Séamus Ahearne: Food for the journey and wise women…
On Jordan’s banks
The world is rotten with victimhood. Blame-culture is in vogue. Trump is a sad example. His election was stolen. He should be continuing as ‘Capo di Tutti Capi.’ He sent the baggage of his hurt to the Capital. It isn’t only Trump and his ilk: The Media thrives too on bad news. The fodder for the media, comes from the prevailing appetite for blame and negativity. The consistent shout is: ‘Me, Me, Me.’ ‘Poor little me.’ Moaning and groaning is a way of life. Memories are nursed. Resentments flourish. It is in the air. How is it possible for most of us to celebrate Eucharist then? Gratitude is in such short supply.
Get on with it:
By contrast – John the Baptist gets on with his job. Jesus is now told to get on with his job. Baptism is that kind of thing. Get on with your job in life. Don’t hesitate. Don’t blame others. You are anointed to get on with it. Walk forward. Get on with it. Ministry is like that too! Was it Cape Canaveral which was the launching pad for space exploration? The Feast is the launching pad for Jesus. And if we see it, or believe it; it is our launching pad too. We are primed for take-off.
The Jordan is a significant moment and place for Jesus. And it is a significant moment and place for us. We can recall the pathways; the stepping stones; the family/community history; the characters of inspiration; the places that lifted us out of ourselves and gave us the guts to go forward. It could be any baptismal moment, when we realised, we are on a mission; that we have come from God, and that we have a unique mission and message from God. When that dawns on us, and when we accept it; then we are truly Baptised. Only then. This drama of the Jordan is worthy of any impresario. The theatrical effects are exciting. John Baptises. He steps back. ‘I’m not worthy.’ It is over to someone else. That someone else, (Jesus) then has to step onto the Stage of life. After the full immersion of Jesus, into the Jordan; he emerges. And the heavens part. A voice speaks. ‘My beloved. You have won my favour.’ And so it is with us on a daily basis.
We are used to colourful stories in the Bible: Angels. Messages through dreams. Virgin pregnancy. An agonising husband scratching his head and reading his dreams. An ascending to the heavens without a plane or the heavens opening or the waters parting. Stars appearing which are better than any google maps, giving direction like a top class Sat nav. Wise men getting lost with gifts to bring. Exotic gifts which are very impractical. If only they were wise women: they would have nappies, a casserole and some clothes. They wouldn’t have got lost either. They would have asked directions….. Wise men? Never.
Baptism doesn’t quite happen like that now. If only we could cause it to be that dramatic! However we cannot be constrained by our own limited and limiting idea of Baptism. A moment. An occasion. Minimalism. But real Baptism is a launch into a new way of life. It is the dawning of understanding, and then the decision to move on, and make a major move in life. All of our rituals have to be dynamic. Baptism is the story of grace. The story of God being beyond and bigger than any of our thoughts. The story of letting go. The story of walking in faith. The story of our acceptance and our discovery of the way into the future.
We will get ‘the water and the food’ that we need. We can do it. Nothing is too much for us. If we let go of our controls. Rather like the time of the virus; we are no longer in control. Walk in faith. Confidence. Well the real Baptism means we are no longer in charge. God is. If we let God be in control. We aren’t cut adrift. The sea (but we can walk on it!) may be stormy. But God is with us. It is a fascinating idea. Rain and snow come. For a reason. It does its job. The word of God, also does its job. If we listen. If we respond. If we are like John – are not consumed by our own little selves and not caught up in how we are and who we are …. But letting go. Then God’s Word is effective in us. Such a Baptism happens (can) to us too. If we are bold enough. It is never a moment. It isn’t being drowned in water or being anointed. It is a way of life. It is our answer to whatever God’s call, is to us, and whenever it is. It is us now grabbing the moment. ‘It is the best of times. It is the worst of times.’ Dickens or even Augustine (City of God). So what might it be like?
