Did you know that pagans and Vikings can teach us something about living our faith?
In his Epiphany homily, Pope Francis spoke of the Magi (who were pagans) searching for the Child Jesus with a star to guide them. In our own search for Christ, the pope said, “One aspect of the light which guides us on the journey of faith is holy ‘cunning.’”
Cunning isn’t a word we often associate with the Christian journey. After all, “cunning” is defined as using deceit or evasion. Used car salesmen or shady stock brokers are “cunning.” We’ve all heard “cunning as a fox” to refer to one who outwits another. And Jesus himself called Herod’s son, Herod Antipas, “that fox.” (It wasn’t meant as a compliment.)
Actually, “cunning,” as a word, first meant someone who was learned and skillful — just as the Wise Men were learned. “Kunna” is the ancestor word of “cunning” and comes to us from the Old Norse language, the language of the Vikings.
We tend to think of Vikings as pagan barbarians, warriors who plundered wherever they went. However, the Vikings had a varied culture with its own written language, well-developed religious beliefs, great legends and even a tendency for cleanliness that impressed many whom they conquered. They also — like the Magi — traveled widely, exploring from England to Russia, the Middle East and Africa. In fact, evidence shows they even landed in Canada.
Like the Vikings and Magi, we are also on a journey. As Pope Francis said, “The destiny of every person is symbolized in this journey of the Magi of the East: our life is a journey … to find the fullness of truth and love which we Christians recognize in Jesus, the Light of the World.”
That’s where the cunning part comes in. Just as the Magi experienced the darkness of King Herod’s suspicions, so we, the pope said, experience the darkness that comes from concerns of the world around us. Just as the Magi lost sight of the star, so we can lose sight of God.
So we need to resort to the pope’s “holy cunning.” He defined this as “spiritual shrewdness which enables us to recognize danger and avoid it. The Magi used this light of ‘cunning’ when, on the way back, they decided not to pass by the gloomy palace of Herod, but to take another route. These wise men from the East teach us how not to fall into the snares of darkness and how to defend ourselves from the shadows which seek to envelop our life.”
The pope is right. It is far too easy to be misled by the world, to become afraid or cynical or greedy, to develop a self-preservation attitude or isolate ourselves because of fear. Even the apostles locked themselves in the Upper Room “for fear of the Jews.” But the light of the risen Christ dispelled their fear, just as the light of the Christ Child’s star helped the Magi overcome the darkness of Herod’s evil presence.
Those Magi, pagan men from foreign lands, have a lot to teach the followers of Christ today. “Their example helps us to lift our gaze towards the star and to follow the great desires of our heart,” Pope Francis said. “They teach us not to be content with a life of mediocrity, of ‘playing it safe,’ but to let ourselves be attracted always by what is good, true and beautiful … by God, who is all of this, and so much more!”
The sea-faring Vikings didn’t play it safe either. They explored the known world, often for the valuables of the world, but always searching and even settling areas like Denmark and the islands of England. And some of them, like St. Olaf and his brother, King Harald Hardrada, even helped spread Christianity.
Like the Magi and the Vikings, we must search beyond the world’s “life of mediocrity” to find true glory: the glory of Christ that reveals the kingdom of God.
What a journey, worthy of great cunning. Let’s start soon.