St. Ignatius of Loyola (1491-1556), the Spanish priest, theologian, and founder of the Jesuit order (Society of Jesus), believed that through imagination we could draw closer to God. His Spiritual Exercises teach a practice of imaginative contemplation that draws one into a deeper relationship with God through scripture.
In one of the work’s early exercises, Ignatius invites the reader to meditate on the birth of Jesus: to imagine Mary’s home - its size, how many rooms there were; to imagine the road from Nazareth to Bethlehem; to imagine the place of the Nativity - Mary in labor, Joseph at her side, and the birth of the Christ child. When I took a moment to try this exercise for myself, it nearly took my breath away. The dirt, the smell, the sweat, the fear, the hope, the cry of the newborn child. The world-altering, boundary-crossing incarnation of Love left a lingering scent of dung and moldy straw.
I often wonder how it is that we celebrate Christmas with such pomp, when the reality of the event we commemorate was one of danger and fear, devastation and sorrow, difficulty and pain. In little more than a week’s time, we’ll celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany, the manifestation of God in Jesus as revealed to the Gentiles in the persons of the Three Magi, or Wise Men. It is another event of celebration and joy, of a special wonder in children’s eyes as camels process through our beautiful Cathedral.
But what of the reality of the event?
I invite you to take a moment to try St. Ignatius’ exercise of imaginative contemplation on the Gospel Reading appointed for the Feast of the Epiphany: Matthew 2:1-12. Imagine yourself in the home of an anonymous young couple and their toddler son as Herod’s murderous campaign descends on Bethlehem. What do you hear? What do you smell? What do you see? What do you feel? What do you do?
What do we do?
That’s the question that startles me every Epiphany - what do we do? What do we do with the voices that the text has neglected or silenced - the hundreds of families whose children were murdered? What do we do with the voices with us today that are repressed, oppressed, and that no one seems to hear?
I can only wonder how popular opinion and public policy towards refugees might shift were we all to engage in St. Ignatius’ spiritual exercises.
Who are the Holy Innocents, today? And what do we do?