That’s a line from today’s Gospel, the famous story of the “Wise Men” (magoi in the Greek text) who are drawn to Jesus’ birth. But it’s the “from the east” that’s got me thinking this year….
We usually call ourselves “Roman” Catholics without a second thought. (Scholars may use “Western” rather than “Roman” to describe our heritage of Catholicism, for reasons that will come clear below.) We sort-of know that there are “Greek Catholics” (some “Orthodox” – not recognizing the Pope’s authority the way we do, and some “Eastern Rite Catholic” who do recognize the Pope in a way like ours). We may also remember vaguely hearing about “Russian Orthodox” Catholics too. But this year especially we learned – if we were paying attention – about other members of our Catholic family: the Churches of Iraq, of Syria, and of the rest of the Middle East. Where did they come from? A bit of history helps.
We probably learned early the story of “our” branch of Catholicism: the apostles moved out from Jerusalem, north and west up the coastline of the Mediterranean Sea through modern-day Turkey and Greece, founding churches in the towns we know the names of from Paul’s letters (Corinth, Philippi, Thessalonika), and eventually some (notably Peter) arrived at Rome. End of story.
But it’s more complicated. It’s true that the Jerusalem church sent missionaries toward the west. But (especially after the Romans quashed the Jewish revolt and leveled Jerusalem), early Christians also went south and east, toward already thriving Jewish settlements there. Within a few centuries the centers of Christian life and thought were cities such as Alexandria (in Egypt), Damascus and Aleppo (in modern Syria), and Mosul, Kirkuk, Tikrit, Basra, and Babylon – perhaps now too-familiar names from the Iraq War. (Babylon was eclipsed as a population center first by Ctesiphon and later by Baghdad).
For the first millennium these churches were thriving and in many ways more vibrant centers of learning and piety than the churches of the west. In the seventh century the Church of the East was sending missionaries to Tibet and to China; missionaries had already reached India centuries earlier. Their decline began around the year 1200, or four centuries after the region had become part of the Muslim empire. A series of wars and invasions diminished the Church of the East, but vibrant minority communities existed until the early twentieth century, when wars and persecutions reduced them (except in Egypt, which continued to thrive) to a remnant. The two Gulf Wars and the fighting that has continued to this day now seems to be eliminating the last remnants of the church in Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq.
Why pay attention to this history? First, because we benefit from appreciating our own heritage of faith. As one historian says,
Christianity originated in the Near East, and during the first few centuries it had its greatest centers, its most prestigious churches and monasteries, in Syria, Palestine, and Mesopotamia. Early Eastern Christians wrote and thought in Syriac, a language closely related to the Aramaic of Jesus and his apostles.
Second, and to me more important, this history can fill a gap in our imagination: the “Magi from the east” were not exotic specimens: They were human beings like you and me, searching for meaning in the way that all people do. While not literal precursors of the later Christian faith in the east (at least so far as we know), they were bearing witness to the universal search which led the people of their regions later to an embrace of Christ’s way. In a world too full of “us-versus-them” thinking, we need to pay attention to what unites us as human, not what divides us as ethnicities. Their search was also ours. Until next week, peace.
 For an excellent summary, see Philip Jenkins’s The Lost History of Christianity. Harper-Collins, 2008.
 Ibid, p. ix.