Friday, January 06, 2012

Jesus Gets a Visit from the 1%


There has always been much speculation about the three guys who chased a star across the desert and ended up as extra pieces in just about everybody’s manger scene. Where did they come from? How long did they travel? How did they know what the star meant? Was there really a star? Were they kings, magicians, sorcerers, wise guys, priests? Were there three or was their a fourth? Wasn’t one of them black? What happened to them after they exit Matthew Chapter 2?

One thing we can surmise about the Magi is that they were wealthy, not just because of the expensive gifts they delivered but because they were able to take quite a bit of time off from work. It is thought that the Magi hailed from Persia which is about 1000 miles due east of Bethlehem. A trip of that length on their all-terrain camels would have taken at least a year. So a year to get there and a year to return. That’s either quite a bit of accumulated leave or they were all self-employed and doing well enough to close up shop for awhile.

In any event, the Magi were definitely among the “haves”, the “1%”, as modern agents of class warfare would call them, the “millionaires and billionaires” of their day. And while, the presence of the Magi in the Nativity narrative is rich with meaning on levels much deeper than economics, the presence of the very rich and the very poor as the first to adore the Christ allows us to ponder the role of wealth in Christian worship.

As we know, the Catholic Church is often criticized for its great riches. Given its cumulative real estate holdings, its vast art collection and general assets worldwide, in terms of net worth, the Catholic Church is indeed probably the world’s wealthiest privately held entity. Critics, both external and internal, have contrasted this wealth with the personal poverty of Jesus and the “sell all you have and give it to the poor” message. They have a point. How did we get from a poor carpenter’s shop to the gilded glory of a St. Peter’s?

This self-conscious contradiction manifested itself, post Vatican II, in a faux poverty movement that gave us a stripped down Catholicism: barren churches, folk music, and what I call “Birkenstock” university congregations. For those who may not know, Birkenstock is a brand of sandals, very expensive sandals. In retrospect, it was comical to see otherwise rich kids at my university (1970’s) attempt to identify with the Church’s “preferential option for the poor” by donning sandals that actually cost more than a decent pair of shoes.

Of course this false, but otherwise sincere attempt to “identify with the poor” did not stop with young, university idealists discarding their Oxfords for Birkenstocks. Many of us, at least in the states, saw our churches, even those that were not so grandiose, converted into little more than upscale barns in the name of some vague notion about renewal and simplicity.

But this attempt to outwardly dim our worldly glory by the “drabbing” down of our sacred spaces was even more ironic than the Birkenstock revolution, since, while stripping the embarrassing gold from our sanctuaries, we cashed it in for cash-guzzling air-conditioning monsters, the cost of which could probably pay for a church more magnificent than the one we just stripped...or feed the hungry in our parishes many times over!

But back to the Magi. The desire of the faithful to bestow the riches of the world on our sacred spaces and make them ever more glorious begins with the presentation of the three expensive gifts to the Christ Child. And, as far as we know, Joseph and Mary did not return the gifts, give them to the poor, or lecture the wealthy visitors on the evils of materialism.

On the contrary the Holy Family accepted the gifts of the Magi as the rightful due of the King of Kings, and “since ever since” the faithful have endeavored to imitate the Magi in honoring our King with the best, the beautiful, and the expensive. Thus the glory of a St. Peter’s Basilica, the Cathedral at Notre Dame (France), New York’s St. Patrick’s, and our own Dulce Nombre de Maria Cathedral-Basilica. It is by Divine design that we move from straw to gold, from manger to throne, from catacomb to cathedral, and from carpenter to King. Now...about those Birkenstocks.

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