Sunday, January 5, 2014

We Three Kings

Those magic men the Magi 
Some people call them wise
Or Oriental, even kings
Well anyway, those guys
They visited with Jesus
They sure enjoyed their stay
Then warned in a dream of King Herod's scheme
They went home by another way

So begins James Taylor's song, Home By Another Way, about our friends the Magi, who, as we just heard, came from the east to do homage with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 

In the summer of 2005, I attended World Youth Day in Cologne, Germany. Cologne’s most famous landmark is its great Gothic Cathedral, which was originally built to house the supposed relics of those magi. Meanwhile, entering the church today, you will naturally have noticed an alteration in the nativity scene. The shepherds, who have been there since Christmas, have now been joined by the magi. (In the actual story, of course, the shepherds left Bethlehem that same day, and so they were probably long gone from the scene by the time the magi arrived.) 

In the United States, sadly, Epiphany now seems little more than a hardly noticed and very vestigial postscript to Christmas. Historically, however, Epiphany is actually the oldest festival of the Christmas season. It is older than Christmas Day itself, and (noticed or not) it still ranks among the principal festivals of the Church’s calendar. In many more traditionally Catholic countries (Italy, Spain, Portugal, Latin America), it is the principal Christmas gift-giving day. In the Eastern Churches, Matthew’s story of the magi is already read on Christmas Day. 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 about the magi. We do not know their names (though tradition has given them the familiar names Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar), nor their social status (though tradition, inspired by Psalm 72, has crowned them 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, 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. The pagan magi relied on natural knowledge, and so sought for God through his creation, hoping to find in the phenomena of nature, some clues about God and God’s providential plans for the world.

Searching for God in the natural world he created is a good start. But the story also tells us that, whatever varied paths different people may start out on, our paths must all finally converge in Jesus, and that the interpretive key to the story of Jesus is God’s revelation of himself not only in nature but in history, in the history of Israel. So thus it was to Jewish Jerusalem, that the pagan magi came to learn the star’s full significance – as revealed in the scriptures, which translated the natural light of a star into the revelation of a person. As Isaiah prophesied: Nations shall walk by Jerusalem’s light, and kings by her shining radiance.

By way of warning, however, the story also illustrates how easily we may miss the point of it all. When Herod heard the Magi, he was greatly troubled and all Jerusalem with him. They were troubled, instead of being 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 sensed the threatening challenge it posed to their power and priorities. What disposes some people even today to misplace their priorities such that they react to the good news of the Gospel as if it were bad news?

And then there were the scholars whom Herod consulted. They correctly quoted scripture. But, for all their knowledge of the subject, they seemed to lack the knowledge they needed. So none of them did the obvious thing, go to Bethlehem. 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 on Epiphany, everyone was directed to genuflect. It was the liturgy’s dramatic way of physically bringing the point of the story home, helping us to identify personally with the pilgrim magi, experiencing what they experienced.

As for the magi, we never hear about them again. We know only what James Taylor chose as the title of his song, that they departed for their country by another way. Nativity scenes sometimes seem 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 there (any more 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, so must it be for us.

Every January, with the holidays behind us, we return, as we all must, to our ordinary activities. 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. So, 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 them 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 on that alternate way, which, like the magi, we are, all of us together, being challenged to find and follow.

Homily for the Epiphany of the Lord, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, January 5, 2014.

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