The Feast of the Epiphany was this past week and at church the readings have been taken from the Gospel of Matthew. Last Sunday’s was particularly striking, since it was the story of the Magi visiting the infant Jesus with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. “And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed for their country by another way” (Mt 2.12).
The phrase “by another way” has stayed with me, because it raises questions I have wondered about for years. These have to do mainly with my willingness to be open to change. The Magi certainly were open, changing their return route because of a dream.
In last week’s post, The Year of the Carry-On, I claimed that, “People do not change. Those who had thin skin years ago continue to have thin skin. In some cases, it has gotten even thinner, the width of molecules.” I have thought about this all week, and I am ready to report that I stand by that claim: people do not change.
Ironically, I have been in the business of change all my adult life, as a teacher, catechist, and scholar. I even developed a process for transformation based on Jungian psychology and got a university grant to fund it. So, how do I reconcile these two opposing views concerning change, especially when there are larger philosophical issues hovering overhead like rain clouds (determinism vs. free will)? For that, I turn to the Magi and my granddaughter.
First, the Magi. I don’t know what kind of men Balthasar, Melchior, and Gaspar were, but I am willing to bet they hadn’t changed much when they set out on their return trip. They undoubtedly were the same people. What made them different and thus “changed” was their encounter with the child and their decision to leave by another way, one not originally planned.
Saul, too, once he was thrown from his horse on the road to Damascus (Acts 9:1-9) and eventually became Paul, still had the same personality. What changed? His decision to commit to Christ rather than persecute those who belonged to the “Way” (Acts 9:2b).
This reminds me of a close friend who is a recovering alcoholic. He smokes and plays blackjack with the same obsessive personality he had as a drunk. Of course, he is more tolerable now that he has decided to feed his addictive personality “by another way.” We are all grateful.
Then there is my granddaughter, whose report card arrived over the holidays and was filled with more A’s than The Scarlet Letter. She has red hair, a sharp tongue, and a quick wit. A few years ago, she set up a lemonade stand and paid her friends on commission to sell drinks all day while she played air hockey in the cool basement.
I am preparing to give her the “attitude” lecture. While everybody else in the family is singing her praises, I will talk to her about the one subject that does not appear on the report card but is the most important of all: attitude. I have it in mind to tell her that she is failing in that. And she is. She could have whatever she wants in life if she were to change her attitude. She is fourteen.
Of course, I am failing at attitude, too. The only difference is that I have recognized my failure and am trying to change it. And this is where we come full circle. The thing that I am going to change, that the Magi changed, and that I hope my granddaughter changes is attitude. Because with a different attitude we can see and act differently. We can make decisions that counter our frail nature and move us toward freedom. We even might be able to heed a dream and continue our journey “by another way.”
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