In 2005, I attended World Youth Day in Cologne with a group from St. Paul the Apostle parish in New York. The great Gothic Cathedral in Cologne was originally built to house the supposed relics of the magi, who, we just heard [Matthew 2:1-12] came from the east to do homage with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
Entering the church today, one will have noticed an alteration in the nativity scene, in which the shepherds have been joined by the magi. (In the actual story, of course, the shepherds left the same day and so were probably long gone by the time the magi arrived.)
In the United States, sadly, Epiphany now seems almost an add-on or some sort of vestigial postscript to Christmas. Historically, however, Epiphany is actually the oldest festival of the Christmas season, older even than Christmas Day itself, and it still ranks as one of the principal festivals of the Church’s calendar. In the Eastern Christian Churches, Matthew’s story of the magi is read on Christmas Day itself. Epiphany in the East is primarily a celebration of Jesus’ baptism, the beginning of his mission as an adult. Here in the West, we postpone the commemoration of Christ’s baptism until next Sunday, focusing today almost exclusively on the story of the magi.
That said, however, the fact is that we really know next to nothing at all about the magi themselves – not their names (although tradition has given them the familiar names Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar), nor their exact social status (though tradition, inspired in this case by Psalm 72, has crowned them as kings), nor even their number (though tradition, based on the gifts itemized in the Gospel, has counted them as three, which in time came to represent the three then-known continents - Africa, Asia, and Europe - and the three ages of human life – youth, maturity, and old age).
The Gospel tells us none of these things, but it does tell us what it is important for us to know about the magi. First of all, it tells us that they were foreigners, Gentiles, that is to say - pagans. As such, they represent the majority of the human race – past and present – in a world in which (as we just heard from the Prophet Isaiah) darkness covers the earth, and thick clouds cover the peoples [Isaiah 60:2]. The magi were armed, in other words, with only human, natural knowledge, and sought, as St. Paul said in his speech to his pagan audience in Athens, the God who made the world and all that is in it and gives life and breath to everyone [Acts 17:24-25]. In his new book about the birth of Christ, Pope Benedict XVI has written that the magi “represent the inner dynamic of religion toward self-transcendence, which involves a search for truth, a search for the true God.” He calls the magi “forerunners, preparers of the way, seekers after truth, such as we find in every age” (pp. 95-96).
But, next, the story tells us that, whatever varied the paths that different people may start out on, our paths must all finally converge in Jesus, the one and only Savior of the world, and that the interpretive key to the story of Jesus is God’s revelation of himself in the history of Israel. Thus, it was to Jerusalem, that the magi came to learn the full significance of the star – a meaning revealed in the Jewish scriptures, which translated the natural light of a star into the revelation of a person. As Isaiah prophesied in today’s 1st reading: Nations shall walk by Jerusalem’s light, and kings by her shining radiance [Isaiah 60:3].
By way of warning, however, the story also illustrates how easily we may miss the point. When Herod heard the Magi, he was greatly troubled and all Jerusalem with him – troubled, not overjoyed like the Magi! What troubled them? What made such good news seem to them like bad news? The same Christmas star that filled the magi with hope somehow seemed like an evil portent to those who somehow sensed the threating challenge it posed to their power and priorities.
And then there were the scholars whom Herod consulted. They correctly quoted the scripture, but they didn’t get it either. It was as if they had an abundant academic knowledge of the subject, but lacked any real knowledge. So none of them did the obvious thing – go to Bethlehem and do Jesus homage. Only the pagan magi did!
Talk about missing the opportunity of a lifetime!
The magi, on the other hand, were overjoyed, not troubled. The magi set out as true pilgrims – and on entering the house they saw the child with Mary his mother … prostrated themselves and did him homage. In the old liturgy, when these words were read or sung in the Gospel everyone was directed to genuflect. It was the liturgy’s way of physically bringing the point of the story home, helping us to identify personally with the pilgrim magi.
As for the magi, we never hear about them again. We know only that they departed for their country by another way. Nativity scenes sometimes seem, so to speak, frozen in time. Everybody stays stationary – at least until it’s time to put the figures all back in the closet. But the real magi didn’t just stay put, anymore than the shepherds did. They went back to wherever they had lived before, but they departed for their country by another way. They went back to whatever they had been doing before, but they would never be the same again. And, thanks to Christ’s coming into our world, we too must be different now from what we would otherwise have been.
Every January, after the holidays, we return, as we inevitably must, to our ordinary activities – at home, at work, whatever and wherever. Like the magi, however, our challenge is to travel through our ordinary life by another way, because something so special has happened that makes everything different from what it would otherwise have been.
Long before there were funeral homes to print parish calendars, Epiphany became the annual date which the Roman Liturgy assigned to announce the date of Easter and other important dates in the coming year.
None of us, of course, can even begin to foresee what this new year will bring, whether for better or for worse. Yet, even as we navigate our way through an uncertain and challenging present, the Christmas star invites us to travel with the magi – to go on pilgrimage with then to Bethlehem and back again – confident that, whatever else may be the case, the Christmas star will precede us to illuminate every new day of this new year, and so will guide us, first, to Christ, and, then, thanks to Christ, on the new way, which, like the magi, we are, all of us together, being invited to find and follow.
Homily for the Epiphany of the Lord, Immaculate conception Church, Knoxville, TN, January 6, 2013.