Gifts for the cradle
Paolo Beltrame SJ is a Jesuit who previously worked in astro-physics. He reflects on the connections between the gifts of the Magi and the life of the Jesuit novice. (This was written while he was in the novitiate).
Gold, frankincense and myrrh – three gifts that, gradually, entered our traditional celebration of Christmas, together with the story of the Wise Men, the Magi, and of the shooting star, or comet, or whatever it was.
There might be a strong, even though invisible, connection between the route that the men from the East experienced and Jesuit noviciate life.
The three learned scholars were in fact people in search of God, who realized that the mysterious and embracing Presence was already searching for them since time immemorial, through stars and signs and wonders within Nature. These men lived intellectual curiosity, together with intense and passionate movements of the heart, and – even without a clear understanding of their call or of their walk – were changed after seeing the Child Jesus: they trusted both their observational skills and their dreams. Using Ignatian jargon: they developed and trusted their sense of discernment… which is what we try to do in the novitiate.
According to tradition, the Magi were from Persia, from India and from Arabia. Then how not to think of that cosmopolitanism which our world (even without being aware of it, sadly) is urgently searching for?
Another colourful similarity with the noviciate is this: like the Magi, we are also very distinct – in our different nationalities, life experiences, educational and cultural backgrounds, and in our interests and sensibilities. We did not know each other before undertaking this route that we traverse together; we harmonize ourselves and we will visit all together the Child God, so unique and humane for each one of us. How, then, not to think of those people who travel a much more dangerous journey than ours: asylum seekers and refugees, homeless people and migrants? Or how, then, not to think of people who cannot travel: prisoners or those who are sick in hospitals, those who can only watch the Christmas shooting star (or whatever that was) through bars or from a bed?
We are lucky, we have had many more opportunities than others on earth. Someone has prepared this relatively cosy nest for us. We are called now to exit from our bubble, to walk into the deserts – staring at the stars and walking on the ground – and to offer something in return... like the Wise Men, we have three gifts: gold, frankincense and myrrh.
Gold: to become, and to offer the best of ourselves to our fellows novices and Jesuits, and to every human being that we visit in our various activities - school pupils, prisoners, asylum seekers and refugees, people in the hospital, believers, non-believers, elderly people… Offering ourselves makes us like gold for them and they are gold for us. A simple but sumptuous and enriching gift.
Loving brothers and sisters is loving God. We continuously experience that and we know it with our mind and our heart. This is frankincense: we give the incense to God and while it rises to the sky it scents the atmosphere here on earth around us (… I do not want to enter complicated aspects of fluid dynamics, at this point).
We search and sometimes realize the best that we are, and we become "gold", and we offer it to the Lord like “frankincense”; these things are like precious, sacred, immaculate gifts. However, a third homage must be celebrated: myrrh. An unguent for the burial of the dead. While aiming for the best, we must not be “enslaved” by it. We learn how to be “free to fail”. Together, we learn how to die to ourselves, how to avoid clinging to our own success, how to step down from the stages on which we might have otherwise performed, or from the chair that we once held.
That is the real freedom to achieve the best of ourselves – also in a human perspective to push all the possible boundaries – not for ourselves but for the greater glory of God.
How is Christmas in the Jesuit noviciate? It is an individual and communal journey that carries gold, frankincense and myrrh.
Paolo Beltrame nSJ