Christmas IV – Epiphany
2016 – Cycle ABC
Isaiah 60:1-6; Psalm 72; Ephesians 3:2-3a, 5-6; Matthew 2:1-12
If I asked you to identify your religious affiliation what would you answer?…Christian? …Catholic? For some gathered here, could your answer be …Unsure? …Searching?
More and more people today, especially among younger generations known as Millennials are answering, None of the above. Checking “no religion” or “None of the above” is increasingly normal in the United States. This is a self-identifying reference to the fact that more people are unaffiliated with any organized religion. Sociologists have come to call them religious “nones”. They include people who identify as “spiritual-but-not-religious”, atheist, humanist, agnostic, and “nothing-in-particular”. Nones” will soon make up one-quarter of the religious landscape in the United States and their numbers are on the rise.
What is the bottom line? It would seem to be that the United States will remain at least nominally a “Christian nation” for some time into the future. But the role and influence of Christianity in U.S. culture will certainly change as more people set aside spiritual and religious pursuits entirely or undertake them primarily outside of institutional religious settings. [AMERICA Magazine, The Gospel According To the Nones, 8-15 June 2015] More people are setting aside spiritual and religious pursuits entirely or undertake them primarily outside of institutional religious settings. Religion, like so much of our culture is becoming privatized and a self-creation or blend.
Before we make judgment, it is interesting and positive to note:
- many of the unaffiliated continue to find Scripture—especially the parables of Jesus—spiritually meaningful and morally relevant.
- the majority of nones—nearly 70 percent in the 2012 Pew data—report that they believe in God, a higher power or a transcendent life force of one sort or another.
- given the longstanding Christianized culture of the United States, it should be no surprise that the majority of nones come from an at least nominally Christian background.
- among the religiously unaffiliated only one in 10 is “looking for a religion that would be right for you.” But some are engaging multiple religious traditions, often quite actively and with sustained congregational participation, without necessarily becoming members or identifying with that tradition. [Ibid.]
Many nones continue to identify the person of Jesus and the Bible as spiritual influences. But they are not as concerned about doctrinal beliefs in the divinity of Jesus, his status as the Son of God or his resurrection from the dead. For the nones for whom Jesus remains a meaningful spiritual figure, stories of his healings, his embrace of social outcasts and his critiques of religious hypocrisy and government-sponsored violence and injustice mark Jesus as a moral and spiritual exemplar. [Ibid.]
On this Epiphany, I place before us the “nones” because, are they not the magi of the 21st century? Magi are seekers, inquisitive and willing to identify that they ‘do not know’; do not know directions, do not understand whom they are seeking. “Nones” are contemporary women and men seekers. Should they not be embraced by us rather than judged? Magi and nones challenge faith believers. Do we seek what they are seeking or, like Herod and the priests of the temple, do we remain comfortable in our churches in our assurance of our belief but in truth, afraid; afraid to ask questions and journey? When we religious people think we have all the answers grounded in dogma, law and rubrics; be wary. It is too easy to trip up on these things as if we have God in our back pocket. We can be blinded by our own self-righteousness missing the truth before us. “Nones”, seekers, questioners, doubters, foreigners – magi might just be pointing the way out for us – who are lost! Isn’t that who Jesus came to seek; the lost and the sick?
- Do you not find it odd that King Herod, the chief priests and the scribes of the Temple and all Jerusalem did not notice the star? That they had to be told about it?
- Why did they stay in Jerusalem and wait, why did not Herod join the magi on pilgrimage?
Now, again consider what nones find attractive in Jesus of Nazareth, whether they acknowledge him as God or not: Jesus heals, Jesus embraces social outcasts, and Jesus critiques religious hypocrisy. Jesus, himself is the victim of government-sponsored violence and injustice.
Are we in a period in global spiritual history and movements where religion, in general, and Christianity, in particular, have come to a place where we are called to first intently watch and listen before we proclaim the Gospel?
The Magi are recorded as saying two things. One is a question: “Where is the newborn king of the Jews?” and the other, an observation: “We saw his star at its rising…”
- Are we willing to pose questions in regard to our faith and morality or are questions seen as a threat to our belief?
- Do we observe the world around us? Perceive were God might be present at this time in history? Is the Holy Spirit sustaining this spiritual movement throughout people’s hearts and minds?
- Are we searching for the King of the Jews? Or do we think we already have found him? Be careful of your answer to these questions?
The Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World of the Second Vatican Council stated: “the Church has always had the duty of scrutinizing the signs of the times and of interpreting them in the light of the Gospel. Thus, in language intelligible to each generation, she can respond to the perennial questions which men and women ask about this present life and the life to come, and about the relationship of the one to the other. [Gaudium et spes, n. 4.]
Both the insiders and the outsiders teach us important lessons for our time.
Because they did not scrutinize the signs of the times, Herod and all Jerusalem had to be told by strangers of the presence of God in their midst. And because they were greatly troubled and not listening, it resulted in the violence against the innocents of Bethlehem [Matthew 2:16-17]. Whether ancient magi or contemporary nones, seekers, and questioners; both offer us courage grounded in humility to make observations, to ask questions and to seek for God in unexpected places.
It is only fear that might prevent and hinder us from entering and crossing the desert, with its shifting sands, of this uneasy spiritual journey.
Yet can we afford not to?