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By Msgr. Charles Pope, Jan. 2, 2021
There are so many wonderful details in the Epiphany story: the call of the Gentiles, their enthusiastic response, the significance of the star they seek, the gifts they bring, the dramatic interaction with Herod, and their ultimate rejection of Herod in favor of Christ.
In this meditation, I would like to follow these Magi in their journey of faith to become “Wise Men.” As magi, they followed the faint stars, distant points of light; as wise men, they follow Jesus, who is the ever-glorious Light from Light, true God from true God.
We can observe how they journey in stages from the light of a star to the bright and glorious Light of Jesus Christ. And, of course, to authentically encounter the Lord is to experience conversion. All the elements of this story ultimately serve to cause them to “return to their country by another route.” Let’s look at the stages of their journey from being mere magi to becoming, by God’s grace, wise men.
Stage 1: The CALL that COMPLETES – The text says, When Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, in the days of King Herod, behold, magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem, saying, “Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We saw his star at its rising and have come to do him homage.”
Notice the identity of these individuals: they are labeled magi (μάγοι (magoi) in Greek) and are from the East.
Exactly what “magi” are is not clear. Perhaps they are learned men; perhaps they are ancient astronomers. We often think of them as kings, though the text of this passage does not call them that. It also seems likely that Herod would have been far more anxious had they been actual potentates from an Eastern kingdom. We often think of them as kings because Psalm 72 (read in today’s Mass) speaks of kings coming from the East bearing gifts of gold and frankincense. However, for the record, the text in today’s Gospel does not call them kings, but rather “magi.”
Yet here is their key identity: they are Gentiles who have been called. Up until this point in the Christmas story, only Jews had found their way to Bethlehem. This detail cannot be overlooked, for it is clear that the Gospel is going out to all the world. This call completes the Church, which needs both Jews and Gentiles.
In today’s second reading, St. Paul rejoices in this fact, saying, the Gentiles are coheirs, members of the same body, and co-partners in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel (Eph 3:6). Because most of us are not Jewish by ancestry we ought to rejoice, for the call of these Magi prefigures our call.
Notice that God calls them through something in the natural world: a star. God uses something in creation to call out to them.
We do well to wonder what is the “star” that God uses to call each of us? Perhaps it is Scripture, but more typically God uses someone in our life in order to reach us: a parent, a family member, a friend, a priest, a religious sister, or a devoted lay person. Who are the stars in your life through whom God called you?
God can also use inanimate creation, as he did for these Magi. Perhaps it was a magnificent church, or a beautiful painting, or an inspirational song that reached you. Through something or someone, God calls each of us; He puts a star in our sky. These Wise Men, these Magi, followed the call of God and began their journey to Jesus.
Stage 2: The CONSTANCY that CONQUERS – Upon arriving in Jerusalem, the Magi find a rather confusing and perhaps discouraging situation. The reigning king, Herod, knows nothing of the birth of this new King. The Magi likely assumed that the newborn King would be related to the current king, so Herod’s surprise may have confused them. And Herod seems more than surprised; he seems threatened and agitated.
Even more puzzling, Herod calls in religious leaders to get further information about this new King. They open the sacred writings and the Magi hear of a promised King. Ah, so the birth of this King has religious significance! How interesting!
But these religious leaders seem unenthusiastic about the newborn King, and after providing the location of His birth, make no effort to follow the Magi. There is no rejoicing, no summoning of the people to tell them that a longed-for King has finally been born, not even further inquiry!
So the wicked (Herod and his court) are wakeful while the saints are sleepy. How odd this must have seemed to the Magi! Perhaps they even thought about abandoning their search. After all, the actual king knew nothing of this new King’s birth, and those people who did know about it seemed rather uninterested.
Ah, but praise the Lord, they persevered in their search; they did not give up!
Thanks be to God, too, that many today have found their way to Christ despite the fact that parents, clergy, and others who should have led them to Jesus were either asleep, ignorant, or just plain lazy. I am often amazed at some of the conversion stories I have heard: people who found their way to Christ and His Church despite some pretty daunting obstacles (e.g., poor religious upbringing, scandalous clergy, and poor role models). God sometimes allows our faith and call to be tested, but Those who persevere to the end will be saved (Matt 24:13).
To persevere is to open the door to wisdom, which often must be sought in spite of obstacles. This constancy is often what it takes to overcome the darkness and discouragements of the world.
