To recognize that different religious traditions offer distinctive insights into the nature of Ultimate Reality. Today we invite you to explore the magi’s discernment of the Spirit as outside of our own tradition; engage with the Vatican II call to respectful recognition of other religions; and embody that expression in our own dialogue, collaboration and fellowship with people of other faiths, as modeled by Raimon Pannikar and Interfaith America.
Arise, shine, for your light has come,
the glory of YHWH is rising upon you,
though darkness still covers the earth
and dense clouds enshroud the peoples the peoples.
Upon you YHWH now dawns
and God’s glory will be seen among you.
The nations come to your light
and the leaders to your dawning brightness.
Lift up your eyes and look around;
all are assembling and coming toward you,
your daughters and your sons
journey from afar.
You will see them and beam with joy,
Your heart will swell with pride.
The riches of the sea will flow to you,
and the wealth of the nations will come to you.
Camels in throngs will cover your roads,
the dromedaries of Midian and Ephah;
everyone in Sheba will come,
bringing gold and incense
and singing the praise of YHWH.
Response: O God, every nation on earth will adore You.
O God, with Your judgment and with Your justice, / endow Your leaders.
They will govern Your people with justice / and Your afflicted ones with judgment.
R: O God, every nation on earth will adore You.
Justice will flower in their days, / and profound peace, till the moon be no more.
May they rule from sea to sea, /and from the river to the ends of the earth.
R: O God, every nation on earth will adore You.
Tarshish and the Isles will offer gifts; / Arabia and Sheba will bring tribute.
All other rulers will pay homage to them, / all the nations will serve them.
R: O God, every nation on earth will adore You.
For they will rescue the poor when they cry out,
And the afflicted when they have no one to help them.
They will have pity on the lowly and the poor;
The lives of the poor they will save.
R: O God, every nation on earth will adore You.
I am sure that you have heard of God’s grace,
of which I was made a steward on your behalf;
this mystery, as I have briefly described it,
was given to me by revelation, unknown to the people of former ages,
but now revealed by the Spirit to the holy apostles and prophets.
That mystery is that the Gentiles are heirs, as are we;
members of the Body, as we are;
and partakers of the promise of Jesus the Messiah through the Good News, as are we.
After Jesus’ birth — which happened in Bethlehem of Judea,
during the reign of Herod —
astrologers from the East arrived in Jerusalem and asked,
“Where is the newborn ruler of the Jews?
We observed his star at its rising,
and have come to pay homage.”
At this news Herod became greatly disturbed, as did all of Jerusalem.
Summoning all the chief priests and religious scholars of the people,
he asked them where the Messiah was to be born.
“In Bethlehem of Judea,” they informed him.
“Here is what the prophet has written:
‘And you, Bethlehem, land of Judah,
are by no means least among the leaders of Judah,
since from you will come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.’
Herod called the astrologers aside
and found out from them the exact time of the star’s appearance.
Then he sent them to Bethlehem, after having instructed them,
“Go and get detailed information about the child.
When you have found him, report it to me —
so that I may go and offer homage too.”
After their audience with the ruler, they set out.
The star that they had observed at its rising went ahead of them
until it came to a standstill over the place where the child lay.
They were overjoyed at seeing the star and,
upon entering the house,
found the child with Mary, his mother.
They prostrated themselves and paid homage.
Then they opened their coffers and presented the child with gifts
of gold, frankincense and myrrh.
They were warned in a dream not to return to Herod,
so they went back to their own country by another route.
The Inclusive Lectionary © 2022 FutureChurch. All rights reserved.
The inclusive language psalms:
Leach, Maureen, O.S.F. and Schreck, Nancy, O.S.F., Psalms Anew: A Non-sexist Edition
(Dubuque, IA: The Sisters of St. Francis, 1984).
Used with permission.
The magi remind us that we should not assume superiority over others because of our faith.
Three magi travel to Bethlehem, inspired by prophecy and a wondrous star to pay homage to the birth of Jesus. They offer gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh suitable for a royal birth. The magi’s visit has become a common image to us through manger displays, but when we step outside of our familiarity their story is striking. The magi stand apart from the traditions of Israel from which Christianity emerged and the self-conception of the church.
