Today, St Matthew gives us the story of the visit of the magi to the newborn Savior.
Who were these magi, sometimes called kings?
I think scholars would agree that in ancient times, in what is known to us as the Middle East, the magi — from which come the words “magician” and “magic”— were astrologers. These were men who studied the skies, and found meaning in the movement of the stars and the planets. They were known as wise men, were influential in determining courses of action, and frequently would have been very wealthy, and respected in all levels of society. Their lives were full.
When a new star appeared in the night sky, there was doubtless much interest on the part of all the astrologers and there were surely more than three. Why did only three choose to see it as a sign and a call to set out on a journey?
One can imagine the other astrologers saying to these three, “Why are you setting out on this foolish endeavor? Why would you possibly leave everything, when here you are comfortable, well known, have status and success and all that is part of the good life? Why?”
And perhaps the three could only offer this sense that there was within their hearts a hunger, a need, a drive for the “more”. And somehow this star represented a call that was heavenly. It was a stirring within them that gave them the incentive and the courage to leave behind what had given their lives meaning, gave them the strength to set out on a road that risked everything. Even with the conveniences their wealth offered, it would be a long and painful and even, possibly, dangerous journey. What kept them going was the call, the star that traveled before them. With this in sight they endured the inconveniences and hardship of leaving behind all the good things they had known. Even for those who were wealthy a long journey would have filled with discomfort and weariness, and discouragement. The trip was hard.
It is easy to imagine their joy when the heavenly sign came to a stop over Jerusalem. There, at last, they hoped to find what they were looking for. They went, as was expected, to the king and to the wise men of that royal city. They asked, Where was the new beginning happening? Where was the new king that was to bring about a new world?
Instead, what they found were lies, insincerity and jealousy.
Once outside the city walls, the star reappeared and what they found was a country place called Bethlehem. Near that small village the heavenly sign stopped again and there in a little house, they found a newborn child in the arms of his mother. Clearly the woman and her husband were poor folks. This child had been born, not in a palace, but in a stable. There must have been a moment when the magi asked themselves, “It is for this poor child that we have left everything and made the journey? After all we have been through, this is what we find? Isn’t this the greatest disappointment of them all?”
But suddenly something happened within them, as if the sign from heaven had entered into their hearts and minds and they knew they truly had found what they were looking for. In what seemed so little, so poor, so insignificant, they discovered ‘the more”. The heavenly call gave them new minds and new hearts.
And kneeling down, they adored Him. And they gave him gifts of gold and frankincense and myrhh. Whatever significance the ages have given to these gifts, we know they gave the best they had.
Having spent a few days as part of this simple scene, the Gospel says that the magi went back by a different road. And when they once again returned home, what they had seen and experienced, the more, made it happen that their lives were never again the same.
Epiphany means “discovery”. And that makes the story of the magi our story. Like them, attentive to our own call and hunger for the “more” and faithful to the struggles that are part of our life journey, we too come to find the wisdom and the power of God in the poverty, vulnerability and beauty of God become human in a little child. We, too, can never be the same again.
And this is the story of conversion, of our search, sometimes in the midst of plenty, and the call we have to find our own star to travel by a different road and finally never to be the same again.
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