There are so many wonderful details in the Epiphany story: the call of the Gentiles, the nations, and their enthusiastic response, the significance of the star they see, and the gifts they bring, the dramatic interaction with Herod and their ultimate rejection of him in favor Christ.

In this meditation I would like especially to follow these wise men in their journey of faith. We can observe how they journey in stages from the light of a star, to the bright and glorious Light of Jesus Christ. And, of course to authentically encounter the Lord is to experience conversion. All the elements of this story serve ultimately to cause them to “return to their country by another route.” Let’s look at the stages of their journey to Jesus, let’s walk the way of the wise men.

Stage 1. CALL - The text says – When Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, in the days of King Herod, behold, magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem, saying, “Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We saw his star at its rising and have come to do him homage.” – Notice first the identity of these individuals. They are called Magi, (μάγοι, (magoi) in Greek) and they are from the East.

Exactly what “Magi” are is debated. Perhaps they are wise men, perhaps they are ancient astronomers. We often think of them as Kings though the text does not call them that. It also seems Herod would have been far more anxious had they been actual potentates from an Eastern Kingdom. In our imagination we often think of them as Kings since Psalm 72, read in today’s Mass, speaks of “Kings” coming from the East bearing gifts of gold and frankincense. However, for the record, the text in today’s gospel does not call them kings, but “magi.”

Yet, here is their key identity: they are Gentiles and they have been called. Up to this point in the Christmas story, only Jews had found their way to Bethlehem. But now the Gentiles come. This detail cannot be overlooked, for it is clear that the gospel is going out to all the world.

St. Paul rejoices in this fact in today’s second reading as he says: that the Gentiles are coheirs, members of the same body, and co-partners in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel (Eph 3:6). Most of us are not Jewish by ancestry, and hence we ought to rejoice for in the call of these Magi is prefigured our call.

And notice that God calls them through something in the natural world. In this case a star. God uses something in creation to call out to them.

We do well to wonder what is the star that God used to call us? Perhaps it was Scripture, but more usually, it is first someone God has used to reach us, a parent, a family member, a friend, a priest, religious sister, or devoted lay person. Who are the stars in your life by whom God called you?

God can also use inanimate creation like he did for these Magi. Perhaps it was a beautiful Church, a painting or a song. By someone or something God calls. He puts a star in our sky. These wise men, these Magi, follow the call of God and begin their journey to Jesus.

Stage 2. CONSTANCY - Upon their arrival in Jerusalem the Magi find a rather confusing and perhaps discouraging situation. The reigning King, Herod, knows nothing of the birth of this new King. It must have seemed probable to them that the newborn King would be related to the current King, so his surprise may have confused them. But Herod seems more than surprised, he seems threatened and agitated.

Even more puzzling, he calls religious leaders to further inform him of this King. They open the sacred writings and the Magi hear of a promised King. Ah! So the birth of this king has religious significance! How interesting!

But, these religious leaders seem unenthusiastic of the newborn King and after giving the location of his birth seem to make no effort to follow the Magi. There is no rejoicing, no summoning of the people that a longed for king had finally been born. Not even further inquiry!

So the wicked (e.g. Herod and his court), are wakeful, and the saints are sleepy. How odd this must have seemed to the Magi. Perhaps it occurred to them to suspend their search. After all, the actual king knew nothing of this birth, and those who did, seemed little interested.

Ah, but praise the Lord they persevere in their search. They do not give up!

Thanks be to God too, that many today have found their way to Christ despite the fact that parents, clergy and others, who should have led them joyfully to Jesus, were either asleep, or ignorant or just plain lazy. I am often amazed at some of the conversion stories I have heard, people who found their way to Christ and his Church, despite some pretty discouraging obstacles like poor religious upbringing, scandalous clergy and bad example. God sometimes allows our faith and call to be tested but Those who persevere to the end will be saved (Matt 24:13).

Stage 3. CONFESSION OF FAITH – The text says, After their audience with the king they set out. And behold, the star that they had seen at its rising preceded them, until it came and stopped over the place where the child was. They were overjoyed at seeing the star, and on entering the house they saw the child with Mary his mother. They prostrated themselves and did him homage. – With what little information they have they set out and continue to follow the call of God through the star.

Note that they enter a “house.” We often think of the Magi as coming that same Christmas night to the cave or stable but it seems not. Mary (Joseph) and Jesus are found now in a house. It would seem that decent lodging has now been found. Has it been days since the birth? Perhaps even longer, but we are likely dealing with a different day than Christmas Day.

