Sunday, January 7, 2018

Being Overjoyed with the Wise Men

In 2005, I attended World Youth Day in Cologne with a group of young people from the Paulist “Mother Church” in New York. One of the World Youth Day activities (see photo below) was a pilgrimage walk to Cologne’s great Gothic Cathedral, which was originally built to house the supposed relics of the magi, who, as we just heard [Matthew 2:1-12] came from the east to do homage with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

Entering our church today, you will have noticed an alteration in the nativity scene as the shepherds have been joined by the magi. (In the actual account, of course, the shepherds came and went on the same day and so were presumably 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. 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 tomorrow, focusing today almost exclusively on the story of the magi.

The terms “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).

Matthew’s 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 [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 magi “forerunners, preparers of the way, seekers after truth, such as we find in every age.”

But the story also tells us that, whatever varied the paths that different people may start out on, our paths ought finally to 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 Jerusalem, Israel’s holy city, to which 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. Perhaps the prejudices of their class caused the Magi to go directly to the king’s palace. Or perhaps they just stopped on every street and asked anyone who would listen. Either way, 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 somehow sensed the threatening challenge it posed to their power and their priorities. They may have sensed it better than many of us, who like Herod have become quite complacent in our way of life and quite comfortable with our possessions.

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 – instead of letting it become just another interesting story with no real impact on our lives.

As for the mag themselvesi, 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, 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, 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 calendar raffles or funeral homes to print parish calendars, Epiphany became the annual occasion in the Roman Liturgy to announce the date of Easter and other important dates in the coming year. Having rejoiced at the revelation of Christ’s birth, the Church invites us to look ahead to the joy of his resurrection and to recognize how all of time and all of human history have been transformed by these events.

None of us, of course, can even begin to foresee what this new year, the year of our Lord 2018, 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 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, first, to Christ, and, then, thanks to Christ, on that new and other 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 7, 2018.

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