Today is the celebration of the holy day, very important in the Catholic Church, Feast of the Epiphany. This is about the Three Kings journey to find Christ, The Newborn King.
This holy day today, along with a conversation with our neighbor, Clare, who is a communion minister at the church that I grew up in, and school I went to, reminded me of a short-lived practice during a different holiday, a long time ago.
My wife, Mary and I are both Vatican II babies, though we were very young at the time. Vatican II, which took place between October 11, 1962, and December 8, 1965, was when the Catholic Church decided that it should be more accessible to the communities it was in, in both language and Mass participation. Mary and I, though growing up a quarter continent apart, are almost the exact same age and were both altar kids, except that Kirkwood didn’t have altar kids. We only had altar boys. Who knew that a small coal town in West Virginia would be decades ahead of the big Midwestern city?
Vatican II seemed to be an exciting time in the Church, at least from our perch. It was a time to dust things off and make a few changes.
It was a sunny and crisp Spring morning as many people were gathered in front of the Kirkwood City Hall. People were organically bunched in little groups, each around a central figure. Everyone was dressed to the nines, but you could just barely notice a slightly different flavor to each group. As it happens, Kirkwood has many churches, of varying denominations, packed in a rather small area.
This was Palm Sunday!
The pastors and parishioners of each congregation had gathered. Each took a turn, saying something meaningful to them. Then everyone started to sing a song together, as we started to all walk away in different directions, listening to the other singers grow quieter with the increasing distance. When we arrived at our church, we marched right on in, while still singing, and Mass had begun.
I don’t remember this tradition lasting long, perhaps it was even only once, but I liked it, quite a lot. It would be nice to bring back again, if even for only once.
While one’s beliefs may differ, the culture still overlaps, and that is well and good enough, no need to tussle, for anymore.
Below is an interesting story written by Fr. Matt O’Toole, the current pastor of St. Peter Church, Kirkwood, MO. It appears in today’s bulletin.
I’ve seen the skulls of the three kings. (A gruesome opening line, but maybe it’s catching your attention to read on!) It’s true. Twenty years ago, I was on a visit to the city of Cologne, Germany. It was the twelfth day of Christmas, a most festive day for Cologne, for there inside the great Gothic cathedral is the bejeweled shrine of the three kings. Legend says that their relics were found by the Byzantine Empress Helena in the 4th century, moved to Constantinople then to Milan and then to Cologne in 1164. Since the day of my visit was Epiphany, the reliquary of the three kings was unveiled. Pilgrims steadily filed up to the gold chest resting several feet near the high altar. I spied the dark outlines of three skulls positioned inside the reliquary. Three towers of wax, much like Easter candles, stood in front and each had a different letter emblazed on them: B, C, M. My friend and I figured the letters represented the traditional names of the three kings – Balthazar, Caspar, and Melchior.
Now, the skeptic and even the little-bit-dubious believer can be a witness to everything I described and say, “C’mon! Really? You’re telling me those are the remains of the magi? How can anyone be sure?” One more alert to the details of scripture may add, “How do you know there were three of these magi? Matthew’s gospel account never said there were three visitors who adored Jesus. It simply identifies three gifts. There could have been only two; or there may have been a dozen of these astrologers! And the names of the magi? They can’t be found in the Bible. Those were invented sometime in the Middle Ages.
So with all this evidence at hand, what’s a Catholic to think when he or she is standing before the reliquary of the three kings in Cologne? Or any shrine that claims to possess the remains of a holy follower of Christ? There are no less than fourteen churches in Europe which claim to have the head of John the Baptist. And there is even a basilica in Italy with a glass casket containing what is purported to be a feather left behind by the angel Gabriel at the Annunciation. That’s a tough swallow, since angels have no material composition. But there’s no way I’m going to question its authenticity with a pious Italian!
Our faith in Jesus Christ and His Church is not founded on the authenticity of relics or even the miracles associated with them. These things are, to put it in everyday parlance, the “extras” of our beliefs which we can take or leave. They exist only to reinforce a genuine belief in what we already hold fast. There’s a comfort level our Catholic faith has developed over the centuries with things that are less than perfectly founded on facts. Imagination has a role to play in every person’s faith. For the sake of our human senses, imagination can spread out in creative and inspiring ways a truth of God that would otherwise be elusive or intangible.
The astrologers from the east are mysterious characters. Their country of origin and their number are both uncertain. Their presence in scripture occupies a mere twelve verses in Matthew’s gospel. And yet they have filled the imagination of Christians for centuries. The account of them has been expanded into colorful stories, and it has inspired elaborate and ornate works of art. To be sure, they are the best dressed and most exotic figures in any Nativity scene
So what if those skulls inside the gold chest are not the astrologers from the east who brought gifts to the newborn King? Well, I’m OK if they’re not. They still prompted me to draw more closely to the mystery of Christ and the richness of our faith.
But you can be sure, when I approached that reliquary in Cologne, I blessed myself.