We dedicated the 1 p.m. Mass at my parish Sunday to Pope Emeritus Benedict. I was asked to preach the homily.
Several years ago, when I preached on this feast, I suggested that this episode in the Gospel was the last time in recorded history that a group of men stopped to ask for directions.
But more seriously: this Gospel presents a question for all of us, at any time, in any place:
“Where is the newborn king of the Jews?”
This question is about more than looking for a place on the map.
The journey of the Magi is the journey of all of us —believers, doubters, seekers, wanderers.
Where is the newborn king? Where can we find the Christ?
Where is our hope?
It’s a question that burned in the heart of Joseph Ratzinger, Pope Benedict XVI.
Where is the newborn king?
Benedict spent much of his life answering that question — not just for himself, but for all of us.
We are still celebrating Christmas, the season of gifts. As we mark Epiphany — this Sunday when we celebrate the manifestation of Christ as a gift to the world, and the gifts of wise men who traveled so far to see him — we have an opportunity to reflect on the gift of Joseph Ratzinger, and the gifts he offered us across a lifetime.
First, there is the gift of understanding.
The gift of compassion born of personal pain.
Joseph Ratzinger grew up in Germany, under the Nazis.
When he was teenager one of his cousins, a 14-year-old boy with Down syndrome, was taken away by the Nazis as part of a eugenics campaign. His cousin was executed.
Two years later, Joseph Ratzinger was drafted. He served reluctantly in the German army. As the war came to an end, he deserted, just walked away from his battalion — a move that could have cost him his life. He was soon captured and spent time in an American POW camp before he was finally freed.
Like so many of his generation, that experience affected him. One analyst has said, “Ratzinger’s views on truth and freedom were forged in the crucible of World War II.”
I think it also deepened his abiding faith — faith that took root when he was a little boy, and faith that found its fullest expression in love.
Two of his encyclicals have “love” in their title. In Deus Caritas Est, or God is Love, he wrote:
“Love of neighbor consists in the very fact that, in God and with God, I love even the person whom I do not like or even know … Only my readiness to encounter my neighbor and to show him love makes me sensitive to God as well. Only if I serve my neighbor can my eyes be opened to what God does for me and how much he loves me.”
I think Benedict also gave us the gift of surrender.
The writer Elizabeth Scalia last week noted that throughout his life Joseph Ratzinger lived out a prediction Jesus made about Peter: he was led where he didn’t want to go. From the Hitler Youth to the German army to positions of influence in the Vatican, his life was a journey of reluctant surrender.
In his 70s, at a moment when he wanted to retire and return to Germany to simply write, read, pray and play the piano, he was elected dean of the College of Cardinals. Despite his desire to return to private life, he continued to give his life to the Church, long after he wanted to be back in his homeland. He surrendered his will to God’s, until he felt he could give no more.
At John Paul’s funeral in 2005, Cardinal Ratzinger spoke of how the late pontiff had followed Christ’s command, “Follow me.” I think the man who became Pope Benedict tried as best he could to obey those same words, “Follow me.”
He went where he was led.
In some ways, he reminds me of another Joseph — the husband of Mary and the foster father of Jesus. That Joseph also went where he was led, by listening to angels, by dreaming, and by living with these words of simple faith and reassurance: “Do not be afraid.”
It takes courage to live that way. I think it also demands something else, another gift.
The gift of hope.
Pope Benedict embraced hope. His second encyclical, Spe Salvi, means “Saved by Hope.” This was the guiding spirit of his life — hope that was found in the person of Jesus Christ. It animated his vocation. He once said, “The one who hopes lives differently.”
At the end of Spe Salvi are words that resonate this Sunday:
“Human life is a journey. Life is like a voyage on the sea of history, often dark and stormy, a voyage in which we watch for the stars that indicate the route. The true stars of our life are the people who have lived good lives. They are lights of hope.”
He lived for the world yet to come, with a steadfast belief in possibility.
This may be why he had a special love for young people, the promise of the future. Again and again, wherever he traveled, he addressed his homilies to them.
When he lay in state last week, he wore red vestments from the 2008 World Youth Day in Sydney, Australia. He was buried in those same vestments — clothed for eternity in robes that represent youth and promise and hope.
Finally, there was the gift of his mind.
His words. His ideas. His penetrating intelligence. His depth and breadth of knowledge. Long before he became pope, when he was a professor at a university in Germany, his morning lectures were packed with people from the nearby villages, who came to hear his talks.
Last week, Pope Francis said of him, “We feel so much gratitude in our hearts: Gratitude to God for having given him to the Church and the world, and gratitude to him, for all the good he has done.”
This afternoon, that gratitude is personal. You don’t have to look far to see Pope Benedict’s impact on our local church.
In 2012, Pope Benedict chose a priest from Queens to be an auxiliary bishop for the Diocese of Brooklyn, Monsignor Paul Sanchez.
I don’t think anyone here today would disagree: we have been richly blessed.
I go back to the question at the heart of this Sunday’s Gospel: Where is the newborn king?
We can’t help but realize something we’ve known all along. To find him, we need to do what the Magi did.
We need to follow the light.
Benedict did that. And he urged us, however we could, to do the same. He pointed the way
Follow the light. That is what leads us to Christ.
How we need that in these times when it is so tempting to give in to darkness and despair.
In 2007, on the feast of the Epiphany, Pope Benedict delivered a homily on the Magi. He concluded with these words — a message to all on life’s journey.
“The example of the Magi of that time is an invitation to the Magi of today to open their minds and hearts to Christ and to offer him their gifts. Do not be afraid of Christ’s light! His light is the splendor of truth. Let yourselves be enlightened by him, all the peoples of the earth. Let yourselves be enveloped by his love and you will find the way to peace.”
Our prayer this day is that Joseph Ratzinger — soldier, POW, priest, professor and pope — has found the way to eternal peace and perpetual light. His journey is complete.
May he pray for us as we pray for him and continue to bless us with his gifts of understanding, surrender, intelligence and hope.
And may his soul and the souls of all the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace.