St. Matthew’s Gospel introduces two contrasting responses to the birth of the Messiah. On one hand, the Gentile “Magi from the east” seek out “the newborn King of the Jews” in order “to do him homage.” On the other hand, Herod and his court also seek the Messiah, but only in order to destroy him. Seeking with expectant joy versus seeking with secret hatred: the two motives could not be further apart. They foreshadow the pattern of both acceptance and rejection that will follow Jesus all the way to the Cross. Only one of the two ways is the path that leads to new life and joy. That is central to the message of today’s readings and the great Solemnity of the Epiphany.
The story of the Magi coming from the east stirs in us awe and wonder at the birth of Jesus. He has not yet performed a miracle or proclaimed a truth, and yet there is infinite power in his very being. Here is a Child who is more than a King, he is God! The Magi are filled with great determination to find this Child, and they are filled with joy when they see him in the arms of Mary his mother. We can experience that same determination by calling to mind that Jesus is here for us, and the same joy by coming into his presence, with the help of Mary. What would our life be like without Jesus? It would be worse than the darkness that grips Herod’s heart. We do not have to fear that darkness! Simply knowing that Jesus is here for us brings to our hearts, minds, and souls great comfort and great hope.
The Magi come out of the darkness of paganism. They are not trapped in darkness because they follow the brilliant light of the star. We understand that the star is not a purely natural phenomenon; it is a supernatural light that leads the Magi in faith and hope on a pilgrimage to an unknown destination. The pilgrimage of the Magi may remind us of the journey of our father Abraham, who traveled to the Promised Land without knowing where he was going (cf. Heb 11:8). In both cases, it is not precise knowledge but a willingness to be led that makes the journey fruitful.
The coming of a new light, a light that leads people to God, is joyfully proclaimed by Isaiah in the first reading. The light of God’s glory makes his people so radiant that all the nations are attracted by it and bring their riches to Jerusalem. This amazing prophecy speaks of “caravans of camels” coming from cities in the east, “bearing gold and frankincense, and proclaiming the praises of the LORD.” The vision of Isaiah is symbolically fulfilled in the arrival of the Magi. They are the first of the foreigners to come and worship the Lord. As the Psalmist says, “Lord, every nation on earth will adore you.” We are all called, all nations are called, to follow the light and join this grand procession in honor of the Lord.
We may not have an obvious external sign to guide us, a shining star, but God gives us the sure light of faith, which always guides us to his Son! That light is shining on us right now as we ponder his word. We are being led each day to Jesus. Even before we ever met him, he was drawing us to himself. Today is a good day to pause and recall how we have been led up to this moment. We praise God for the guide – or guides – he has sent to us and still sends to us as we continue our faith journey.
The actions of the Magi when they finally arrived in the presence of Jesus give us a beautiful example of divine worship. “They prostrated themselves and did him homage. Then they opened their treasures and offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.” Profound and wholehearted homage – this is the appropriate way to honor the Lord. Seeing the Magi inspires us to do the same. Spiritually – and at times physically, with humble gestures and posture – we prostrate ourselves before the Lord, offering him our love, praise, and gratitude. Our “gold” is everything we have, all that we possess and all that we consider most precious; we offer it all to him. Our “frankincense” is our prayer, devotion, zeal, contrition, thanksgiving, and all our petitions. Our “myrrh” is our sacrifices and sufferings, which we offer in union with Jesus’ own Passion, for the glory of God and the salvation of souls. We know our gifts are imperfect and they certainly seem meager as we set them before him. However, his own humility as he reveals himself before us as a poor helpless infant strengthens our humility, and therefore makes us bold enough to give whatever we have, knowing that our every gift comes from his own generosity to us.
The Magi also teach us how to proceed on our journey. They do not return the way they came, which would have taken them back to Herod. Their experience of being with Jesus has enlightened them more than the star ever could. When they depart, they are still being led, but “by another way.” They have an inner light, a new gift of discernment and wisdom. When we meet Jesus and worship him, we do not have to “return to Herod,” back to the darkness, fear, and selfishness of our past and of our sinful nature. The Lord gives us grace to walk a new way, with ever-deeper humility, discernment, and wisdom as we follow him in faith. Led by his light, we are drawing ever closer to our final destination: eternal life.
Who are the guides that God has sent me on my faith journey? How do I express to God and others my gratitude for the great gift of my faith? How can I imitate the humility and faith of the Magi that led them to follow the brightness of the star?
Excerpt from The Anawim Way, Volume 20, no. 1. More information about The Anawim Way may be found here.