There is a cetain irony about the celebration of the Epiphany this year. At once, the story is a celebration of the intersection of science and faith and a gentle promise that there is something greater than self. This year, it is celebrated under a sad mantle of scandals that accounts for empty pews and a decimated hierarchy that has squandered congregational respect. The irony? People still come to worship, to celebrate. And I cannot help but wonder what is it that motivates and inspires seeking and searching and following the star.
On the same day that the Washington Post published a scathing expose of former Cardinal McCarrick’s financial dealings as a cover for his other behaviors, I overheard an elderly woman. She was non-plussed with the news coverage and strong in her convictions. Her contention was Catholicism, faith, is all about personal relationship with God. The ordained, she suggested, are just men. With the lilt of her brogue, she added, “And we all know that has its limits.” Her little circle of friends exploded with laughter.
Decades ago, I had a similar encounter with a small group of contemplative nuns. Living as they do, I had expected a particular reverence for the hierarchy. As conversation veered into papal conclaves and bishops, I was taken aback by their very open and frank description. The scenario they recalled took place shortly after the election of John Paul II. The sisters had attended a gathering of religious men and women from a variety of communities. Afterwards, a bishop who had attended the enclave needed a ride; they had an open seat in the station wagon. He encouraged the sisters to ask questions. There was the slightest hint of his condescension as they described his tone. The sisters zeroed in on the politics that must take place at an enclave. He put them off with talk of the Holy Spirit and the movement of the Spirit. Even in the telling, eyes rolled and vieled heads shook and there was audible chuckling. The man’s explanation was wholly insufficient for these women. They pressed him further and finally he spoke about private exchanges among the prelates. The most senior of the contemplative women, seated beside him, wrapped it up with, “Of course…you were human before you were ordained, after all…” After which he introduced a whole new topic.
We, of course, are just humans following a star. The Epiphany is a reminder that there is a wealth in the study of the world, of science and in the wide variety of persons and traditions that exist in this world. It is also a vivid reminder of the intolerance, indifference and discrimination that human beings can practice, perpetuate and escalate. Most of all, it is the sense that among the kings, there was a common purpose and understanding. It was theirs, a vision and an inspiration not shared by all. They journeyed through it, trusted what was impelling and compelling to each one. They were mindful of warnings, and they risked trusting one another and others.
Maybe, in the midst of this moment, that is what it means to be sitting in the pews in these early days of 2020. Maybe it is really all about learning how to see the star and how to follow.