The Magi are blessed with the profound experience of gazing upon the new born King of Israel. What an awesome encounter this must have been, to see the Lord of the entire universe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. Few people in history have been graced with such a moment. And because of the depth of their experience, the Magi simply cannot be the same afterward; the reality of the moment was too great! So, instead of following their original plan and returning to Herod, scripture says they departed for their country by another way. This physical change in direction expresses a deeper spiritual experience. They cannot be the same as they were after encountering Christ. The truth is too great! The Magi encounter Christ in worship, they see him with their own eyes, and they leave the experience, physically and spiritually, in a different manner than when they arrived. They are changed.
I have a story about a man who like the Magi, for many years was only able to look upon our Lord, but it made all the difference in his life. For years, Mark Ji Tianxiang, known to everyone as Ji, was a respectable Christian, raised in a Christian family in 19th-century China. He was a leader in the Christian community, a well-off doctor who served the poor for free. But after many years of practicing medicine he became very sick with a violent stomach ailment and so he treated himself with opium. Back then in the 19th century it was a perfectly reasonable thing to do, but Ji soon became addicted to the drug, an addiction that was considered shameful and gravely scandalous.
As his circumstances deteriorated, Ji continued to fight his addiction. He went frequently to confession, refusing to embrace this affliction that had taken control of him. Unfortunately, the priest to whom he confessed (along with nearly everybody in the 19th century) didn’t understand addiction as a disease. Since Ji kept confessing the same sin, the priest wrongly thought, that he wasn’t even trying and that Ji had no desire to do better.
After a few years of this, Ji’s priest told him to stop coming back for confession, and to stop receiving the Eucharist, to stop until he was serious about quitting the opium. They just had no understanding about addictions in the 19th century. Ji just could not quit. For some, this might have been an invitation to leave the Church in anger or shame, but for all his fallenness, Ji knew himself to be loved by the Father and by the Church. He knew that the Lord wanted his heart, even if he couldn’t manage to give over his life. Instead of receiving the Eucharist using the sense of taste, he received instead using the sense of sight. And how he would stare at the Blessed Sacrament held aloft over the priest’s head at the time of the elevation, taking our Lord in through his eyes, receiving Him through the sense of sight, just like the Magi. He couldn’t stay sober, but he could keep showing up, showing up to adore our Lord in the Eucharist.
And show up he did, for 30 years. For 30 years, he was unable to receive the sacraments. God’s grace is not limited to the sacraments, the Mass made all the difference in his life. The adoration of the Eucharist made all the difference in his life.
In 1900, when the Boxer Rebels began to turn against foreigners and Christians, Ji was rounded up with dozens of other Christians, including his son, six grandchildren, and two daughters-in-law. Many of those imprisoned with him were likely disgusted by his presence there among them, this man who couldn’t go a day without a hit. Surely he would be the first to deny the Lord.
But while Ji was never able to beat his addiction, he was, in the end, flooded with the grace of final perseverance. No threat could shake him, no torture could make him waver. He was determined to follow the Lord who had never abandoned him.
As Ji and his family were dragged to prison to await their execution, his grandson looked fearfully at him. “Grandpa, where are we going?” he asked. “We’re going home,” came the answer.
Ji begged his captors to kill him last so that none of his family would have to die alone. He stood beside all nine of them as they were beheaded. In the end, he went to his death singing the Litany of the Blessed Virgin Mary. And though he had been away from the sacraments for decades, he is today a canonized saint. St. Mark Ji Tianxiang
Friends, does our experience of Sunday worship, of Catholic life, or of our parish communities change our heart or mind? The Magi worshiped Jesus in a crib, and they went away different. St. Mark Ji Tianxiang worshipped Jesus in the Eucharist Sunday after Sunday, and he too went away different. He struggled mightily, in ways we’ll probably never know, but he never left our Lord or His Church. Today we worship Jesus truly present on the altar, in the tabernacle, and within our hearts in the Eucharist each Sunday; do we come away from this experience different, with a change of mind and heart? This Epiphany, we ask that our encounter with the Lord may lead to an ever greater change of mind and heart within ourselves. Whether they know it or not our friends, neighbors, and family members are counting on the light that our experience of Christ has brought us, to bring that light into their lives! Pray for the grace to be a fervent light of Christ.
Peace and all good,
Fr. Christopher J. Ankley