Our true ‘star’ leads us not simply to worship but also to sacrificial love
By Father Timothy Hepner
Solemnity of the Epiphany of the Lord/Jan. 5
Isaiah 60:1-6; Psalm 72:1-2,7-8,10-11,12-13; Ephesians 3:2-3a,5-6; Matthew 2:1-12
What were the magi following? What shiny things do you and I follow out of the comfort of our own familiar surroundings? It is very important to ask what attracts and distracts us because that will reveal our hearts to us.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church has poignant advice to us when we become distracted in prayer: “A distraction reveals to us what we are attached to, and this humble awareness before the Lord should awaken our preferential love for him and lead us resolutely to offer him our heart to be purified. Therein lies the battle, the choice of which master to serve” (CCC 2729). This advice can apply not just when we sit down to read Scripture or pray the rosary, but also as we go about our day seeking to remain in habitual conversation with God.
St. Ignatius of Loyola reveals to us that, when a soul is moving away from God, he will get its attention via negative means: Stinging the conscience, covering us in a pall of sadness, making us aware of our dissatisfaction with the empty pleasures of the world. It’s during this time that our “stars” — things that draws us out of ourselves in long, arduous pursuits to grasp them — are devices of the evil one, faux shiny jewelry that attract and delight until we discover their disappointing true essence.
But when a soul (even a humble, imperfect one) begins to move toward God, the tactics switch. It’s at that point that the evil one stings and bites and tries to cover the soul in sadness and lethargy pertaining to the beautiful things of Eternity, like a mischievous boy trying to throw a blanket over his dog to see how long he can convince him that he’s in a dark room.
For those in the habit of regular prayer and receiving the sacraments, such as the 187 people who engaged in the lectio divina challenge leading up to Christmas, Jesus reveals himself in moments of consolation. These can consist of a quiet peace or joy, a warm reassurance that you are not alone, a contrite conviction of one’s shortcomings and deeper desire to grow in grace, or perhaps a profound moment of spiritual ecstasy.
These moments are our stars. They are “the glory of the Lord” shining on us, making our heart “throb and overflow” (cf. first reading). They lead us out of the cushy confines of our egotistic sinfulness, and draw us closer and closer to the humble child-king so that we can worship and adore him.
In his book, “Discernment of Spirits,” Father Timothy Gallagher notes that, in moments of spiritual desolation for those seeking God, the evil one seeks to claim spiritual authority over our past and present. He tells us that we never truly experienced him, and never truly will again. It is all fake, and only the darkness is real. All of us who love Jesus have experienced these whispers of the enemy, and we will continue to hear them until our dying day.
The only thing to do about them is to keep walking, one foot in front of the other, toward Bethlehem, a city that is not a cute scene on a Christmas card. It means “house of bread,” and it’s where Jesus lay in a feeding trough as a blunt foreshadowing that he would be sacrificed for us and give himself to us as our food. Bethlehem was where one of the magi brought him myrrh to show that his body would need anointing after it was beaten and pierced with nails.
So our star, if it is a true one, leads us not simply to worship but to sacrificial love. That is why prayer must end with action — real, earnest resolutions to love and grow in virtue. I pray that we can each be as diligent as the magi in seeking out the presence of Christ, hidden in our lives in prayer, the sacraments, and moments of grace. But even more so, I pray that these moments do not go to waste, and that we have the humility and fortitude to walk with Jesus from the manger to the cross, and then into the eternal light of resurrection.
FATHER TIMOTHY Hepner is vocation director of recruitment for the Diocese of Peoria. To learn more about vocations, visit comeandfollowme.org or the Office of Priestly Formation at followmepeoria on Facebook.