In 2005, I attended World Youth Day in Cologne, Germany. The Cologne Cathedral, a beautiful masterpiece of Gothic style cathedral architecture (which served as the model for New York's Saint Patrick's Cathedral) is the famous shrine for the purported relics of the Magi, originally brought to Milan in 314 and then from there to Cologne in 1164 by the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick Barbarossa. One of the World Youth Day activities for pilgrims was a pilgrimage to the cathedral and to its Dreikönigenschrein.
Epiphany is one of the oldest feasts in the Christian calendar, older than Christmas, which has long come to overshadow it. The contemporary Roman calendar detaches Epiphany from its traditional date in countries where January 6 is not a holiday (as it still is in places like Italy). So this year, Epiphany is being celebrated 3 days early in the U.S., on what ought instead to be the 10th Day of Christmas. (The traditional "12 Days of Christmas" properly go from Christmas, December 25, to Epiphany Eve, January 5.) Such are the times we live in!
Historically, many interesting, if ultimately unanswerable questions have been asked about the Magi. Because they were observing the movements of a star, our ancestors imagined them as astronomers or astrologers - probably Persian Zoroastrian scholars. According to one 4th-century story, generations of such scholars had been watching on some 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 today's familiar Isaiah reading and the psalm which serves now as the responsorial psalm. The Gospel doesn't say how many they were, but, based on the three gifts, three seemed a logical inference. They also acquired their now familiar names, Caspar. Melchior, and Balthasar. 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. Interestingly however, when the shrine of the Magi in the Cologne Cathedral was opened in 1864, it revealed the bones of three men - one young one older, one old. these are the bones, wrapped in white silk, presently in the famous shrine.
Whatever one wants to make of all that, almost everything that has been speculated about the Magi remains just that, speculation. The Gospel tells us neither their names, nor their number, nor their ages, nor their social status, but it does tell us what it is really important for us to know about them.
First of all, it tells us they were foreigners - Gentiles, pagans. As such they represent the majority of the human race - past and present. As pagans the Magi relied only 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 some clues about God and God's plans for us.
Scientific knowledge is good. Indeed, as the apparently successful effort to develop an anti-covid vaccine illustrates, scientific knowledge is necessary for civilization. And our national leaders' failures to respond adequately to the threat of the virus likewise have illustrated the perils of disdaining authentic scientific knowledge.
But, when it comes to God and and God's plans for us, scientific knowledge can take us only so far. The Gospel tells us that, whatever varied paths different people may start out on, our paths ought in the end to converge on Jesus, God's revelation of himself in human history - specifically in the history of the Jewish people. So it was to Jerusalem, that the star led the pagan Magi for them to learn the star's fuller significance as revealed in the Jewish scriptures.
One of the fashionable sillinesses much in vogue these days is to describe the Magi as "lost." They weren't lost. They followed the star where it led them - to Jerusalem, to the jewish capital, to get further directions from the scriptures.
By way of warning, however, the story also illustrates how easy it is to get it all wrong. When Herod heard the Magi, he was deeply troubled and all Jerusalem with him. Instead of being overjoyed like the Magi, they were troubled. What made what seemed to the Magi to be such good news seem to them to be bad news? That same Christmas star that had 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 is a vivid lesson in just how easily we can all misplace our priorities and so turn the good news of the Gospel into bad news. We saw something similar during and after our recent election in the ostensibly religious but actually political stances of some religious figures.
Herod was bad enough, but look at the religious figures who were consulted precisely because of their greater religious knowledge. Yet, for all their real knowledge of the subject, they seemed to lack the wisdom they needed. So none of them did the obvious thing. None of them went to Bethlehem. Only the pagan Magi did that. Talk about missing the opportunity of a lifetime!
But the Magi, the Gospel tells us, were overjoyed, not troubled.They went as true pilgrims to Bethlehem, as the less politically prominent shepherds had already done before them. There they prostrated themselves and did homage to Jesus. In the old liturgy, when those words were read or sung, everyone was directed to genuflect. The old liturgy was much more in touch with the physical world. This was one way of dramatically bringing the point of the story home, helping each of us to identify personally with the pilgrim Magi, to experience what they experienced, and to do homage here and now in our own lives.
After this, we hear nothing more about the Magi.We know only what the songwriter James Taylor later chose as the title for a song about them, that they departed for their country by another way.
According to yet another legend, they were eventually baptized in India by Saint Thomas. That's just more speculation, but it fits the narrative nicely. The Magi went back to wherever they had been before and to whatever they were doing before, but they had been changed by their experience and would never be the same again. And, thanks to Christ's coming into our world, we must never be the same again either.
Like the Magi, we are being challenged to journey like perpetual pilgrims through this world but by another way, because, as Pope Francis has reminded us, "it is not the same thing to have known Jesus as not to have known him" [Evangelii Gaudium, 266].
So even as I sit here in my (now former) Knoxville home in quarantine awaiting clearance to move on to and uncertain future, even as we all navigate our way through this uncertain and challenging new year, the Christmas star continues to invite us to travel with the Magi - on pilgrimage to Bethlehem and then back again - confident, that whatever else may be the case, the Christmas star will precede us to illuminate every new day of 2021, and so will guide onto that alternate way, which, like the Magi, we are, all of us together, being challenged to find and follow.
(Photo: Shrine of the Three Kings, Cologne Cathedral)