“They departed for their country by another way.”
Commentators and homilists have long used this phrase, the conclusion of this Gospel reading, to teach us that the magi found their lives changed by an encounter with Jesus. After seeing the newborn king, nothing could be the same. They had to find another way home, another way of living, another way of continuing the journey of their lives.
In a timely coincidence, that’s how a lot of us are feeling right now. But our ideas may be a little different than the magi’s.
We’re making resolutions. We’re looking at journeying through life on a treadmill or a Peloton; maybe we are thinking about life with a few less Christmas cookies for breakfast.
Maybe we’re thinking about the promises we inevitably won’t keep. Books we won’t read. Desserts we won’t skip.
The bad habits we will fail to give up.
It’s not for lack of trying.
A few days ago, a polling service revealed that just under half of Americans — 44% — have made resolutions related to their health.
But consider this: less than a third — 29% — have made resolutions regarding their faith or their relationship to God.
What that tells me is that more people seem to value physical health than spiritual health — or most may think their spiritual health is just fine. It’s the extra weight that worries them.
No matter how you look at it, we can always exercise more and eat better — but we can also exercise our spiritual muscles and pray better.
St. Paul said, “We do not know how to pray as we ought.”
Most of us would agree. I would add: we do not live as Christians as we ought. We easily lose our way. We radiate the light of Christ at Christmas, but soon that light dims and flickers and fades. The first reading today calls on us to “Rise up in splendor…to be radiant at what we see.” How many of us will radiate that in February the way we did in December?
How can we do that better in this year?
The editors at America magazine last week had some suggestions. They turned to Pope Francis for inspiration. They compiled a list of new year’s resolutions from his own words.
At a moment when we are contemplating “another way” of journeying through life, here are some ideas that help point the way.
First, the pope suggests something we all need to do: give more. Volunteer. Seek to help others. Speaking of St. Joseph, the Holy Father said: “Joseph teaches us this: ‘Do not look so much at the things that the world praises, look into the corners, look in the shadows, look at the peripheries, at what the world does not want.’ St. Joseph reminds each of us to consider important what others discard.”
I would add, look for those the world does not have room for. Look for those rejected by the inn, those relegated to caves or stables or alleys. Help them to know they matter. Jesus was one of them. They have dignity.
Secondly, resolve not to judge others. In an audience in November, Pope Francis said, “It is good to ask ourselves what drives us to correct a brother or a sister, and if we are not in some way co-responsible for their mistake.”
In short, make space for compassion, not criticism.
Third, let go of grudges. With a friend. A co-worker. A spouse. A parent or sibling. “Never finish the day without making peace,” the pope said. “People say, ‘We fought. My God, I said bad words. I said awful things. But now, to finish the day, I must make peace.’ You know why? Because the cold war the next day is very dangerous.” In all of our relationships, we need to seek to be peacemakers. Bridge-builders. People who are “catholic” in the best sense — universal.
Fourth, stay in touch. Especially with the elderly. Marking World Grandparents Day, the pope said, “When was the last time we visited or telephoned an elderly person in order to show our closeness and to benefit from what they have to tell us?” He went on. “Let us not lose the memory preserved by the elderly, for we are children of that history, and without roots, we will wither.” Keep those roots strong. Nurture them. Love them. They make us who we are.
Fifth, pray more. Make it a habit. Even when you don’t want to. “Praying is not something easy,” the pope said during an audience in May. “And this is why we flee from it. Every time we want to pray, we are immediately reminded of many other activities, which at that moment seem more important and more urgent. This happens to me too!” The pope explained: “True progress in spiritual life comes from being able to persevere in difficult times: walk, walk, walk on…. and if you are tired, stop a bit and then start walking again.” Persevere.
This is the path of prayer. I would argue this is also the path to a holy life.
Which brings us back to the magi, the wise men, and the path they chose.
This Sunday, of course, we mark the Epiphany of Our Lord. Webster’s defines “epiphany” as “a sudden manifestation or perception of the meaning of something.” For the wise men, that meant understanding the nature of the newborn King, following a light and having their lives changed forever. That is part of the meaning of this sacred season. We are all called like the magi to follow a star — then go back by another way, a better way, a way radiant with light and hope.
Maybe some of us will fail at our resolutions. Maybe we won’t lose that weight or kick that habit. But let us make this a resolution to keep: to follow “another way” of living, of loving, of witnessing to our destiny as followers of Christ.
As Francis suggests, that includes being people of mercy, of sacrifice, of compassion, of prayer. People who love God and love their neighbor.
It is countercultural, “another way” — the way of a faithful disciple of Christ.
It is the way to begin anew — and begin the journey to have a truly blessed and happy new year.