01/08/2014 05:24 pm ET Updated Mar 10, 2014

Epiphany and the Polar Vortex

Two days ago outside my window, the whole world was a swirl of white and wind. Against the white sky and the white snow, I saw the black tree trunks standing still and the branches stark and swaying. Earlier, the sun had been shining on the glistening cold, but the snow did not melt. That night we felt the full effects of the global vortex which brought temperatures as low as -9 degrees, the coldest weather in decades to the Midwest. The weather forecasters wee salivating with the excitement of it all and the media were full of pictures of accidents, calamities and the direful news of the weather day. They told us to stay warm and stay at home and we did, but we were watching the weather. We are attuned to its vagaries, and we waited for the coming relief.

It is the week of the Epiphany when Christian churches celebrate the arrival of the Wise Men in Bethlehem to visit Jesus, the newborn son of Mary and Joseph. These Wise Men came through no polar vortex, but they came a great distance across a great desert and brought gifts for the baby. They are remembered in the church as the ones who manifested the union of the Godchild and the world, who brought the outside world in and took the world of the Child out. Like our weather people, they broadcast the news to the world at that time of the events unfolding in their midst and witnessed to their realities. The Wise Men came through the trials of their journey to enjoy the warmth of the stable.

In last Sunday's sermon, Reverend John Paddock made me think more deeply about these Wise Men:

Imagine what it might have been like to pack your camel and leave everything behind to follow a star.

They were convinced that by following a star they would discover something/someone new, significant, and life changing. In order to trail the star, the wise men were willing to set off on a journey -- risk everything -- leave behind loved ones, familiar things, and comfortable routines. They had no clarity about where the star would lead, but they set out in faith -- meaning that they trusted God that their journey would not be in vain.

For Matthew, these Magi model faithful disciples in every generation; people who are willing to venture forth on journeys to follow Jesus; people who have visions of what discipleship demands; people who are willing to pursue their dreams, regardless of the cost. They are for us examples of what it means to lose our lives in order to find them.

When I think about the Epiphany, I also think now about "faithful disciples" and I think particularly about vowed religious women in the twentieth and the twenty-first centuries. I reflect on the odyssey parallel to that of the Wise Men that brought Catholic women to the new birth of religious life that has manifested itself in these times.

Although the changes in religious life were not made easily, and were thought by some to be calamitous, the good news is that religious life endures and thrives today, but it is very different and in the future it will be better. Our generation of former nuns is the story of that epiphany because we made the long journey and we pointed the way. We are Everyman and Everywoman. We have proven that religious zeal cannot be quenched any more than the human spirit can because faith and dedication live deep within the soul. Although many people have lamented the loss of faith in the world, it is not lost or gone, or even out sick for a day. I know that prayer and trust, faith, hope and charity are vibrant in the lives of my contemporaries. Women with strong religious conviction will succeed in their work and in their vision, whether they belong to officially sanctioned religious communities or not. What is true is that women no longer need the Church and the structures of religious life to let them be committed religious. Our generation deserves credit for its prophetic role in religious life in the twentieth century because as a group we could see what was coming and we acted. "We done good!" as my friend Ruth used to say. What is happening in the twenty-first century is a playing out of our foresight and actions. We have traveled with the Wise Men to a new place.