Anne Berry, a returned Maryknoll lay missioner, reflects on what the journey of the Magi teaches us about going to the margins.
Reflecting on the journey of the Magi, the first thing that popped into my mind was the “Epiphany-themed” tea towel my sister gave me, which reads, “Three Wise Women would have arrived on time, helped deliver the baby, brought useful gifts, baked a casserole, and there would be peace on earth!” These practical sentiments reminded me of something else: a journey I once made as a lay missioner with a friend, in which we brought wash basins full of necessary items to new mothers and their babies.
We started out from where I lived with my family, in a nice neighborhood in the Tanzanian city of Mwanza. The houses were large by Tanzanian standards, with space for gardens around each one, enclosed by fences and walls. The roads weren’t paved, but were wide and graded, so that driving down them was only slightly bumpier than in the average U.S. town.
However, as we neared the area we’d be visiting, the dirt roads got narrower and the bumps got bigger. My friend steered expertly around large rocks and deep channels carved by seasonal rains, and between the small houses and shops that were now much closer together. Then she stopped the car and said we’d have to walk the rest of the way – no more roads, only narrow paths.
Compared to the journey of the Magi, my journey was very small – I didn’t even leave my own Mwanza neighborhood. But the distance between the comfortable life I was living with my family in a spacious house with electricity, running water and all our needs satisfied, and the lives of mothers and babies who received us, seemed unconscionably vast.
I wonder if the Magi felt this discomfort, seeing the poverty of Mary and Joseph, and the humble (or humiliating?) situation of this precious newborn child. The image is so familiar -- the richly-robed kings prostrating themselves on the stable’s dirt floor to pay homage to the baby wrapped in cloths that would only be found in the rag cupboard in my childhood home – but now I see how strange it is.
In a 2016 Christmastime article, Bishop Thomas Gumbleton explains that the reason Pope Francis urges us, the church, to “go to the peripheries, the margins” is because that is what God does, in the events of Jesus’ birth. He writes:
"If we are to celebrate Christmas truly and really welcome Jesus into our midst at this moment in history, we too must find the way to go to the peripheries to find Jesus in the poor, the homeless, the refugees, the forsaken. When we do that, then we truly can celebrate with great joy because the promise that the angels sang in their song will begin to happen. God’s peace will come upon the earth."
But how does “going to the margins” make God’s peace come? I think it’s that discomfort I felt seeing how my literal neighbors in Mwanza lived. I don’t mean guilt. I didn’t think it was wrong that my family had running water and our basic needs always met; I felt the wrongness of the poor living conditions of the families we visited.
For the Magi, what they experienced when they visited Jesus and his parents led them to change their course; they returned to their country by another way in order to avoid Herod and protect the infant Jesus. If we journey to the margins in our society and open our hearts to the people we meet there, I believe we will be led to change course in our own lives, to take action to avoid the injustice-perpetuating plans of the powerful and instead to protect the most vulnerable, that they may have space to flourish and share their gifts with the world.
I believe the message of the Magi is to journey to the peripheries of our societies, share our wealth with the people there, and let ourselves be changed by the journey. As Bishop Gumbleton said, when we do that, we will see God’s peace begin to come upon the earth (even if it’s not the result of baking a casserole).
Photo: A Tanzanian woman and her baby, courtesy of The LULU Project- Mwanza, from their Facebook page