Monday, January 9, 2017

January 8, 2016
Epiphany Sunday
The Magi. 

This week we're talking about the Magi, also known as the "three kings" from the "orient," according to the well-known Christmas carol. Although, we haven’t the faintest clue if they came from orient or even the Bahamas for that matter, the Scriptures do tells us that three men of some influential background did come to see the child Jesus.

Although most nativity scenes show the Magi crowded into the stable of Jesus' birth -- along with the shepherds, animals, an angel, Mary, Joseph and the baby  some scholars feel the Magi were almost certainly later visitors, coming probably a few months to as long as two years after Jesus' birth. By then, Joseph had no doubt found better lodging for his family, which is probably why Matthew says the wise men entered "the house" to find Jesus. But whatever the time and place, these Gentile visitors from the East "knelt down and paid him homage." In older vocabulary, they "adored" him. They finished what they came to do. 

But Leonardo da Vinci didn't. Over the centuries, various painters have portrayed this visit, but one of the most famous -- despite its being unfinished -- is da Vinci's Adoration of the Magi. The artist had been commissioned in 1480 to paint what was to be a 8-by-9-foot work for the main altar of the monastery of San Donato a Scopeto, near Florence. He was 29 at the time, and he worked on it for quite a while, getting the piece to its brown ink and yellow ocher groundwork stage. But then he moved to Milan and left it behind, never to work on it again. Eventually the assignment was given to another artist who provided the requested painting to the monastery in 1496. Da Vinci's unfinished work still exists and is on display in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. Though uncompleted, it is recognized in the art world as one of his most important works.

Wouldn't it be great if our unfinished projects were also considered very important in their uncompleted states? Imagine all the stuff you could let go of, saying, "It's not finished and now it never will be, but it's got high value nonetheless." 

Like that's gonna happen.

To start with, not many of us can rival da Vinci in terms of genius and artistry. But even if we could, do we really want our contributions to the world to be in the form of stuff we started but never got around to completing?

Da Vinci himself had a reputation as being unreliable at completing commissioned works. While he would devote months to the concept and composition of the work, he had no appetite for the actual labor of carrying out the painting itself. Point is, for whatever reasons, da Vinci never finished the portrayal of the Magi adoring Jesus. The Magi finished their work of adoration; da Vinci didn't. But, how about us?

Usually, it's not that we don't plan to finish, or even that once into a project, we make a reasoned decision to let the thing go, which sometimes is the better part of wisdom. Rather, with those things we think important to finish, we still have to deal with flagging energy and/or unexpected hurdles. Sometimes it's almost as if some chaotic force is triggered when we're within sight of the finish line -- something like the Allstate Insurance "mayhem" commercials which delights in sidetracking our plans. Maybe some examples might be:

- You practice for eight weeks for your solo in the community Christmas pageant, then, eight hours before the performance, you lose your voice.

- You finally start the kitchen remodeling project, but then the sump pump fails and you have to deal with a flooded basement. Somehow, you never get back to the kitchen remake.

- You vow to spend more time helping your son with his homework, but then you're pressed into longer hours at work. 

- You resolve to be more intentional about your devotional and prayer life, so you rearrange your schedule to allow yourself a half hour of quiet time at home. But just as you are getting into your prayers, the first of three telemarketing calls interrupts and the kid next door rings your doorbell to ask you to buy candy for his school fundraiser.

This is not about heaping guilt on anyone about unfinished projects around the house or elsewhere; Lord knows I have a few – even too many of my own. But if we want to be faithful disciples of Jesus Christ, that means following through on intended good deeds, missions to which we are called and resolutions to let go of prejudices and hatreds. It means doing the right thing long-term and following Jesus as consistently as we can in the situations of daily living.
In these things, it's not uncommon for us to make a good start and, in some cases, even make a lot of headway toward where we think God is pointing us. Nonetheless, we shouldn't be surprised if that's when a fresh wave of problems and hindrances hits us. We shouldn't be surprised if things that have never gone wrong before actually go wrong now. We also shouldn't be surprised if our passion for the endeavor suddenly evaporates. Life is like that. 