Matthew offers few details about the origins of the magi, but they were likely astronomers or priests from another place. They recognize the significance of God’s work from outside of the Jewish tradition. Although they have been venerated as saints at various points in history, there is no indication in scripture that they interacted with Jesus or his disciples after their journey. It is also notable that Matthew’s narrative contrasts the magi’s openness, itinerancy, and hospitality with the worldly drive to domination represented by Herod, who perceives the child’s birth not as a cause for joy but as a threat to his regime.
The magi remind us that we should not assume superiority over others because of our faith. Baptist theologian Willie James Jennings observes that the gospel has been distorted throughout history by colonial powers that have twisted principles of love and hospitality beyond recognition. He writes that, through the colonization of the Americas, “[Christianity] claimed to be the host, the owner of the spaces it entered, and demanded native peoples enter its cultural logics” (The Christian Imagination, Kindle edition, loc. 220). This has led to a disfigured understanding of the gospel that has equated the Reign of God with human domination. The distortion begins with dismissiveness about local ways of knowing in service of extractive and dominative goals, as when European missionaries demanded conformity to their own cultural systems rather than being open to the work of the Spirit in other spaces and cultures.
In response, Jennings proposes an understanding of the Spirit as facilitating new spaces of intimacy across culture rather than the imposition of Western cultural values. The Spirit “will break open what we want closed and shatter our strategies of protectionism for the sake of a saving God who will give back to us precisely what we cannot hold onto with our own efforts and power, the continuities of our stories, our legacies, our hopes and dreams for a good future and a thriving life” (Acts: A Commentary, The Revolution of the Intimate, 26). The nationalist or the imperialist seeks to reorder both the cultural and linguistic worlds of the other for the sake of a safe, controlled conformity. Christians are called not to demand that others speak their own language, but to learn the language of the other for the sake of communicating a relational gospel. Jennings exhorts, “We must yield to the Spirit’s leading us to join, recognizing that the Spirit of God may be calling us to break with a geographic pattern or help create a new one. In all this the Spirit is always leading us toward the communal, toward a sharing of life with those different from us” (250).
The magi show us this possibility. We might consider them among the earliest witnesses of Jesus’s life, but their story is one of generosity and recognition rather than formal religious conversion. While firmly rooted in their own traditions, they leave the safety of their home to embrace the vulnerability of the road, trading the comforts of their position with the chance to bring gifts to a newborn child in a foreign land, born in poverty in a manger.
Commentary by Edward Dunar
Engage Catholic Social Teaching
The Second Vatican Council, or Vatican II, brought about development in the Catholic Church’s openness to dialogue with other religions. In Nostra Aetate, the Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions, the Council affirms the need for unity and love across traditions and a common concern for the pursuit of truth and contemplation of ultimate reality. The Council acknowledges that “among various peoples a certain perception of that hidden power which hovers over the course of things and over the events of human history… This perception and recognition penetrates their lives with a profound religious sense” (Nostra Aetate, 2). Therefore, the Church “regards with sincere reverence those ways of conduct and of life, those precepts and teachings which, though differing in many aspects from the ones she holds and sets forth, nonetheless often reflect a ray of that Truth which enlightens all” (2).
Inspired by this development, theologians have interpreted the presence of truth in other faiths as demonstrative of the work of the Holy Spirit. For example, Jesuit theologian Jacques Dupuis proposes a vision of religious pluralism as part of God’s plan. He writes, “the Holy Spirit presides over the divine history of humanity” (Christian Theology of Religious Pluralism, 244), such that “revelation is progressive and differentiated” (251). Different religious traditions offer distinctive insights into the nature of Ultimate Reality. They are complementary and at times (but not always) converge.
It is important to be careful in interpreting other faiths solely in terms of one’s own tradition; in doing so, one risks misinterpretation or even disrespect of the integrity of others’ beliefs. However, these theological inquiries ultimately aim to recognize truth in other religious traditions and to remind us that we have much to learn from those who believe and practice differently from us. Salvation, for Dupuis, involves mutual love, understanding, and an attainment of the fullness of life across traditions.
