Elements of the magi’s visit surely resonate with many missioners. Often, we travel to foreign lands, perhaps with gifts or resources to share, wise men and women guided by our faith, heading to the margins. And it is there, at the margins, that we encounter Christ in unexpected ways.
Many have seen the images in recent weeks of the Child in the Rubble, a nativity scene in which the baby Jesus lies amid piles of dusty stones and bricks, evoking the mass destruction taking place in Gaza, not far from Bethlehem. Just as the magi must have been surprised to find the newborn “King of the Jews” lying in a manger surrounded by animals, his first visitors being the hard-edged shepherds of nearby fields, so we are surprised and moved by the conditions into which the Christ is born today: in the rubble of Palestine; or on the road trod by immigrant families seeking refuge at the U.S./Mexico border, threatened by thieves and armed agents; or surrounded by the cold steel and cement walls of a women’s prison.
We often associate the word ‘conversion’ with mission. We think of foreign missioners seeking to convert others to their religion. We imagine proselytism. But the magi offer another example. It is they who are converted to a new way of understanding. We are never told what Mary and Joseph did with the gold, frankincense, and myrrh the magi offered as gifts. Often the gifts missioners bring, the ways we plan to help, the assumptions we make about what others needs may be, turn out to be mistaken. It is alongside the people in the communities that receive us that we discover our role, and develop new ways of living the Gospel – of evangelizing – in relationship with others. When Maryknoll missioners speak of conversion, it is most often in describing their own mission experience. Through our encounters with others, we are converted to new ways of understanding God and our relationship to God and God’s creation.
The magi come bearing gifts conferred to royalty. They go first to the seat of power, Jerusalem, and consult with Herod. But they return home by a different way. We are told the magi meet Mary in Bethlehem – the same Mary who said, upon learning she was pregnant, “He has shown might with his arm, dispersed the arrogant of mind and heart. He has thrown down the rulers from their thrones, but lifted up the lowly. The hungry he has filled with good things; the rich he has sent away empty.”
Having prostrated themselves before her humble infant, the wise men are graced with new wisdom. They understand that Herod, who had told them he, too, wished to do the Christ Child homage, has other motives. These foreign dignitaries learn, among the sheep and donkeys, through closeness to this most vulnerable child, to recognize God in unexpected ways. In the end, they are moved even to an act of civil disobedience: they ignore Herod’s command to tell him where the child is, and they leave by a different way.
Sometimes, as missioners encounter Christ in the poor, at the existential peripheries of our world, we are moved to defy worldly authority, or to speak truth to power, allowing the prophetic voice of the people we’ve met speak through us. The Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns is one way Maryknoll does this in the halls of power in Washington, D.C. and at the United Nations in New York. The poor have helped us to understand how the policies of powerful leaders in the United States too often have violent and devastating impacts for people whom those leaders ignore. We do this through dialog with policymakers, sharing the stories of missioners’ encounters and explaining how given policies affect communities. But occasionally, we, too, are moved to participate in demonstrations and even civil disobedience. Having brought our gifts abroad and experienced conversion upon meeting Christ at the margins, we return home by another way.
Daniel Mortiarty joined the Maryknoll Lay Missioners in 1995. He served in Bolivia, working with Aymara youth and in prison ministry, then completed a master’s degree in international peace studies at the University of Notre Dame. Returning to Bolivia, Moriarty worked at the Maryknoll Mission Center in Latin America. In 2019, he and his wife moved with their two sons to the United States, where he now works at the Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns in Washington, D.C.
Featured Image: The Adoration of the Magi is depicted in a stained-glass window at Holy Family Church in the Fresh Meadows section of the Queens borough of New York. The feast of the Epiphany of the Lord, also known as Three Kings’ Day, is observed Jan. 7 in 2024. (OSV News photo/Gregory A. Shemitz)