I took my family to a Christmas concert at Parkside Church, an Evangelical community in Chagrin Falls. It felt like this interfaith gathering was meditating on the Joyful mysteries of the rosary. The songs selected for the program took us through the Christmas journey, from annunciation through Jesus’ boyhood. Nestled right in the middle of this Christmas program was an Epiphany song.
“I Wonder as I Wander.”
John Jacob Niles wrote this song—or added to it—in 1933, after hearing Annie Morgan repeatedly sing the title verse. She was the teenage daughter in a poor evangelical family that had been kicked out of their town of Murphy (in Appalachian North Carolina) for vagrancy. As the song was performed at our concert, I felt like I was transported back to the caravan of wise men following the star in search of Jesus. They must have been wondering as they wandered too.
As you can hear in the video from this performance, included HERE, the concert narrator gives the audience important points to ponder as they listen.
The most important of these: that the birth of Christ promises humanity freedom from the sins that weigh us down—not only guilt and shame, but the weariness of striving for approval. It also marks our freedom to live an abundant and fruitful life full of purpose and meaning.
Over the centuries since that birth, the readings used in this Sunday’s mass of the Epiphany have provided much additional fodder for each reader’s own wonder-filled journey. The song basically asks why Jesus had to suffer the fate of poor people like Annie, the song’s original author (“I wonder as I wander out under the sky, How Jesus the Savior did come for to die”). Although the joyful mysteries of the rosary recall happy moments, we pray them with the underlying knowledge of Christ’s mission—which would require a horrible death. The song continues:
If Jesus had wanted for any
A star in the sky, or a bird on the wing,
Or all of God’s angels in heav’n for to sing,
He surely could have it, ’cause he was the King.
Sunday’s gospel reading (MT 2:1-12) recalls when Herod, fearing the birth of that King, instructs the magi searching for him to let him know when they find him “…that I too may go and do him homage.”
Of course the magi do find Jesus, and, as Sunday’s reading states:
They prostrated themselves and did him homage. Then they opened their treasures and offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed for their country by another way.
As the gospels tell us, Jesus was repeatedly protected by divine dreamlike interventions, redirecting his Holy Family out of harm’s way, just as the magi were. So why couldn’t that kind of dream have overcome King Herod, converting him into the newborn King’s most ardent defender? After all, many years later Paul would be converted to Christianity’s strongest voice once the already-risen Jesus changed Paul’s heart on the Road to Damascus. As the second joyful mystery recalling a post-menopausal Elizabeth’s pregnancy tells us, with God, all things are possible—even inspiring Isaiah, as Sunday’s first reading (IS 60:1-6) proves, to foretell exactly what would happen in Jerusalem centuries before it did:
Caravans of camels shall fill you, dromedaries from Midian and Ephah; all from Sheba shall come bearing gold and frankincense, and proclaiming the praises of the LORD.
Advance to the fifth joyful mystery and let Jesus answer our wonderment about why Herod was allowed to stay on his evil path. Luke’s gospel (Luke 2:49) gives the boy Jesus a voice. Mary and Joseph fear the worst as they frantically search for the then-12-year-old once they discover him missing from their caravan a day’s journey outside Jerusalem. Upon finding him back in Jerusalem interacting with temple scholars—then asking him why he did this to them—the boy calmly asks, “Did you not know I must be about my Father’s work?”
As our faith now tells us, his Father’s work required using Herod’s hatred and fear to inspire the lifetime of wisdom supporting Christ’s gospel guiding us away from those fatal sins. To make that gospel resonate with our free will, Jesus had to be like us in every other way BUT sin. Our reception of that gospel is how we get to be like him DESPITE sin. As Paul, that former persecutor of Christians, tells us in Sunday’s second reading (EPH 3:2-3A, 5-6), Jesus knocked down all other barriers to his Kingdom BUT sin—leaving its ultimate defeat up to anyone asking for the wisdom to wonder and wander toward their own epiphany.