On the morning of New Year’s Day I started an intensive 40-day scripture-based “spiritual cleansing” program. One of the activities is to abstain from complaining or saying anything negative about anyone. I blew that one during the first conversation I had. Another part I struggled with is to avoid gluttony by leaving the table after a meal still slightly hungry, which would presume that I actually eat regular meals. Like many busy moms, I skip meals and go hungry without even realizing it, and in my case, it shows. The program also requests that I give something material each day, completely refrain from showing anger, practice chastity, compliment someone each day, and read scripture and pray for specific amounts of time each morning and night.
By the end of the day I was feeling pretty defeated and questioned, why am I doing this to myself? After all, I’m a good person. I go to church every Sunday. I give every month through Autodraft, and I bought the last Target and Toys R Us scrip cards in the office to shop for Christmas presents. I’m teaching the First Reconciliation class, and my family never misses a FIRE session. I read the Bible enough to know the contents of most of the books, and I already pray every day. I even stopped biting my nails!
Isn’t that enough? Isn’t that the obvious and prescribed path to heaven? Why be such a martyr? Just who do I think I am – a saint?
The reason I’m doing it (however imperfectly) has a lot to do with the last line in today’s Gospel about the visit of the Magi. “And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed for their country by another way.”
Walking in good faith and seeking the newborn king, the wise men followed the obvious and prescribed path to royalty, yet unknowingly found themselves on the doorstep of a sweetly deceptive, powerfully evil force in the person of King Herod. Ironically, it was in the midst of evil that they gained the clarity to learn their final destination – Bethlehem. And having encountered true power in the powerlessness of an infant, the Magi “saw the light.”
They could have gone back and tried to bring the good news to Herod. They could have tried to save him and convince him of the divine royalty of God’s son, but God’s direction to them was clear. They saw their brush with evil for what it was, and they were not going back.
Like the magi, I’ve spent most of my life walking in good faith and seeking the newborn king in the places I’ve been told to look – in the faces of my neighbors. I think I must have misunderstood the catechism though, because instead of being a selfless servant to the Christ in those around me, I sought to be fed myself by the Christ in them. What distorted vision! Somehow in gazing across the altar at my brothers and sisters on the other side of the church, it’s as if I lost sight of the only presence of Christ intended to feed me, tenderly upheld in the celebrant’s hands.
And if that weren’t all, most of the time I was walking around in a semi-dream state, just going through the motions of spiritual life and following the promptings of the spirit on the obvious and prescribed path without taking notice that it was paved with good intentions – and we know where that leads. Even in my sleepwalking, I received warnings from God about the direction my attitudes and actions were taking me. Little wake-up calls. When I finally stopped hitting the snooze button and saw the light of day, I had a choice: return to my Herods and try to redeem them, or take a different way.
It was not enough that I’ve gone almost four weeks without biting my nails. I need to kick the other deceptively sweet, powerfully evil habits in my heart masquerading as being a “good person,” especially my idolatry and misplaced expectation. There’s nothing like a little fasting, prayer and almsgiving to kick off a new year, and a new me. By the time Lent comes, I’ll be ready!
“Lord I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof.” God does want to enter under my roof and make my heart His home, no matter what the condition, but He is not content to leave in the condition He finds it! A paradox of our faith is that God loves us before we are perfect yet calls us to seek perfection; that it is enough to simply say that first yes, yet at the same time, not enough. We are invited to say yes to God in ever deeper ways as we see more and more of the light.