development not as all threat and darkness, but as having a kind of light inside it? Can I read this unknown in a positive light, as did the Three Wisemen read the special darkness of that desert night?
And most importantly of all, might I do what I can to make the connections between that light which shines outside the gate and that very same light which shines and gets so nourished inside our Church communities?
I speak of course of this light which shines so brightly in just this setting, the making-present of the Lord Jesus in this Eucharistic gathering, and in the faith and works of all of you who gather here this morning.