A thousand pin pricks of light illuminate the deep desert sky, but the Magi see only one. A maverick star appearing from far beyond the edge of the known calls to them. Pay attention, it seems to say. Something wonderful is about to happen.
Urged on by the lure of this strange attractor, they travel long and far, the journey shrouded in the obscurity of their own inner darkness. Why them, they wonder. Why now? They have nothing to go on but a profound awareness that in some mysterious way, love is at work in the world.
And then, suddenly, in an unexpected place, in a place where animals shelter, they experience a great epiphany: the gift of a presence, a sleeping child in the arms of his loving mother. No words are spoken, Love alone is the language that connects them. They offer the swaddled babe their treasures, gold, frankincense, myrrh: gifts befitting a royal person.
And we ask: How is it that a child, this child, is at the heart of the mystery called salvation?
A new day dawns as the Magi journey homeward, forever changed by their encounter with the holy one. And their story becomes ours: Love is the journey we all take when we see his light and accept the gift of his presence.
Millennia pass. Other manifestations of God’s gracious presence reveal themselves. In a Maryland valley filled with the promise of new beginnings, Elizabeth Seton and her companion Sisters of Charity accept the challenge to bring God’s love to a place of poverty and desperation. It is 1817. The cries of orphaned children in far off New York reach their ears, move their hearts, impel them to action.
Three members of the newly formed Company of Charity are chosen for the journey north. Sisters Rose, Cecilia, Felicity had long since felt the call of a love, inventive to infinity. They will put that love to the test in a cold and often hostile city. They lean on the providence of God.
“Only do your best, as you have always done,” Elizabeth urges them, “and leave the rest to our dear God.”
And, as did the Magi of old, they arrive bearing gifts: the capacity to love without counting the cost, the skill of carefully husbanding meager resources, the joy of saying the ‘yes’ that makes all things possible.
They are compelled by a fierce, compassionate urgency to embrace the children for whom home has been the city street, or heartless almshouse, for whom ‘mother’ is a distant memory, and nurture them in all the ways that will give them a sense of their inherent dignity and worth as beloved children of God.
Every child is Christ to them; they will abandon no one. All are welcome at their table of belonging.
And Jesus Christ, the morning star which guided the sages of old, will shed his peaceful light on all their undertakings. We look back in awe. Who could have imagined the multitude of good that has come from such humble beginnings?
A new century has dawned, a new millennium. The sisters are still here. We have cast our lot with the people of New York, and have never looked back. And from generation to generation two lessons Elizabeth Seton instilled in the early community have become part of the fabric of our being:
First, that our reason for coming, and staying, has never been just about the work, the ministries. Far more, it’s about our mission– the driving force of love made visible to all in need, a love that is both affective and effective, a love that is at the heart of everything we do, and are…
And second, that collaboration is a vital, life-giving part of our identity. We rely on the insights and wisdom of those who have partnered with us, supporting but also challenging all we have undertaken over the years.
Still here with us are our Associates, Companions, our SC Federation sisters, priests and brothers, colleagues, co-workers, benefactors, volunteers, family, friends, all bringing new insights to demanding situations, sharing with us your enthusiasm and passion for the mission.
We are reminded that in 1817 it was Robert Fox, Francis Cooper, and Cornelius Heeney, Catholic New Yorkers and their families, who pleaded with the Bishop to send for the Sisters of Charity, trusting that their presence would bring light and life to the children.
On this great feast of Epiphany, so close to the feast of our own St. Elizabeth Seton, we continue to celebrate a journey 200 years in the making.
We choose again to meet our grace, as Elizabeth Seton would say, on a path we have named gratitude. And gratitude is our only response for all that has been, and for whatever, in God’s providence, is to come. We, too, heirs of the promise made long ago, have become bearers of light.
–Mary McCormick, SC
Sr. Mary is a spiritual and retreat director, writer, and presenter on topics of spirituality and the Charity charism. Currently the Congregation’s Novice/Vocation/Candidate Director, she has served in congregational leadership, formation ministry, education, and as a missionary in the Bahamas and in Arizona.
(adapted from a reflection given Jan. 8, 2017, at the Evening Prayer that opened the Sisters of Charity’s Bicentennial Year of service in New York)