Entering our church today, you 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 came and went on the same day and so were long gone by the time the magi arrived on the scene.)
In the United States, sadly, Epiphany often seems more like some sort of vestigial postscript to Christmas, which itself has become a vestigial postscript to Black Friday, Christmas shopping, and Christmas Eve. Historically, however, Epiphany is actually the oldest festival of the Christmas season, older even than Christmas itself, and it still ranks as one of the principal festivals of the Church’s calendar. And this year, we even get to celebrate it on its traditional and proper day, which means we really had 12 Days of Christmas this year!
In the Eastern Christian Churches, Matthew’s story of the magi is read on Christmas Day. Epiphany in the East is primarily a celebration of Jesus’ baptism, the formal and visible 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.
Who were the magi? The title “magi” suggests that they were wise, learned men, maybe Zoroastrian priests, probably from Persia, perhaps astrologers. Beyond that, however, 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).
We may be very curious about such matters, but Matthew’s Gospel tells us none of these things. It does, however, tell us what it is important for us to know about the magi.
First of all, it tells us that they were foreigners, that is, 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 [Isaiah 60:2]. In other words, the magi had only human, natural knowledge, and sought, as Saint Paul said in his famous speech to a 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]. Pope Benedict XVI called the pagan magi “forerunners, preparers of the way, seekers after truth, such as we find in every age.”
But, next, the account also tells us that, whatever varied the paths that different people may start out on, for the whole story our paths must all finally converge in Jesus, the one and only Savior of the world. It tells us that the interpretive key to the story of Jesus is God’s revelation of himself not in astrological signs but in the history of Israel. Thus, it was to Jerusalem, Israel’s holy city, 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? Then as now, the same Christmas star that filled the magi with hope somehow seemed like an evil portent to those who somehow sensed the threatening challenge it posed to their power and priorities.
And then there were the chief priests and scribes whom Herod consulted. They correctly quoted the scripture, but they didn’t get it either. 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!
And another warning of what happens when supposedly religious people put their trust in tyrants, when they ally themselves with unworthy political rulers in order to acquire or retain political power or influence in society. Not for nothing does Psalm 146 warn: Put not your trust in princes. Then as now, supposedly religious people, like those Jerusalem chief priests and scribes allied with Herod, presumably knew the words of that psalm, but they totally and tragically missed its point! They remind me of something Reinhold Niebuhr wrote 50 years ago about clergy who get too close to unworthy political figures "It is wonderful what a simple White House invitation will do to dull the critical faculties."
The magi, on the other hand, were overjoyed, not troubled. “The Christian life,” Thomas Merton once wrote [March 3, 1950] “is a continual discovery of Christ in new and unexpected places. And these discoveries are sometimes more profitable when you find Him in something you had tended to overlook and even despise. Then the awakening is purer and its effect more keen, because He was so close at hand.”
The magi set out as authentic pilgrims and so found what they were seeking – and on entering the house they saw the child with Mary his mother … prostrated themselves and did him homage, the homage due to a true king. In the traditional Roman liturgy, for centuries when these words were read or sung in the Gospel everyone was required 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 anything 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 in Bethlehem, any more than the earlier arriving shepherds did. Instead 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, thanks to what they had experienced, they would never be the same again. And, thanks to Christ’s coming into our world, we like the magi must also be different now from whatever we would otherwise have been.
Every January, after the holidays, we return, as we inevitably must, to our ordinary activities – at home, at school, 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, thus putting the entire year and all of human time in its proper perspective.
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 that new way, which, like the magi, we are, all of us together, being invited to find and to follow.
Homily for the Epiphany of the Lord, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, January 6, 2019.