Stage 3: The CONDESCENSION that CONFESSES – The text says, After their audience with the king they set out. And behold, the star that they had seen at its rising preceded them, until it came and stopped over the place where the child was. They were overjoyed at seeing the star, and on entering the house they saw the child with Mary his mother. They prostrated themselves and did him homage.
With what little information they have, the Magi set out and continue to follow the call of God through the star.
Note that they enter a “house.” We often think of the Magi as coming that same Christmas night to the cave or stable, but it seems not; Mary, Joseph, and Jesus are now in a house. Apparently they have been able to find decent lodging. Has it been days or weeks since Jesus’ birth? Regardless, it is likely not Christmas Day itself.
Notice, too, that they “prostrate” themselves before Jesus. The Greek word used is προσεκύνησαν (prosekunēsan), which means “to fall down in worship” or “to give adoration.” This word is used twelve times in the New Testament and each time it is clear that religious worship is the reason for the prostration.
This is no minor act of homage or sign of respect to an earthly king; this is religious worship. It is a confession of faith. The Magi manifest faith! The beginning of wisdom is the fear of the Lord. And these Magi are well on their way from being mere magi to being wise men!
But is their faith a real faith or just a perfunctory observance? It is not enough to answer an altar call or to get baptized. Faith is never alone; it is a transformative relationship with Jesus Christ. So let’s look for the effects of a real and saving faith.
Stage 4: The COST that COMES – There is a cost to discipleship. The Magi are moved to give three symbolic gifts that show some of what true faith includes. They are costly gifts.
Gold symbolizes all of our possessions. In laying this gift before Jesus, they and we are saying, “I acknowledge that everything I have is yours. I put all my resources and wealth under your authority and will use them only according to your will.” A conversion that has not reached the wallet is not complete.
Frankincense is a resin used in incense and symbolizes the gift of worship. In the Bible, incense is a symbol of prayer and worship (e.g., Psalm 141). In laying down this gift, we promise to pray and worship God all the days of our life, to be in His holy house each Sunday, to render Him the praise and worship He is due, to listen to His word and consent to be fed the Eucharist by Him, to worship Him worthily by frequent confession, and to praise Him at all times.
Myrrh is a strange gift for an infant; it is usually understood as a burial ointment. Surely this prefigures Jesus’ death, but it also symbolizes our own. In laying this gift before Jesus we are saying, “My life is yours. I want to die so that you may live your life in me. May you increase and may I decrease. Use me and my life as you will.”
Yes, these three gifts are highly symbolic.
The Magi manifest more than a little homage to Jesus. They are showing forth the fruits of saving faith. And if we can give these gifts, so are we.
In their holy reverence for God is wisdom in its initial stage!
Stage 5: The CONVERSION that is CLEAR – The text says, And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed for their country by another way.
Here, then, is essential evidence for faith: conversion. It is not enough to get “happy” in Church; we have to obey. These Wise Men are walking differently now. They are not going home by the same way they came. They’ve changed direction; they’ve turned around (conversio). They are now willing to walk the straight and narrow path that leads to life rather than the wide road that leads to damnation. They are going to obey Christ. They are going to exhibit what St. Paul calls the “obedience of faith” (Rom 1:5; 16:26). They have not just engaged in perfunctory worship; they are showing signs of a true and saving faith. They are not just calling out to Jesus, “Lord, Lord!” They are doing what He tells them (cf Luke 6:46).
No longer mere magi, they are now wise men!
So there it is. Through careful stages, the Lord has brought the Gentiles (this means you and me) to conversion. He called these Magi to wisdom. They remained constant, confessed Him to be Lord, accepted the cost of discipleship, and manifested conversion. Have you? Have I?
Walk in the ways of these Wise Men! Wise men still seek Him; even wiser ones listen to and obey Him. Are we willing to go back to our country by another route? Is ongoing conversion part of our journey home to Heaven? Epiphany means “manifestation.” How is our faith made manifest in our deeds and conversion?
I have it on the best of authority that as the (now) Wise Men went home by another route, they were singing this gospel song:
It’s a highway to heaven!
None can walk up there
but the pure in heart.
I am walking up the King’s highway.
If you’re not walking,
start while I’m talking.
There’ll be a blessing
you’ll be possessing,
walking up the King’s highway.