For Christmas, the British newsmagazine The Economist featured an interesting article on the Magi. Historically, there are a lot of interesting, but ultimately unanswerable questions about those today’s Gospel calls Magi, which just means wise men. But, because they were observing the movement of a star, the early Church imagined them as astronomers or astrologers – probably Persian Zoroastrian scholars. The Economist article cites a 4th-century account, according to which generations of such scholars had been watching for such a star on a mythical Persian mountain - starting with Adam himself, who had gone there in his old age with gold, frankincense, and myrrh he had somehow salvaged from the Garden of Eden. In the Middle Ages, the image of them as kings took over, suggested by both today’s familiar Isaiah reading and responsorial psalm. The Gospel doesn’t say how many they were; but, based on the three gifts, three seemed a logical inference. The “Three Kings” also acquired their now familiar names, Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar, of whom Balthasar eventually became identified as an African King – presumably from Ethiopia. The three also came to represent the three ages of humanity – Melchior an old man of 60, Balthasar a middle-aged 40, and Caspar a young 20-year old.
All that is just speculation, of course. The Gospel tells us none of these things, leaving us free to speculate to our hearts content. But the Gospel does tell us what it is important that we 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, what we would call scientific knowledge today. They sought for signs of God in his created world, hoping to find in the phenomena of nature – stars, for example - some clues about God and God’s plans for us.
Scientific knowledge is good, but it is limited. Searching for God in his created world may be a good start. But the Gospel story also tells us that, whatever varied paths different people 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 just in nature but in history - in the history of his people, Israel. So it was to Jewish Jerusalem, that the star led the pagan magi for them to learn the star’s full significance – as revealed in the scriptures.
By way of warning, however, the story also illustrates how easily we may get it wrong. 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 what to the magi seemed like such good news seem to them like bad news? The same Christmas star that filled the magi with so much hope instead induced anxiety in those who sensed the threatening challenge it posed to their power and priorities. It’s a vivid lesson in just how easily we can, all of us, misplace our priorities and so turn the good news of the Gospel into bad news!
And then there were the scholars whom Herod consulted. They were wise too. At least they were supposed to be. They correctly quoted scripture. But, for all their knowledge of the subject, they seemed to lack the knowledge they needed. They had knowledge without wisdom. So none of them did the obvious thing and go to Bethlehem. Only the pagan magi did! Talk about missing the opportunity of a lifetime!
The magi, the Gospel tells us, 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 songwriter James Taylor chose as the title for his song about them, that they departed for their country by another way.
Nowadays, 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 stay still (any more than the shepherds did). They went back to wherever they had lived before, but they departed for their country by another way. According to one legend, the Magi were eventually baptized in India by the Apostle Thomas. That’s more speculation, of course, but it fits the narrative. They went back to wherever they had been living before. 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.
In the Middle Ages, Christmas was a 12-day festival, followed by Epiphany. Then it was back to normal. Nowadays, most people go back to work the day after Christmas. We get another holiday at New Year’s. Sooner or later, however, “the holidays” come to an end. And we all return to our ordinary activities.
Like the magi, however, our challenge is to journey like perpetual pilgrims through our ordinary life by another way, because (to use a phrase from Pope Francis) “we are convinced from personal experience that it is not the same thing to have known Jesus as not to have known him” [EG 266].
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 Solemnity of the Epiphany of the Lord, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, January 4, 2015.