For many of us, the Christmas trees, lights, and carols, are gone, and we are back to work or school and, in general, we have a sense that Christmas is over. It’s back to business as usual. Yet with this Sunday’s celebration of the Epiphany of the Lord we have one more facet of the Christmas mystery. Inside the great narrative of Jesus’ birth are multiple mini narratives and one of these is the story of King Herod and the magi of which we hear about in Sunday’s Gospel proclamation from Matthew.
Matthew’s account presents an interesting paradox. Those whom we would expect to be open to the birth of the Messiah are not open to his manifestation. The chief priests and scribes, who know the scriptures well, do nothing to seek out the Messiah whom they have determined to be only five miles away in Bethlehem. It is strangers from the East, the magi – Gentiles – that go looking for the newborn king of the Jews. They were hardly mainstream Jews who would be looking for the Messiah. Yet, it is these foreigners who seek Jesus and pay him homage when they find him. Matthew’s Gospel is very Jewish but he introduces these Gentile worshipers in the beginning, preparing us for the end, when Jesus tells his disciples, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations” (28:19).
Symbolism abounds in this passage. The magi come from the East, the direction of the rising sun and of light, and the direction of Christ’s second coming. Notice that the Gospel neither numbers nor names the magi. Tradition – since the 3rd century (Origen) – has set their number at three because of the mention of the three gifts (see the First Reading). Since the ninth century names have been given to the wise men – Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar. From the sixth century onward, the magi have been designated as kings (see the Responsorial Psalm). The early church identified with the main characters in this Gospel. They pondered what gifts they could offer to Christ. One tradition saw gold as the virtuous life, incense as prayer rising to God, and myrrh as sacrifice and suffering.
There is much we do not know about the magi. But the unknown details about who they were is not nearly as important as what we DO know about them: they had a heartfelt, worshipful response to Jesus. They sacrificed their time, their comfort, left their homes, and traveled a great distance through a rough land to find Jesus.
What we have in this passage are three different responses to the arrival of the messiah. The first response is found in Herod. He did not seek Jesus to worship him, but to destroy him. It is a response of hostility. For Herod, he is the king over Judea and cannot have a rival king to his throne. He is not going to submit to this king. Sometimes, we do not want to submit to the King. We want to be the king over our own lives. We want to be in charge.
The second response to the arrival of Jesus is found in the chief priests and scribes. They are indifferent. They know the scriptures. They know the prophecies. But the scriptures did nothing to their hearts. They did not have joy at the news of Jesus’ arrival. They did not determine to follow the wise men. There is no action. There is no devotion to God. Jesus is just a mild interest.
We too can hear the Good News, know the scriptures, but then nothing happens; there is no fruit. There is no life transformation. There is no devotion. There is no giving of ourselves.
And we have already observed the third response to the arrival of Jesus as seen in the wise men. They travel a great distance, sacrificing much to seek him. Once they find Jesus, they worship him and give him precious gifts. Their worship is not indifferent.
We must also note the mention that “They were overjoyed at seeing the star.” It was with joy upon joy that, when the magi found the child with his mother, they bowed down and did him homage.
What is our response to the arrival of Jesus? He has come to be with us; reversing our condition, forgiving our sins, and offering his peace to us. Will we be hostile to him and his message, indifferent to him and his message, or worship him for his glorious message?
We have most likely all seen church signs that read, “Wise men still seek Him.” That is what the magi in our passage did. The Lord gave them a light and they followed it until they came face to face with the Lord Jesus Christ. When they met him, their lives changed forever. The magi were not certain of what they would find as they set out on their journey but they were resolute in their intention to follow the signs to the newborn king of the Jews. They found him and were, as Isaiah described it, “…radiant at what you see, your heart shall throb and overflow…”. One encounter with the Lord and they were never again the same! They couldn’t even go back the same way; their journey took a different turn.
After being warned in a dream the wise men return to their country by another route. It may have been an unfamiliar route, or less convenient, or more costly. It may have been more dangerous, but it was the way that God wanted them to go and they submitted to his will. Sometimes what God calls us to do is unfamiliar and inconvenient and uncomfortable; sometimes it’s risky or costly or dangerous but we go because we submit to his Lordship.
We too are pilgrims on a journey, seeking the One who will make our heart “throb and overflow.” Each time we meet the Lord we come away changed, our path pointing in a new direction. Without the benefit of stars and messages in dreams, we must continue seeking the Lord in likely and unlikely places.
We each must make our own journey to find Jesus, to meet him personally, and make him a living reality in our lives. We can send others to bring back news for us but for a real encounter, we must seek and find him ourselves.