The story of the Magi, the first Gentiles to honor the newborn Jesus, has always fascinated those who heard of it. We are naturally intrigued by the whole account, and we have many questions: Who are these strangers, and where did they come from? What motivated them to undertake such a journey? How did they know that the appearance of a star meant the birth of a king? And what about this mysterious, moving star – what was it? Modern scholars of the Bible have made extensive studies into the historical and scientific background to all these questions, but this is not our main interest today. In pondering the word of God in the liturgy, our questions are not only about what happened back then but about what God is saying to us today. From this perspective, we can insert ourselves into the story; we are the Magi. The journey in search of Jesus is the story of our own lives.
We will make very little progress in our search for the Lord, however, if we limit it to what we discover “on our own.” What we celebrate in today’s feast is not simply man’s search for God, but God’s revelation of himself to man. This is reflected in the name of the feast itself. The Greek word epiphany means “manifestation” or “revelation.” We can seek the Lord – and we can find him – because he has come to be with us as a man. He shows us his face. This is what the joyful Season of Christmas is all about.
Even before the birth of Jesus the Messiah, the Jews knew God. He had already begun revealing himself to them through the Law and the prophets. The Jews knew that there is only one God, and that all the nations and all the kings of the earth would one day be brought under his rule. The psalmist sang: “All kings shall pay him homage, all nations shall serve him.” The prophets spoke of a day when Jerusalem would shine with the splendor of the Lord, not only for the Jews but for all people. “Nations shall walk by your light, and kings by your shining radiance.” What the Jews did not know was how the Lord would bring this about. How could the pagans, living in the darkness of ignorance and enslaved in the worship of false gods, ever come into the light?
“God’s secret plan” remained “unknown to men in former ages,” as St. Paul says. But with the coming of Christ Jesus, what was unknown and unimaginable was revealed: “the Gentiles are now co-heirs with the Jews, members of the same body and sharers of the promise through the preaching of the gospel.” The key figure in the whole secret plan, then, the very center of the gospel message, is Jesus Christ, the little baby in the arms of Mary. The Magi who come in search of him ask, “Where is the newborn king of the Jews?” The Magi are not Jews. Why should they care if the Jews have a new king? Because he is more than the king of the Jews; he is the Light that shines on all peoples. He is God!
We are the Magi today. God has come into our world. He has come from heaven to earth so that we may know him. To find him, we must be willing to leave behind our old ways and the comforts of our personal “kingdoms,” and continue our search for the true King. We are not alone in our search, but part of a great company of searchers, men and women in every age who pursue the way of wisdom. Because all wisdom comes from God and points to him, there are many signs indicating the way we should go. Sometimes the signs are miraculous and eye-catching, like the star. But God uses more ordinary signs as well, like prudent advice from friends, information from the sciences, or guidance from those who have gone ahead of us in the journey of faith. God can even use corrupt government officials, like Herod, as signs. King Herod is the one who sent the Magi to Bethlehem. When we respect those in authority over us, we discover the will of God. However, if our leaders disregard the law of God, we must not follow them, just as the Magi did not follow the order of Herod but avoided him, going home “by another route.”
Though God works through Herod, Herod himself does not benefit from the epiphany. He is known to history as Herod the Great, but in comparison to the Magi, he is not great at all. Instead of welcoming the Lord, he rejects him. Instead of journeying in faith, he remains stubbornly enthroned in his own palace, entangled in a web of fear, selfishness and deceit. Herod shows us the dispositions that make it impossible for us to honor the Lord. If we refuse to submit, we cannot see the epiphany of God, no matter how brightly he shines his light on us.
The Magi teach us that, in order to find God, we need the right dispositions: humility, perseverance and faith. The Magi are great because they are humble. They let themselves be led on a long and uncertain journey, and rejoice to be able to prostrate themselves before Jesus. Their following of the star is an image of our journey of faith. When we walk by faith, we keep our eyes on what is above, not on what is earthly (cf. Col 3:1-2). We do not understand everything God is doing as we follow him, but we put our trust in him, knowing that he will lead us. Sometimes the external appearances seem to contradict what we know by faith. We know Jesus is our eternal King, yet he does not look like a king; he looks like a tiny baby, clothed in utter poverty. Honoring him as our King, we offer him the gifts that he has entrusted to us – our most precious possessions, our time, our creativity, our fertility, our future, our sufferings, our very lives. We are enriched by our giving to God, not impoverished; we receive much more than we give. Renewed in wisdom and overflowing with joy, we continue our journey in the light of faith.
Do I seek the Lord each day? What is my response when I find him in unexpected ways? Am I willing to leave behind the earthly things that distract me from my faith?
Excerpt from The Anawim Way, Volume 13, no. 1. More information about The Anawim Way may be found here.