A Contemplative Exercise
Read a brief passage from a sacred text from a tradition other than your own (for example, the Talmud, Quran, Bhagavad Gita, or a Buddhist sutra). Begin by praying for the wisdom to love neighbors of different faiths with respect and curiosity. Imagine yourself as one of the magi, traveling through lands that are not your own even as you are grounded in your faith.
As you read, resist the temptation to interpret the text through the lens of Christianity. Let the words and the insights stand on their own.
Notice which words or phrases stand out to you. Consider why they draw your attention. Take note of those images or ideas that clash with your own understanding as well as those that resonate with you. Do not seek to resolve such tensions (whether by dismissing or accepting them), but instead contemplate the reaction they invite in you.
Bring to prayer those things that resonate and those that clash. Ask for God’s guidance in learning from other traditions and being aware of your own values and commitments.
Raimon Pannikar: At times, our spiritual journeys take us through many places. We might be influenced by multiple traditions from family history, personal experience, or contact with friends or other communities of faith. Raimon Pannikar, a twentieth-century Spanish priest whose life and scholarship explored interfaith dialogue and comparative religion, embodied this practice of enrichment and ambiguity.
Panikkar was born in 1918 in Barcelona. His mother was a well-educated member of a prominent Catalan family and his father was an anti-colonial activist from India. After his ordination to the priesthood, he earned doctorates in philosophy, theology, and chemistry. His studies led him to extensive travels in India that inspired him to reconnect with his father’s cultural and religious history. About this journey, he wrote: “I left Europe as a Christian, I discovered I was a Hindu, and [I] returned as a Buddhist without ever having ceased to be Christian.”
His academic career and ministry led him to positions at Harvard Divinity School, the University of Santa Barbara, California, and Tavertet, Catalonia, where he founded a center for intercultural studies. He viewed inter-religious dialogue as a practice for pursuing greater authenticity and awareness of universal truth. Drawing on the three traditions that influenced him, he cultivated a spirituality of silence and profound concern with suffering in the world.
Pannikar was a prolific writer. His thought continues to influence theologians on matters of interreligious dialogue, ecology, and mysticism. You can view portions of an interview with him below:
The Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC) was founded in 1998 by Eboo Patel, a scholar and activist who was alarmed by the rise in religious extremism around the world and heightened tensions between religious communities in the United States. He observed that many initiatives around diversity in civic life tend to gloss over religious identity. In response, IFYC sought a vision of religious pluralism that involved: “(1) respect for individual religious and non-religious identities; (2) relationships across lines of difference; and (3) common action for the common good, increasing social capital and civic engagement.” The organization promoted interfaith cooperation by empowering high school and college students to build interfaith relationships through common service in response to justice issues such as poverty, hunger, and ecology.
In May 2022, Interfaith Youth Core changed its name to Interfaith America to reflect a broader mission. It now encourages interfaith literacy and dialogue in settings such as higher education, healthcare, policymaking, and the internet. You can learn more about their work here: https://www.interfaithamerica.org/
Margaret Bonds, Ballad of the Brown King (1954): The magi have also served as inspiration for racial justice within the Christian tradition. Black composer Margaret Bonds composed “Ballad of the Brown King” in 1954. The cantata honored Balthazar, who according to tradition was an African king, with lyrics written by Langston Hughes.
Bonds specifically wrote the piece to challenge the way in which white Christianity dominated the popular imagination about the gospel. Both the lyrics and the use of Black musical forms such as spirituals and jazz seek to communicate a sense of recognition between the Black experience and the stories of the gospel. One line proclaims: “Of all the kings who came to call / One was dark like me / And I’m so glad that he was there / Our little Christ to see.”
Recordings of the cantata are available for purchase from music stores (https://www.discogs.com/release/14452026-Margaret-Bonds-Malcolm-J-MerriweatherDessoff-Choirs-Orchestra-Ashley-Jackson-The-Ballad-Of-The-Brown).
You can listen to a free sample below: