(Father Guillermo García-Tuñón, S.J. ‘87 delivered this homily at the Our Lady of Belen Mass on January 21, 2021, held in the gymnasium of the Roberto C. Goizueta Innovation Center.)
Today is a very unique day. Not because we celebrate the feast day of our patroness, Our Lady of Belen. That happens every year. No, today is unique because the date on the calendar is rare: January 21, 2021, or 1-21-21. Today is a palindrome. Just in case you don’t know what a palindrome is or don’t remember, a palindrome is a word or phrase or a series of numbers that can be read the same backward and forward. The word “mom” is a palindrome, you can read it the same backward and forward. The name “Bob” or the term “race car” are palindromes. 1-21-21 is a palindrome.
Palindrome is a great SAT word. It comes from two Greek words, “palin” which means “same” or “again” and “drome” which means “way.” So, more specifically, a palindrome is a word or series of words or numbers that can be read the same way again.
Our reference of this day as a palindrome basically ends right there. There is nothing about what we celebrate today that implies being ever the same. Notice today’s gospel. It tells us the story of the visit of the Magi to the baby Jesus in Bethlehem. This is what the Church refers to as the Epiphany. These three wise men from the East noticed a powerful star in the sky and understood that it was indicating the presence of something powerful and new. Moved with a desire to discover what it all meant, they loaded their camels and set off on a path that eventually led them to a little cave in the little town of Bethlehem. It was there that they experienced Jesus.
Then, something amazing happened. Seeing the child and his mother, they recognized in him the Messiah promised of old in all the ancient texts. In that simple cave, surrounded by simple things, they recognized the Christ, they bowed down and worshiped. The gospel doesn’t say they reacted simply with the kind of joy one has when seeing a cute baby. A man doesn’t travel hundreds of miles on a camel through blazing and treacherous deserts and terrain to see that. No, they encountered the Son of God and the experience changed them in a very profound way. They were not the same men they were when they first arrived. The last line in today’s gospel tells us that after presenting the mother of the child with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, they return home, not the same way, but a different way.
What can we make of this experience? Obviously, the encounter with the person of Jesus Christ changed their lives forever. These three wise men, these three astronomers, these three men of science could no longer read their lives the same way as before. The encounter with Jesus changed them, gave them a new understanding, allowed them to see the world in a completely different way. It was a powerful thing. Maybe this is why so many shuttered at the birth of Christ. Maybe it is the reason King Herod was terrified at the news and the shepherds were initially afraid. As the gospel tells us elsewhere when the disciples experience the power of Jesus they ask, “who is this that even the winds and the sea obey him?”
If you ask me, this is a story of conversion. Experiencing Jesus changed the lives of the three kings forever. They were not the same men who returned to the East after paying homage to Jesus.
This is the experience of Ignatius of Loyola. For thirty years, Ignatius paid no attention to his faith. Yes, he was baptized a Catholic as a little child, but his mind and his heart were elsewhere. He was much more interested in the sword, gambling, drinking, and fighting wars for the king of Spain. But that all changed. Hopefully, by now, you know the story. After experiencing extraordinary adversity because of his being wounded at the Battle of Pamplona, after his convalescence reading the lives of extraordinary saints, and reading the extraordinary life of Christ, he went through an extraordinary change. He could not live his life the same way again. His life stopped being a palindrome that could be read the same way backward and forward because it was completely new, completely different.
I think my favorite event in the life of Ignatius has to be the moment of his complete surrender to Christ. It happened in the Benedictine monastery at Montserrat. After going to confession and spending the whole night in prayer, he knelt in front of the statue of the Blessed Mother and placed his sword at her feet. He promised her that from that point forward he would no longer serve the king of Spain, but would serve her Son, the true king of kings. His life was never the same.
Our formation at Belen is also a kind of conversion. Think about it. You cannot read your life the same way when you leave as when you entered. You are a different person. When you walk into the front gate of our school you are a boy of 11, when you walk out that same gate after graduation you are a man of 18. All the masses, prayers, teachers, classes, sports and clubs, all the experiences of seven years of studies, transform you into a better version of yourself. And, whether you are fully aware of it or not, the key ingredient is Jesus Christ. It is the very real presence of Jesus in this school, Jesus in the masses we celebrate, Jesus in the classes we teach, Jesus in the prayers we offer, Jesus in the faculty who teach, Jesus in the Jesuits who run this school, that brings about a conversion of mind and heart. Your life is not a simple palindrome, but something different, something richer, something better.
Celebrating today the feast day of our patroness, Our Lady of Belen, means celebrating the feast of the woman who made it all happen. It is Mary who held the collective breath of all the angels of God in heaven as she quickly discerned her “yes” to God. It is Mary who brings Jesus into the world and, therefore, changes it forever. It is Mary who gives us Christ. Have you noticed the image of Our Lady of Belen? Mary sits on the manger holding her Son on her lap. Grabbing him by the waist, she extends him out to the world, she extends him out to us. He is for us. It is for us and for the world that he was born and it is Mary who gives him to us. That encounter with Jesus at the hands of the Blessed Mother will change us and the world forever.
As I wrote the other day in the email I sent to you on the occasion of Martin Luther King Day, Dr. King once stated that “Evil may so shape events that Caesar will occupy a palace and Christ a cross, but that same Christ will rise up and split history into A.D. and B.C. so that even the life of Caesar must be dated by his name.”
And for that, we have the Blessed Mother to thank.
Our Lady of Belen… pray for us.