Notice too that they “prostrate” themselves before Jesus. The Greek word is προσεκύνησαν (prosekunēsan) which means more literally “to fall down in worship” or “give adoration.” The verb is used 12 times in the New Testament and it is clear each time that religious worship is the purpose of the prostration.

This is no mere homage or a sign of respect to an earthly King, this is religious worship. This is a confession of faith. So our Magi manifest faith!

But is it a real faith, or just a perfunctory observance? It’s not enough to answer an altar call, or to get baptized. Faith is never alone. It is a transformative relationship with Jesus Christ. So lets look for the effects of a real and saving faith.

Stage 4. COST - There is a cost to discipleship. The magi are moved to give three symbolic gifts that show some of what true faith includes. And they are costly gifts.

Gold is a symbol of all our possessions. In laying this gift before Jesus they and we are saying, “I acknowledge that everything I have is yours. I put all my resources and wealth under your authority and will use them only according to your will.” A conversion that has not reached the wallet is not complete.

Frankincense. is the gift of worship, for in the Bible incense is a symbol of prayer and worship (eg. psalm 141). In laying down this gift we promise to pray and worship God all the days of our life. To be in his holy house each Sunday and render him the praise and worship he is due. To listen to his word and to consent to be fed the Eucharist by him. To worship him worthily by frequent confession and to praise him at all times. And they give

Myrrh - a strange gift for an infant. Myrrh is usually understood as burial ointment. Surely this prefigures Jesus’ death but it also symbolizes our own. In laying this gift before Jesus we are saying, my life is yours. I want to die so that you may live your life in me. May you increase and may I decrease. Use me and my life as you will. So here are gifts that are highly symbolic.

The magi manifest more than a little homage to Jesus. They are showing forth the fruits of saving faith. And if we can give these gifts so too are we.

Stage 5. CONVERSION – The text says, And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed for their country by another way.

Here then is essential evidence for faith: conversion. It is not enough to get happy in Church, we have to obey. Hence, these wise men are walking differently now. They are not going home by the same way they came. They’ve changed direction, they’ve turned around (conversio). They are now willing to walk the straight and narrow path that leads to life rather than the wide road that leads to damnation. They are going to obey Christ. They are going to exhibit what St. Paul calls the “obedience of faith” (Rom 1:5; 16:26). They have not just engaged in a possibly perfunctory worship, they are showing signs of a true and saving faith. They are not just calling Jesus “Lord, Lord!” They are doing what he tells them (cf Luke 6:46).

So there it is. Through careful stages the Lord has brought the Gentiles (this means you) to conversion. He called. They remained constant, confessed him to be Lord, accepted the cost of discipleship and manifested conversion. Have you? Have I?

Walk in the ways of the Wise men! Wise men still seek him. Even wiser ones listen to him and obey. Are we willing to go back to our country by another route? Is on-going conversion part of our journey home to heaven? If Epiphany means “manifestation” how is our faith manifest in our deeds and conversion?

I have it on the best of authority that as the wise men went home by another route they were singing a Gospel song: “It’s a highway to heaven! None can walk up there but the pure in heart. I walking up the King’s Highway. If you’re not walking start while I’m talking. There’ll be a blessing you’ll be possessing, walking up the King’s Highway. “

15 Responses

  1. Irenaeus of New York says:

    “Before him the Ethiopians shall fall down: and his enemies shall lick the ground. The kings of Tharsis and the islands shall offer presents: the kings of the Arabians and of Saba shall bring gifts: And all kings of the earth shall adore him: all nations shall serve him.” Ps 72[71]:9-11

    I think based on the nationalities mentioned, that is why they traditionally appear as they do in old artwork.

  2. Marcus says:

    A beautiful reflection as usual Monsignor.

    At Mass this afternoon, I missed most of the homily so had to ask the priest for a copy. About a minute into the homily the priest said something like “Herod saw Jesus as a threat” and this set me off on my own musings.

    I thought: Herod got it perfectly correct – Jesus is a threat, So long as our world view centred on I/Me/Myself Jesus will be a threat because Jesus has come to demolish that self-obsession and self-seeking to call us to adpration of God alone. We are all Herods in our own way – afraid to surrender our own hegemony. So perhaps we too should be afraid. That we are not may be due to the fact that we have so domesticated Christ we no longer believe in His awesome power.

    But of course we are looking at this in hindsight thus we also know that the only way to conquer this fear is to be like the Magi prostrating ourselves before the Lord in adoration and once we do we realize that there is nothing to fear at all.