This catalyst of baptism:
A mountain top. A death. A birth. Scenery. Something beautiful. A moment of intimacy/love. A sacred awe-filled moment with God. A sunset. The intimacy of being a guest in someone’s inner story. The privilege of being a listener. The wonder of a God-moment, grace-moment with anyone. The beauty of hearing a person talk of their relationship with God. Being there at death and being with the bereaved. Even a piece of poetry or a painting or music. Anything, anyone, that drags us out of ourselves, towards being aware of someone bigger than us or now. That is God’s Word being effective. That is real Baptism and our Baptism. Now the message then is – ‘get on with it.’ No more ‘poor me.’ No more walking forward/looking backwards. No more basking in the smelling salts of manure. Be bold. Be strong. Be courageous. We are never baptised. We are always a ‘work in progress’; being baptised. The heavens do open. If the eyes are alert and alive. This has to be the new Church. We have to opt out of the negative culture if we are to be continually baptised.
Seamus Ahearne osa
Talking of Three Wise Women, Seamus, you are in good company. This piece below by Sr. Christine Schenk, a Sister of St. Joseph, first published in the America (Jesuit) in 2016, appeared in America again last week.
When I say you are in good company, it is because much of what Sr. Christine is saying here is based on the thoughts of Prof. Fr. Benedict Vivano the renowned expert on St. Matthew’s Gospel.
I shared this last week with our parish SVdP Conference as our spiritual reading — digitally,of course. I must say it went down very well, even with the men.
Happy 2021, Seamus and, hopefully, an end to Covid.
An Epiphany with Wise Women?
Jan 7, 2016
by Christine Schenk
“Epiphany,” 2003 Janet McKenzie, http://www.janetmckenzie.com, Collection of Catholic Theological Union, Chicago, IL
Throughout the Christmas season, friends occasionally send me cards, cups and other assorted tchotchkes praising the “three Wise Women.” You have probably seen them: “Three Wise Women would have asked directions, arrived on time, helped deliver the baby, swept the stable, made a casserole and brought practical gifts.”
I love this humorous feminist take on a beloved Christmas story.
But, recently, a renowned authority on the Gospel of Matthew, Dominican Fr. Benedict Thomas Viviano, believes it entirely possible that women could have been among the Magi portrayed in the Matthean birth narrative. Viviano is professor emeritus at the University of Fribourg, Switzerland. He also wrote the commentary on Matthew in The New Jerome Biblical Commentary.
Matthew is the only Gospel that says anything at all about Magi. You may be surprised to learn that this Gospel does not ascribe number, gender or royal status to the Wise Ones from the East. The traditional number three was deduced from the three gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, and the idea that the Magi were kings didn’t appear until the fifth century. Matthew’s use of the Greek masculine plural magoi for magi can be used inclusively, just as the English word “men” often includes women.
But there is more to Viviano’s wonderfully provocative claim than grammar. Matthew’s Gospel was meant for a Jewish audience. Viviano specializes in examining the book of Matthew in light of its literary connections to the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament). It is upon this analysis that he bases his arguments about female magoi.
According to Viviano, “The main reason to think of the presence of one or more women among the magi is the background story of the queen of Sheba, with her quest for Israelite royal wisdom, her reverent awe, and her three gifts fit for a king.”
The first book of Kings, Chapter 10:1-29, narrates the visit of the queen to King Solomon with gifts of gold and spices such as myrrh and frankincense.
Viviano believes viewing the Solomon-Sheba background as a close biblical parallel to the Magi story opens up some “previously neglected possibilities” such as the “wisdom and feminine aspects of the narrative.”
He points to the Israelite tradition of personifying wisdom as female (Proverbs 8:22-30, 9:1-6 and Sirach 24) and notes that for Matthew, Jesus embodies wisdom (Matthew 11:19, 25-30).
