God in the Wrong Place at the Wrong Time – Nono Alfonso, SJ

Matthew 2:1-12, Feast of the Epiphany of the Lord

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Before the age of the Metro Manila Film Fest, and before the holiday releases of Star Wars or The Avengers, my favorite Christmas movie was and remains to be The Fourth Wise Man. The movie stars the great Martin Sheen and asserts that in fact there was a fourth wise man or king that set out to pay homage to the newborn Messiah and to offer him special gifts. His name was Artarban and he was a medical doctor of sorts. However, on the appointed time of his departure for the long journey with Melchor, Gaspar and Balthazar, Artaban got held up. A kind and generous person, Artaban had to take care of a sick person. This would become the story of his life – medical emergencies and his compassion for the sick and the needy would sidetrack him from his would-be goals. Artaban persisted nonetheless in his journey to find the newborn Messiah. He missed him though at Bethlehem. He would try to catch up with Jesus in Egypt but again he would be sidetracked and miss the Messiah. There was always be someone in need; in fact, Artaban would find his way to a leper colony which would engage him for a long time. Finally, old and weary, Artaban had a chance to see the Messiah who, by this time, was already an adult and was about to be crucified; it was Artaban’s last chance to see the king he long awaited, but, again, he would miss that chance as another stranger would delay him from his meeting with the Lord. On his deathbed though, the Risen Lord appears to Artaban and Artaban apologizes, “Lord, I have sought you from the time you were born, and I even had gifts, but now I have nothing. And Jesus tells him, you have already seen me, Artaban, and you have given your gifts to me, Artaban, for when I was hungry, you gave me food; thirsty, you gave me water to drink; naked and you clothed me; homeless and you gave me shelter. At last, Artban understood. And he died at peace and fulfilled, knowing that all along, all throughout his life, he had already encountered his beloved Messiah.

It’s really a beautiful movie because the story affirms what we celebrate in today’s feast: that the Lord, as the newborn Messiah, as God-man, has revealed himself not just to Jews but to the whole world—the whole wide world being represented by the Persian Magi or Kings. Indeed, he is light to all nations. But the movie further says, and this is very important, that Jesus is always revealing himself, always appearing, always manifesting himself, not just two thousand years ago, but all the time. Epiphany therefore is not just an event in the past, but is happening all the time. We just NEED to recognize Jesus as he appears to us.

But not only Artaban learned this lesson, albeit belatedly, but even his friends, Gaspar, Balthazar, and Melchor might have realized this as well. Look, they went to Jerusalem and immediately thought that the Star was pointing them to the Palace of Herod. And of course, the Messiah was not there. They were wrong, just like Artaban, and many of the Jews then. They thought the long awaited Messiah would show up as a warrior king, and would be born in a great palace or kingdom. That was the reason why they brought those expensive gifts befitting royalty. But they were wrong. They were looking for the Messiah in the wrong place! Imagine their surprise when they finally saw him in a poor man’s stable. Their minds must have been blown away! A God, a King, the long awaited He-Man Master of the Universe born in a manger, with all its filth and the stench!!! What the mannnnn!!!!! (Parang ganoon po siguro). And like Artaban, they would have learned our important lesson for the day: God appears, reveals himself, manifests himself, in the most unlikely places, the most unexpected circumstances and situations. And because of this, he is really, trully, amazingly IMMANUEL- God with us. With us all the time, with us, everywhere.

Last Christmas, Krish Kandiah wrote an article in the international religious magazine Christianity Today  with the cute title: God turns up in all the wrong places at Christmas. He writes: “Why does God choose to turn up in the middle of the night, in the middle of nowhere, to a couple of nobodies, in the middle of a census, to a country in conflict? Here is the news: God deliberately planned to turn up at the wrong time in the wrong place. God is Immanuel. God is present. God is with us. But God is also hidden, set apart, unassuming.”

Our own St Ignatius of Loyola was very much ahead of him in this same insight. He taught us that we can find God in all things, that we can sense his presence and love in the sunset of Manila bay or on top of Mount Apo or through a stranger, or even in difficult circumstances, in the storm of our lives, in a country’s turbulent politics, in depressing and troubling times. He is even working in and through us, in our emotions, dreams and even in our passion and desires. God is there, is present, for he is IMMANUEL. And so we can always find God in all things, says Ignatius. We have memorized that already; it has become a cliché slogan for us already and so it has lost its revolutionary, scandalous import on us. Yes, back in the time of Ignatius, it was a scandal to say that. God was only found in the Church, in the Bible and of course in the priest. That was the teaching of the Church and Ignatius’ “finding God in all things” ran counter to that.

But he was right, as the many trials that investigated Ignatius would prove him. He was right because even Scripture tells us that. Jesus for instance tells us in Matthew  25, the verse quoted by the movie The Fourth Wise Man, he is among the poor and the oppressed. The same verse by the way that would inspire Mother Teresa to seek Jesus among the poorest of the poor in Calcutta, believing, “I see Jesus in every human being. I say to myself, this is hungry Jesus, I must feed him. This is sick Jesus. This one has leprosy or gangrene; I must wash him and tend to him. I serve because I love Jesus.” But there are other testimonies from Scripture, especially after Jesus’ rising from the dead. He manifests himself, appears as a stranger on the road to Emmaus, or as a gardener and the apostles, his intimates, would not even recognize him. Indeed why would we limit or put conditions to the revelation or manifestation or appearance of God when he is the all powerful and mighty God? As the Gospel of John tells us of God: “The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going.”

And so my dear friends, the lesson for all of us is clear: God appears to us, reveals himself to us always and everywhere and that means, as we have said, even in the wrong place or at the wrong time. For after all He is Immanuel, God who is always with us. The question, however, is, are we ready to meet him, are we open, our hearts, our minds, to seeing him, to encountering him? This new year, he will again show up for you, but would recognize him? Or maybe the question or the problem is that you have been seeking him out in the usual places or in your comfort zones, and yet have not found him there. Why not this year, like Artaban and the three Magi, seek him out in the most unlikely places, most unexpected circumstance? Why not this year, get off the beaten path and explore the road less traveled by. He might just turn up there.

As dear Saint Mother Teresa would tell us, it is all about an attitude or a disposition of the heart: “Seeking the face of God in everything, everyone, all the time, and his hand in every happening; This is what it means to be contemplative in the heart of the world. Seeing and adoring the presence of Jesus, especially in the lowly appearance of bread, and in the distressing disguise of the poor.” If you have this openness, this very generous disposition, you will find God all the time. Good luck on your journey! May you find God every day this year!

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