  3. Donna says:

    I love to meditate on this particular mystery in the rosary – the Nativity. These men came from far away when traveling was downright dangerous, and brought their wealth to give to a poor couple’s baby. They left all to find The King. Contrast this with our own lives – The King awaits around the corner at the local church, and yet, sometimes we (the “sleepy saints”) find excuse to sleep in or skip Mass…. The Magi were very wise indeed, and wonderful examples!! Perhaps, like the Queen of Sheba, these men will stand at the Judgement as witnesses, as they sought the Lord with all of their mind, heart, soul and strength!

    Beautiful piece. Thank you.

  4. Cynthia BC says:

    a fun rendition of “we three kings”

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CnIFTtW1pko

  5. Robertlifelongcatholic says:

    Quite likely the three Magi were of the older meditation based religions of the Far East such as Hindu and Buddhist. Buddhist monks often use as proof of their belief in reincarnation of a dali lama by locating a child and presenting him with gifts which were possessions of the dali lama’s previous life to verify their finding. I don’t profess a belief in reincarnation nor am I suggesting Jesus was a reincarnated prophet of the Old Testament or an Eastern Religion. That being said, three wise men from the East identified as Magi, being spiritually aware of the greatness of such a transcendent event, having a knowledge of astronomy, marking the finding with gifts such as these would have logical assumption of having such a background. Scripture said all religions would give God recognition.

  6. RichardC says:

    In the Gospels, Jesus never prevents people from falling down prostrate before Him in Adoration. That this is prayer is highlighted in Revelation when John falls prostrate before the angel and the angel makes him stand up, telling John to only worship God. This shows that whenever people asked anything of Jesus on earth it is right to look on that asking as prayer. Since, therefore, many people ask things of Jesus on behalf of other people, in the Gsopel, it is correct to say that there are many, many examples of intercessory prayer in the Gospels.

    Good point, Monsignor, about people’s lack of interest in following the Magi out to the King and overall reflection and song.

    • RichardC says:

      Having posted the previous comment, I realize now that it really isn’t a defense of our Catholic belief of asking the dead to pray for us.

  7. JIMW says:

    Concerning the Magi “in a house” instead of a cave or stable, I was told from a reliable priest that the Magi most probably had seen the infant Jesus in Nazareth, not Bethlehem. The thought being that since the infant was “presented to God in the temple as the first born” thirty days after being born, as was the custom, the Holy Family would have traveled back from Bethlehem to Jerusalem for this ceremony. They would have then returned home to Nazareth. It is here that the Magi would have showed up and here that Joseph would have gotten the dream to leave for Egypt.

    Anyway, I always feel sorry for St. Joseph…he was the only sinner in the house.

  8. kevin chukwuka says:

    i simply love this detailed reflection

  9. H R Bendelow says:

    The lesson of the Maggi is not that all religions lead to God. The lesson is that the Maggi were drawn to the true God, the God of Israel, and to the scripture of the religious leaders in Jerusalem. The road then led them to the ultimate revelation in Bethlehem. The message is clear that there is only one road that leads to God. The only true God revealed through Jewish scripture and the revelation of the Word made human (flesh).
    Michael Arch

  10. [...] For an outstanding catechesis on the Magi, see Monsignor Charles Pope’s typically impressive a… [...]

  11. GaryM. says:

    The Magi are the first Gentiles to worship Christ the King. They showed detachment from the empty world by approaching a King born in a stable bearing gifts of no intrinsic value to the child Jesus. Gifts actually made and given to us by God Himself through our creation. The ultimate re-gift. . . yes, what irony!

    Truth is found only in the baby Christ Child wrapped in poverty and dependency, yet Creator and King.

    Oh, how humbling is that bright star that shines in our hearts even today! How incredible the love Jesus has for us to be so conceived with all his human frailty. Knowing all. . . needing nothing, yet dependent on Mary and Joseph. It is the beginning from which all knees should bend.

    It is the only about the Truth, not the pomp of the world, that matters.

  12. Anne says:

    JIMW – don’t feel sorry for St. Joseph. After all, he was called “just” and “most chaste.” He obviously had control over his body and impulses – something most other men can’t say about themselves. If anything, friend, you should pray to St. Joseph, since he knows what it’s like to have a sinful nature, yet avoid falling into sin.
    Plus, he’s in heaven – something none of us should feel sorry for.

  13. Suzan Zaner says:

    My star was BlessedJohn Paul II. I wasn’t Christian. I was agnostic, but I felt drawn to the joy which radiated from him. In 2011, I was brought into the Church at the Easter Vigil. Thanks be to God! Blessed John Paul, pray for us.

  14. [...] A Walk with the Wise: A meditation on the Feast of Epiphnay (adw.org) [...]

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