Even more compelling to me is that in the Middle East it would have been inconceivable for men to be in the presence of a woman without the presence of other women. Joseph is conspicuously absent when the Magi visit. This is surprising, since Matthew’s infancy account normally narrates events from the point of view of Joseph. (In Luke’s account, Mary is more prominent).
The phrase “the child and his mother” is used five times in the Magi-flight-into-Egypt narrative (Matthew 2:11, 13, 14, 19, 21). For Viviano, “The presence of Jesus’ mother Mary is an explicit statement of the presence of a woman at the time of the magi’s visit. It is a question of attending to the feminine resonances in the text.”
Scholars tell us that the magoi were a caste associated with the interpretation of dreams, astrology, Zoroastrianism and magic. In support of Viviano’s thesis, Zoroastrianism allowed women to serve as priests and in ancient Persia there were female astronomers and rulers.
According to the late Sulpician Fr. Raymond E. Brown, an acclaimed biblical scholar, scholars believe the magoi probably hailed from one of three places: Persia (present day Iran) because term magoi was originally associated with Persians; Babylon (Iraq) because Babylonians were interested in astronomy and astrology and there was a large Jewish colony there; or Arabia because of the gifts of gold and frankincense associated with Sheba.
But what can be said about the historicity of Matthew’s Magi story?
I think Viviano’s discussion in The New Jerome Biblical Commentary has it right. While the Matthean infancy narrative has several likely historical elements in common with Luke’s account (Jesus was of the tribe of Judah, born in Bethlehem and raised in Nazareth), “there are also some legendary elements in Matthew 1 and 2” that Brown identifies as a “genre of infancy narratives of famous men.”
In the ancient world, it was common to retrospectively ascribe unusual signs in the heavens (a rising star) and events on earth (portents and predictions by wisdom figures) to the birth of a new and powerful ruler.
Brown also points to the historical improbability that King Herod would have difficulty locating the infant Jesus in a town just 5 miles away from Jerusalem when, according to the legend, a bright star allowed the Magi to find it with ease.
So what is the likelihood that female Magi were at the manger when it seems improbable that male Magi were ever there at all?
Enter the exquisite Jewish concept of Midrash.
A Midrash is a creative interpretation of the Old Testament, often used for homiletic purposes, that frequently employs storytelling. It is a sort of lectio divina — theological reflection by which believers discover the personal and communal meaning of Scripture.
For Viviano, even though Matthew 1-2 is not a Midrash in the strict sense (since it is not about the Old Testament), it nevertheless “employs midrashic techniques of exposition” to interpret the person of Jesus. In his masterly work The Birth of the Messiah, Brown notes, “But if midrash is understood as the popular and imaginative exposition of the Scriptures for faith and piety, then the term may quite appropriately be applied to the way the infancy narratives were interpreted and enlivened in subsequent Christianity.”
And so it is that we soon find three royal (male) kings named Caspar, Balthasar and Melchior. Caspar is portrayed as black to represent all the diversity of the Eastern Gentile world. Eventually, midrashic reflection led to the three gifts being viewed as symbols for different aspects of Christian life: gold for virtue, incense for prayer and myrrh for suffering.
Given the rich history of midrashic elements associated with the Epiphany, we are therefore not at all amiss in reflecting that the Magi could also have included wise women.
For most, the overriding message of Matthew’s Magi narrative is that learned, wise foreigners — the ultimate “outsiders” for his Jewish-Christian audience — came to pay homage to a newborn ruler, Jesus the Christ, whose spiritual power and wisdom surpassed their own.
Women’s diverse leadership, so rich in spiritual giftedness, is often viewed as “foreign” by male leaders in the Catholic church.
I pray our brothers will soon celebrate a new kind of Epiphany — one in which wise women’s rich gifts of virtue, prayer and suffering leadership are accepted equally and graciously in the newborn body of Christ.
[A Sister of St. Joseph, Sr. Christine Schenk served urban families for 18 years as a nurse midwife before co-founding FutureChurch, where she served for 23 years. She holds master’s degrees in nursing and theology.]