Reflections on “returning home by another way.”
Before seminary, I worked for a time with Biblical Backgrounds. They are a small company of scholars whose mission is to teach the historical geography of the biblical world through innovative maps and commentary. In every lesson, one of the underlying presentation questions is orientation. How should the map be turned to communicate the material most clearly?
In the classic Gospel Epiphany episodes, the principal characters are faced with a new map, by which God manifests his glory in the face of Christ. What is the orientation underlying these new maps? And how might it lend itself towards new insights for us, as we set about the task of living in a heaven-ward direction?
“We three kings of Orient are”
The three wise men, each coming from distant eastern lands, had little knowledge of Hebrew prophecy or the promises of Messiah. They watched the heavens, and the appearance of a new star compelled them to set out on their journey. As far as the text indicates, the star itself governed their route, not a known map or guide. These magi put themselves entirely at the mercy of the heavens, in a way that must have been “disorienting” to say the least. And yet when they finally arrived, their choice of gifts acknowledged the one who had led them there, the king they sought, and his mission in the world — “King, and God, and Sacrifice” as the famous carol puts it — all three in one baby born in a manger, heaven itself come to earth.
The three wise men resolved to know nothing but heaven, and held themselves accountable to its promptings and leadings. When they finally arrived at their destination, they found heaven itself waiting for them in Mary’s arms. In short, they held themselves accountable to heaven, and it served as their reward. How might you and I likewise allow heaven to govern our own imaginations, hearts, and wills?
“This is my beloved Son”
When Jesus comes to the Jordan and is baptized by John, the voice from heaven proclaims, “You are my beloved Son, in you I am well pleased.” This episode reveals something of the nature of the Trinity, and begins Jesus’ formal ministry in the world with a series of symbolic acts consecrating the waters of baptism and foreshadowing his own death and resurrection. But more than this, it makes the simple point: the one with whom Jesus is chiefly (eternally!) in dialogue, claims him for his own. “This is my beloved Son.”
I am reminded of the scene at the end of the film A Man For All Seasons, when Thomas More is on the scaffold. He absolves his executioner and says, “Be not afraid of your office, you send me to God.” The Archbishop, standing there as chaplain, scornfully retorts, “You’re very sure of that, Sir Thomas?” To which More replies, “He will not refuse one who is so blithe to go to him.” The dialogue of the Son with the Father in the Spirit, as the dialogue of the individual Christian with God, is unabashedly personal. How might you and I engage in this dialogue, such that heaven finally recognizes us for its own?
“Do whatever he tells you”
At the wedding in Cana, Jesus seals the loving desire of bride and groom with the sign of God’s own loving desire for each of us: water and wine, evoking both the blood and water which will flow from his side at the cross, and the water and wine mingled together in the chalice at the Eucharist. In this way, desire (both earthly and heavenly) is wedded to oblation (both Jesus’ own on the cross and ours in sacramental life), and they are linked forever. Cana’s bride and groom fulfill their desire for one another by translating that desire into a formal commitment of mutual offering in the presence of Christ. God fulfills his desire for us by offering himself even to death on a cross. We participate in both by offering “our selves, our souls and bodies” to God in the Great Thanksgiving, even as we are also “fed with the spiritual food of the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
This is all to say that the wedding in Cana reveals that the starting point for our heavenly journeys is our own hearts and relationships, full as they are of competing desires, affections, and commitments. How can we offer them to God, such that they are finally consecrated to his own love for us?
“A heavenward orientation”
The short answer to all these questions is baptism, by which we are sacramentally and irrevocably caught up in the Spirit’s own recognition of Jesus as his Father’s Son, as he stood baptized in the Jordan. If Baptism is to mean everything it can for us, we must regard it not merely as a change in status (legal, spiritual, or otherwise), but rather as the beginning of a whole new orientation of our lives: heavenward. It will be the joy and pleasure of our lives as Christians to explore everything this orientation might mean for us, and to cultivate the fruit which such an orientation will produce.
As the wise men followed the star, so our inclination towards heaven draws us onward through the world. It forms the pillars of our imaginations, and as we go about our daily work we are conscious of God’s grace going before us and behind us. The way is marked by its own oases and visitations: in Martin Thornton’s scheme, by the daily prayer of the whole Church, by our individual devotion and intentional recollection of our lives, by years and landmarks stamped by the sacraments — birth, growth, marriage, sickness, repentance, vocation, and, chief of all, the regular reception of the Eucharist.
Our lives as we live them are always new to us, and we are “surprised by grace” at every turn. But an orientation heavenwards also means accepting that we are neither the first nor the only ones whose “lives are hid with Christ in God.” When we step into this life, we do not initiate something new, but participate in something already ongoing from the foundation of the world. Its roots are in heaven, and its branches span all the distances of space and time. We are therefore always sensitive to our brothers and sisters in faith, working with them to spread the Gospel, building up one another in every way we can. We are conscious of the living and dead alike, angels and mortals, and those who are still to come. Our vocation in this whole communion begins in the corner we find ourselves, exercising our priesthood in offering our lives and everything they touch, to the redemptive purposes of God.
“Westward leading, still proceeding”
Being warned in a dream, the three wise men return to their own country by another way. What does this mean? “The East” means a lot in Christianity, and in other religions too. The altar is the “east end” of a church; the Messiah will come from the east; and the second coming will appear in the east too. The sun rises in the east. The wise men are from the east. And yet they travel west to the manger, towards the setting sun, away from the regions of light and onward into darkness and death. They reflect, in T.S. Eliot’s poem, “this Birth was / Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.” When they return home, they cannot go the way they came, back east. They must continue west, through “Death, our death,” to newness of life on the other side: a home transfigured by the glory of the incarnate God.
Like Frodo no longer at ease in Middle Earth, we of a heavenly orientation cannot remain in this world without the knowledge that our true home abides elsewhere. We will have to follow our Lord across the “Sundering Sea” of death to reach it. What we will be sundered from and what will remain — both of our world and of ourselves — remains to be seen. But we have the comfort of a reasonable and holy hope, that what light of heaven we saw here, as in a glass darkly, will there reveal its face, and be himself our final reward and lasting home.
Fr. Blake Sawicky‘s other posts may be found here. The featured image is a medieval crozier at the Victoria and Albert Museum London. The photo is by Fr. Lawrence Lew, O.P. and is licensed under Creative Commons.