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Jesus Mafa – Visit of the Three Wise Men (via the Vanderbilt Divinity Library)

 

On this feast of the Epiphany, we hear the story of the Three Kings, as recounted in Matthew’s Gospel. The Gospel calls them magi, or wise men — it doesn’t tell us that they were kings, or even how many of them there were.

Much of what we associate with the magi comes to us not from the Bible itself but from ancient Christian oral tradition. From this tradition, as well as from the importance their visit was given by the authorities in Jerusalem and the kinds of gifts they brought — gifts themselves fit for a king — we understand that they were relatively wealthy, powerful visitors.

Elements of the magi’s visit surely resonate with many missioners. Often, we travel to foreign lands, perhaps with gifts or resources to share — wise men and women guided by our faith, heading to the margins. And it is there, at the margins, that we encounter Christ in unexpected ways.

Christ in the Rubble, Evangelical Lutheran Christmas Church in Bethlehem, West Bank (via Instagram @munther_isaac)

Many have seen the images in recent weeks of the “Christ Child in the Rubble,” the nativity scene in Bethlehem’s Christmas Church: the baby Jesus lying amid piles of dusty stones and bricks, evoking the mass destruction taking place in Gaza, just an hour away from Bethlehem.

Just as the magi must have been surprised to find the newborn “King of the Jews” lying in a manger surrounded by animals — his first visitors being the hard-edged shepherds of nearby fields — so we are surprised and moved by the conditions into which Christ is born today: in the rubble of Palestine; or on the road trod by immigrant families seeking refuge at the U.S.-Mexico border, threatened by thieves and armed agents; or surrounded by the cold steel and cement walls of a women’s prison.

We often associate the word conversion with mission. We think of foreign missioners seeking to convert others to their religion. We imagine proselytism.

But the magi offer another example: It is they who are converted to a new way of understanding. We are never told what Mary and Joseph did with the gold, frankincense and myrrh the magi offered as gifts. Often the gifts missioners bring, the ways we plan to help, the assumptions we make about what others needs may be, turn out to be mistaken. It is alongside the people in the communities that receive us that we discover our role, and develop new ways of living the Gospel — of evangelizing — in relationship with others.

When Maryknoll missioners speak of conversion, it is most often in describing their own mission experience. Through our encounters with others, we are the ones converted to new ways of understanding God and our relationship to God and God’s creation.

The magi come bearing gifts conferred to royalty. They go first to the seat of power, Jerusalem, and consult with Herod. But they return home by a different way. We are told the magi meet Mary in Bethlehem — the same Mary who had said, upon learning that she was pregnant, “He has shown might with his arm, dispersed the arrogant of mind and heart. He has thrown down the rulers from their thrones, but lifted up the lowly. The hungry he has filled with good things; the rich he has sent away empty.”

Having prostrated themselves before her humble infant, the wise men are graced with new wisdom. They understand that Herod, who had told them he, too, wished to do the Christ Child homage, has other motives.

These foreign dignitaries learn, among the sheep and donkeys, through closeness to this most vulnerable child, to recognize God in unexpected ways. In the end, they are moved even to an act of civil disobedience: they ignore Herod’s command to tell him where the child is, and they leave by a different way.

Sometimes, as missioners encounter Christ in the poor, at the existential peripheries of our world, we are moved to defy worldly authority, or to speak truth to power, allowing the prophetic voice of the people we’ve met speak through us.

The Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns is one way Maryknoll does this in the halls of power in Washington, D.C. and at the United Nations in New York. The poor have helped us to understand how the policies of powerful leaders in the United States too often have violent and devastating impacts for people whom those leaders ignore.

We do this through dialog with policymakers, sharing the stories of missioners’ encounters and explaining how given policies affect communities. But occasionally, we, too, are moved to participate in demonstrations and even civil disobedience. Having brought our gifts abroad and experienced conversion upon meeting Christ at the margins, we return home “by another way.”


Scripture reflection for the Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns, Jan. 7, 2024 (Epiphany Sunday).

For more scripture reflections from Maryknoll lay missioners, click here.

Dan Moriarty
Dan Moriarty (Class of 1995) served for five years as a Maryknoll lay missioner in Bolivia. He is the Sustainable Pathways to Peace Program Coordinator at the Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns.