Journey of the Magi is a 43-line poem written in 1927 by T. S. Eliot (1888–1965). In the poem, Eliot retells the story of the wise men (mágoi in Greek) who travelled to Palestine to visit the newborn Jesus, according to the Gospel of Matthew. It is a narrative, told from the point of view of one of the “magi,” that expresses themes of alienation and a feeling of powerlessness in a world that has changed.

A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.’
And the camels galled, sorefooted, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
and running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty and charging high prices:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.

Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wine-skins.
But there was no information, and so we continued
And arriving at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you might say) satisfactory.

All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.

My very best wishes for Christmas 2020 and a hopeful 2021!


Jesus & Religion

Fourth Weekend in Advent 2020

Today, as we draw close to Christmas and look forward to 2021 with hopes for a more healthy new year, I have a follow-up to last week’s post, where I mentioned that the historical Jesus was religiously critical but not anti-religion.

We begin today with a well-known passage from Matthew and then I offer some brief observations, action thought-starters, and clarifications. [Next week, on Christmas Eve, a traditional poetic reflection. Then, as last year, I will be away from Another Voice for two weeks.]

Today’s passage: Matthew 23:1-6

Then Jesus spoke to the crowds and his disciples, saying: “The experts in the law and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat. Therefore, carefully attend to what they say and do what they say; but act not according to their deeds. For they say, but they don’t do. They tie up heavy burdens and lay them on people’s shoulders. They themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them. They do all their deeds to be seen by people. On their arms they wear extra wide prayer boxes with Scripture verses inside, and they wear robes with extra long tassels. They love to have the place of honor at banquets and the first seats in the synagogues.” 

Observations and ActionThought-Starters:

  • The historical Jesus, whose Hebrew name was Yeshua, belonged to the Hebrew faith tradition and had a keen knowledge of the Hebrew Scriptures. He did not establish a new religion. He did not set up a church. He called people to a new way of life. “I have come that they may have life, and have it in all its fullness.” (John10:10) His early followers were called “followers of the Way.” — Thought-starter: How do we live and promote the Way of Jesus today? How can we really inspire and motivate people?
  • The Fourth Gospel even tells us Jesus celebrated Chanukah (Hanukkah). “Then came the Festival of Dedication at Jerusalem. It was winter, and Jesus was in the temple courts walking in Solomon’s Colonnade.” (John 20:22-23) — Thought-starter: How do you imagine Jesus in the temple or in a synagogue? Did people stare in awe at him? Or did they raise their eyebrows when he walked in with his band of young followers?
  • Jesus’ disciples were young men and women, inspired by his example, teaching, and divine wisdom. — Thought-starter: Where do young men and women today get their Christian inspiration? What do we need to do? Whose wisdom do they admire today? How can we speak meaningfully to them about Jesus?
  • As the post-Resurrection community of Jesus’ disciples and followers began to grow, non-Hebrew members also joined. — Thought-starter: How do we welcome God-seekers today, especially those turned-off by organized religion?
  • Post-Resurrection Christian structural developments led to two things: the composition of the Gospels AND the formation of Christian faith communities with their own Christian rituals, symbols, and leadership, independent from Hebrew communities.
  • There was also a growing concern about passing on the heritage of Jesus the Christ to future generations. This called for religious structuring. — Thought-starter: What kinds of institutional structuring and re-structuring do we need today, especially in view of institutional misogyny, clericalism, and doctrinal rigidity?
  • In the earliest Christian communities men and women held leadership roles and presided at celebrations of Eucharist. At first there was no ordination. No separate clergy. Later ordination was introduced, not to transfer some kind of sacramental power but for quality control. Only qualified men and women could lead Christian communities. — Thought-starter: How do we provide quality-controlled Christian leadership today? Have annual performance appraisals for clergy and bishops? Have parishes elect their pastors?


  • In his comments about the “the experts in the law and the Pharisees” in the Matthew text, Jesus was simply stressing that even well-known religious authorities can succumb to distorted religion. We see that today of course. A young Catholic ordained minister told me last week that President Trump was sent by God and that President-elect Biden is an evil pro-abortionist and a phony Catholic.
  • The “experts in the law” were part of the Temple hierarchy. The word “scribe” can be misleading because people today think it probably means a “secretary” who takes notes. “Experts in the law” had knowledge of Hebrew tradition and law and could draft legal documents like marriage contracts, documents for mortgages, for the sale of land, etc. Each village had at least one “expert in the law.”
  • Pharisees were not part of the Temple hierarchy. They were a school of thought and a social movement. They believed in resurrection and in observing religious traditions ascribed to “the traditions of the ancestors.” They were not per se bad people! Some scholars think Jesus was a Pharisee and that his debates with them were simply par for the course. After the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE, Pharisee beliefs became the foundational and ritualistic basis for Rabbinic Judaism.
  • Is is unfortunate that historical ignorance and antisemitism have denigrated the Pharisees and given us the pejorative word “pharisaical” meaning “overly self-righteous” and “hypocritical.”

Religion and Faith:  

  • Faith or “trust” is our personal and group experience of what we call the Sacred or the Divine: God. In Christian faith that experience is anchored in living in the Spirit of Christ.
  • Religion is not faith. Religion is a system of beliefs, rituals, and symbols designed to help people understand their faith experience. We use religion. We don’t worship it.
  • Unhealthy religion grows out of and supports clouded vision and hateful hearts.
  • Religion is healthy when it points to the Sacred. It is unhealthy when it only points to itself: to rituals, symbols, and religious leaders. Particularly unhealthy when it manipulates and uses people for the leaders’ self-serving goals. When this happens, one needs a reformation.
  • In Jesus’ days, as in our own days, some people have used religion-mixed-with-politics to achieve self-serving and ungodly goals. This combination was deadly for Jesus. It threatens our lives today as well. 

Unified in Christian hope, we proceed peacefully toward Christmas…..

​“By the tender mercy of our God the dawn from on high shall break upon us,

​To give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,

​To guide our feet into the way of peace.”

(Luke 1:78-79)


PS:    In response to a couple questions raised by Another Voice readers: My aim in Another Voice has been to not just pass on information but to offer a different perspective. My inspiration came from T.S. Eliot’s poem Little Gidding, the fourth and final poem of Eliot’s Four Quartets, a series of poems that discuss time, perspective, humanity, and salvation. 

Little Gidding appeals to me as an historical theologian because it focuses on the unity of past, present, and future, and claims that understanding this unity is necessary for salvation. The lines I like especially are these:  “For last year’s words belong to last year’s language. And next year’s words await another voice.”

Jesus and the Reign of God

In this third weekend of Advent 2020 reflection, one can ask what was the experience that Jesus’ disciples were trying to articulate when they declared in a variety of ways that God was revealed in the very human Jesus? The question has contemporary significance as well. What is the significance of Jesus Christ and Christianity today, when human suffering, accelerated Covid-19 deaths, and hardened and hateful political polarization so characterize our contemporary life situation?

What emerges when we trace the Jesus images in the Gospels is a portrait of a human life in which the human opens to the Divine. In our earliest Gospel, Mark, we read: “After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. ‘The time is fulfilled,’ he said. ‘The Reign of God has come. Repent and believe the good news!’”  (Mark 1:15)

Most biblical scholars agree that the reality of the Reign of God lies at the very heart of Jesus’ life and message. In the text from Mark we see the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. Jesus had probably spent some time under the influence of John the Baptist but then recognized and responded to his own unique call from God. 

The “Reign of God” is a religious image. It is based on the metaphor of God being depicted as a king. By proclaiming the Reign of God Jesus was using figurative language that evoked the living tradition of an experience of God acting in history. For Jesus, God is not out there or up there but present and active in the events of everyday life, here and now, near and with us. The Reign of God is a new awareness and a creative human environment. The Reign of God meant that God’s justice would replace injustice. It meant that the poor and the marginalized would be reintegrated into society. The content of the Reign of God is reflected in Jesus’ sayings, parables, and actions – in all the contours of his life and ministry.

Jesus experienced God’s presence and influence as close, near, and very personal. God for Jesus was not a cold-hearted taskmaster. He experienced God as an understanding, compassionate, and forgiving “Father.”  (Jesus grew up in the Hebrew tradition which pictured God as male. An Hebraic anthropomorphism. God of course has no gender. God can be pictured just as much as “Mother” or “Father.”) 

Jesus explained life in the Reign of God very particularly in his parables. In the parable of the Good Samaritan, for example, Jesus teaches a universal love that also extends to one’s enemies, whether they be personal enemies in the village or those of a particular group or nation. For Jesus the barriers between insiders and outsiders are broken down. Perhaps Christian political leaders should also be good Samaritains?

The human Jesus opens our eyes to all that God means and enables us to see all that God is. Those who experienced Jesus experienced God’s revelation in his life. Their full understanding came after Jesus’ death and resurrection. Recall Matthew 27:53-55 “After Jesus’ resurrection….When the centurion and those with him who were guarding Jesus saw the earthquake and all that had happened, they were terrified and said, ‘Truly this was the Son of God.’” One of my favorite post-Resurrection narratives is about the disciples on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35): “When he was at the table with them, he took bread, gave thanks, broke it and began to give it to them. Then their eyes were opened and they recognized him…. They asked each other, ‘Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?’”

It is through the human Jesus – “Son of Humankind” and “Son of God” — that people were enabled to experience all that the word “God” means. We find that realization is so clearly expressed in the Fourth Gospel with its strong post-Resurrection belief and understanding. Recall, for instance, these passages: “For as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son also to have life in himself” (John 5:26); “If you knew me, you would know my Father also” (John 8:19); “Whoever sees me sees him who sent me” (John 12:45); “He who has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9); and finally, “[Just as God] has loved me, so have I loved you” (John 15:9). The Christian way of life, as I wrote last week, is a life of spirituality: a journey through and with Christ into the life of God. Life in Christ is a mystery to be lived. To live in Christ is to live what the Apostle Paul called “a new creation.” 

I would emphasize that to be a Christian is not primarily to be “a religious person.” The historical Jesus was not anti-religion but religiously critical. (Something for next week’s reflection.) It is important to remember that Jesus came to show us how to be truly human much more than how to be religious. In the depth of our humanity-shared-with-others we meet the living God. “For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.” (Matthew 18:20)

To be a Christian is to be a whole human being; and Jesus is the portrait of that wholeness. Consider the faith system in which Jesus’ own life was nurtured. He broke religious boundaries again and again in his attempt to call people into a new humanity and to introduce them to a Divine presence manifested in the fullness of his own humanity. Anything that teaches one to hate or violate another cannot be of God. Jesus’ disciples saw and experienced in him a rare integrity. Each person whom Jesus met seemed to have the potential to become whole, to be invested with infinite worth. 

God was likened by Jesus to a wide variety of images. God was like a father who welcomed home the prodigal son (Luke 15:11–32). God was like a shepherd who searched for the lost sheep (Luke 15:3–7), or like a woman who swept diligently until she found a lost coin (Luke 15:8–10). The God Jesus seemed to know was one in whom all were welcome to come (Matthew 11:28). 

Christian spirituality requires that one take time to sit back and contemplate. It is through quiet contemplation, not speedy data-processing, that we effectively process our experiences and truly explore the mystery of life. The contemplative mind sees reality in its wholeness not just in its parts. Jesus took time to contemplate as well. Recall when he began his ministry. Matthew, Mark, and Luke tell us that after being baptized by John the Baptist he retreated to the Judean Desert to pray. Through contemplation the historical Jesus came to understand his identity with God. Luke reminds us that “He frequently withdrew to the wilderness to pray.” (Luke 5:16)

Material for our own contemplation: Jesus and the mystery of life. Jesus knew joy and the camaraderie of his close friends. He also faced anger and rejection from narrow-minded religious leaders. He knew fear and anxiety. Recall his “agony in the garden” as he contemplated his own torture and death at the hands of the Romans. “Then he said to them, ‘I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here, and stay awake with me.’ And going a little farther, he threw himself on the ground and prayed, ‘My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want.’” (Matthew 26: 38 & 39)

Jesus, who uniquely cared, served and lovedsuffered at the hands of oppressive religious and political authorities. He lived the mystery of life: the Reign of God. He did not abandon God. God did not abandon him. His reassuring message for us is that God has not abandoned us either, although, like him, we can experience dark days.

As I reflect on Jesus and on the mystery of my own life, I recall what Franciscan friend, Richard Rohr, wrote last month: 

Jesus teaches that right relationship (i.e., love) is the ultimate and daily criterion. If a social order allows and encourages strong connectedness between people and creation, people and each other, people and God, then you have a truly sacred culture: the Reign of God. It is not a world without pain or mystery, but simply a world where we are connected and in communion with all things.