Thus, one prayer for ongoing discipleship might be, "Help me, O God, while my enthusiasm is leaking away and my energy is failing and problems are multiplying, to continue to do your will." I found myself in that situation on Friday when I was trying to untangle the new censer. I quit once, only for it to nag at me and I came back over here and worked on it until I finally got it untangled. I literally thanked God for giving me the patience and perseverance to get it done.

One of the signs that we are maturing in faith, however, is when we realize and accept that the Christian life is not only a matter of initial repentance and commitment, but also a matter of perseverance. As Paul told the Galatians, "So let us not grow weary in doing what is right, for we will reap at harvest time, if we do not give up" (Galatians 6:9). Eugene Peterson, borrowing a phrase from the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, describes the Christian life as "a long obedience in the same direction." Peterson writes:

One aspect of the world that I have been able to identify as harmful to Christians is the assumption that anything worthwhile can be acquired at once. We assume that if something can be done at all, it can be done quickly and efficiently. Our attention spans have been conditioned by 30-second commercials. Our sense of reality has been flattened by 30-page abridgments. ... There is a great market for religious experience in the world; there is little enthusiasm for the patient acquisition of virtue, little inclination to sign up for a long apprenticeship in what earlier generations of Christians called holiness.

Simeon and Anna, the two people in the temple who recognize the presence of God in the infant Jesus, are good examples. Simeon, we're told, had been "looking forward to the consolation of Israel" (Luke 2:25). That phrase implies patient waiting. Anna, 84 years old, "never left the temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day" (Luke 2:37). Both signed up for the long haul and both were faithful until the end. 

Likewise, the apostle Paul modeled such perseverance, writing as he drew near death, "I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith" (2 Timothy 4:7). His words, of course, refer to more than simply completing a mission project or seeking more holiness in living; they refer to the completion of a whole life of discipleship. But how do we attain a life of discipleship other than by completing the "faith projects" along the way? The life of faith is not a 100-yard dash; it's a marathon. It's not a tourist jaunt; it's an ongoing pilgrimage. Nonetheless, there are some shorter races that need to be run in route -- such as sticking with the not-so-easy task we feel God has called us to do; such as continuing to root out our unrighteous attitudes and behaviors that impede our spiritual growth; such as continuing to work at loving our difficult acquaintance as much as we love ourselves. 

As we stand here at the beginning of a new year, it's a good time to think about the faith-projects before us. 

- What's the project you are struggling with? 

- What's the next step in that project? 

- What's keeping you from taking that step, or implementing the step?

- What has God called you to do that is suddenly seeming to fall apart? 

- What naysaying comments need to be ignored? 

- What hindrances are really indicators that you are on the right track? 

- What last-stage problems are reminders to call afresh on God? 

- In the coming year, how can you build accountability into your life to encourage faithful discipleship? 

Believe this: When God calls us to a task, he gives us his help to finish it. One sign of God is that we are led to work that we did not intend to do. Another sign of God is that we are trusted to seek God's help to take the task to completion.
Let us follow the example of the Magi and see where our stars are leading us and stay on that course until we find what we are being led to.
Let us pray.
Father God, today we call to mind the scene of the Magi visiting your infant Son. This must have been a long and tenuous journey for sure, yet they followed the star and tolerated the journey because they believed something great had taken placeand thus it was worth the long journey. Once they arrived, they quickly realized who’s presence they were in front of.
Help us, dear Lord, to follow thru on our journeys and projects. We often get discouraged or start something and often times not complete it. Like New Year’s resolutions, we make great plans; we start our journey; but within days we have stopped. 
Help us when we decide to take up a cause, a journey or project, that we may stay the course; that we find the encouragement and motivation to see it thru. Help us to know, that like the Magi of the East, we too will find a fulfillment at the end of our journey – possibly even one as wondrous as theirs. Bring us the inspiration we need to lead the life that we are called to follow. We ask this through Christ our Lord. Amen.
God Love You +++
The Most Rev. Robert Winzens
Pastor – St. Francis Universal Catholic Church
San Diego, Ca.

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