“Who can doubt that this is the sum and substance of Jesus’ teaching? In the Reign of God, the very motive for rivalry, greed, and violence has been destroyed. We know we are all part of God’s Beloved Community.”

And so we journey on…..


PS   A clarification about an item in last week’s post. I had included a strongly misogynist text often attributed to Albertus Magnus. It appears however that many contemporary scholars attribute that text not to Albertus Magnus but more likely to one of his followers. Albertus Magnus was however a misogynist as was his famous student, Thomas Aquinas, who cited with approval Aristotle’s infamous affirmation that “the female is a misbegotten male.” Aquinas himself declared that women are “defective and misbegotten.”

Putting Christ Back Into…..

A few days ago I heard again the old annual refrain: “We need to put Christ back into Christmas.” My immediate reaction was to say: “Ok fine, but first of all, let’s put Christ back into Christianity.” 

A distorted Christianity proclaims a distorted moral vision. It can justify — often with popular applause — racism, xenophobia, and misogyny. It happens now and of course it happened in the past. Saint Albertus Magnus, for example, the “great” 13th century Dominican theologian, was fond of proclaiming: “Woman is a misbegotten man and has a faulty and defective nature in comparison to his. Therefore she is unsure in herself. What she cannot get, she seeks to obtain through lying and diabolical deceptions. And so, to put it briefly, one must be on one’s guard with every woman, as if she were a poisonous snake and the horned devil. … Thus in evil and perverse doings woman is cleverer, that is, slyer, than man. Her feelings drive woman toward every evil, just as reason impels man toward all good.”

In every age there have been and must still be prophetic men and women who courageously critique “Christian”  behavior and call for conversion and reform.

An important part of that critique is a strong reminder that authentic Christ-based Christianity is anchored first of all in spirituality. We live here and now as Christ: in and with the Spirit of the living God. Christian moral behavior – not a list of rules or narrow self-serving gestures but a pattern of life — flows from that spiritual reality. We live in the Spirit of Christ with personal dignity and respect and compassion for the other. All others! 

More thoughts about Christ and Christianity in the next couple weeks of Advent. Today just an introduction with some observations about Jesus of Nazareth. My immediate thoughts and prayers right now are more with family and friends in quarantine with Covid-19. The pandemic has now claimed more than 264,800 lives in just the USA. 

I have done a lot of reading and study about the “historical Jesus.” My favorite author is the Irish-American New Testament scholar John Dominic Crossan. We know more about the historic Jesus but still don’t know a lot. Jesus was not white, like so many of those images so often showing an androgynous white European male. He was a dark-skinned Galilean. He could have been gay or straight. We really don’t know. Jesus, however, was probably very close to Mary the Magdalene, whom many scholars now consider the “beloved disciple.” I often think about Jesus in his early thirties with a group of disciples, young men and women in their late teens. Teachers like Jesus touch people deeply. They stimulate, support, and help them mature.

Certainly the historical Jesus was intelligent and wise. Like about 97% of the population at his time, Jesus may very well have been illiterate. Jesus was, however, very well versed in an oral culture and knew the foundational narratives, basic stories, and general expectations of his religious tradition. Last week I was thinking about the image of the teenage Jesus described in Luke 2:46-48: “After three days they found him in the temple courts, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. Everyone who heard him was amazed at his understanding and his answers. When his parents saw him, they were astonished.” Jesus still astonishes. 

We really don’t know much about Jesus’ parents, although there is of course a great body of Marian devotional literature and traditions. Jesus did have brothers and sisters. His brother James was the key leader in the Jerusalem community of believers.

The four gospels are not historical biographies but theological reflections about the life, message, and meaning of Jesus the Christ. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were most likely written between 66 CE and 110 CE. At the early councils of Hippo (393 CE) and Carthage (397 CE), they became the ecclesiastically approved biblical interpretations of the life of Jesus, each adapted to a specific audience. Today we know there were also other gospels, other interpretations. The aim of all was not so much to present historically accurate biographies but to pass on to early (and later) Christian communities the message and meaning of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection.

Jesus the Christ is our companion and trustworthy guide in our human journey. In the next two weeks I would like to explore: (1) Jesus and the God experience, and (2) Jesus and institutional religion.

Warmest regards