The Epiphany of the Lord
We had a funeral a few days after Christmas, for which the family made an unusual musical request: they asked that we sing, We Three Kings, as the closing song of the Mass. I thought this might simply have been because we clearly remained in the Christmas season, with manger scene and poinsettias still in place. Or maybe it was a Christmas carol particularly dear to the deceased. What I learned was that her children had picked this song because their mother always found the story of the magi both fascinating and inspiring. What faith—she thought—it must have taken them to set out on their journey: their destination unknown, guided only by a star!
We know very little about these mysterious biblical figures—reflected in the fact that we variously call them magi, wise men, and kings. We don’t know where they’ve come from, other than “the east,” which is rather vague. And despite the words of the familiar carol, we don’t even know if there were actually three of them! But the story we just heard again from St. Matthew’s gospel does bring to light five important spiritual lessons we can learn from these seekers of the Christ Child.
Have you ever seen a star? Of course you have. But have you ever seen a star and, because of it, set out on a harrowing adventure? That’s not exactly normal behavior! (We call them “wise” men, but in the eyes of the world, their behavior was actually pretty foolish.) The magi saw a star, and recognized that it was more than a star: they recognized that it was a message from heaven. Many, no doubt, saw the same star, but only those who were alert and looking deeper were able to take in its message. God, of course, is constantly sending messages to you and to me. Sometimes they’re in obvious places, like the words of Scripture or in the teachings of the Church. But God also speaks through the wonders of nature and the people all around us. Maybe it’s through that book your reading. Or a song on the radio. Or some billboard on the side of the road. Such messages from heaven are strikingly personal, and constantly being sent…but so frequently go unnoticed because we aren’t paying attention. The magi teach us the importance of staying alert, so that we might always recognize what God is up to.
Seeing the star, the magi then set out. They not only received the message; they heeded it. No matter the length of the journey or the danger along the way, they set out on the road. How many times do we know what God expects of us, but then fail to act! Sometimes it’s through fear, other times through laziness. We get distracted by the surrounding world, or have fallen victim to bad habits. Or maybe we’ve gotten really comfortable right where we are. The magi teach us not to let the moment pass. When God has made himself clear, our part is to get up and move.
Along their journey, the magi stop in Jerusalem, where they call upon King Herod. He doesn’t exactly receive the message they bear as “good news.” “A new king has been born? But I’m the king!” His frantic jealously—despite his pretensions to the contrary—has the potential to not only disrupt the journey of the magi, but to destroy the One who is the object of their quest. When we’re on the path God sets before us, we ought to expect to run into obstacles and opposition. This world is fallen and sinful, often set at cross-purposes with the ways of the Lord. The magi teach us to rebuff such attempts to throw us off course, to refuse to cooperate with evil, and to continue undeterred of the road pointed out by God.
Having slipped past Herod, the magi arrive in Bethlehem, where they find the infant Jesus and his mother, Mary. Falling at his tiny feet, they present him with their costly cargo: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. These aren’t exactly practical gifts for a newborn! (Try giving them as a present at a baby shower, and see what sort of reaction you get. Although you might get a positive response to the gold…) They’re not at all practical, but they are precious. When we come to Christ, we mustn’t give him second best; he deserves the very best we’ve got to offer. What’s just about the most precious thing we’ve got—which, when used, we can never get back? Our time. Jesus wants time with you—some of your most valuable time, time that comes with your undivided attention. The magi teach us that, while it’s not very practical, giving Jesus the very best is just what he deserves.
The end of Matthew’s story about these traveling magi is a bit anticlimactic: they go home. (Wherever “home” is…) But they return there by a different route, of course! The magi teach us that no one comes to Christ and goes back the same way that they came.
Three mysterious magi (maybe), five spiritual lessons to teach us. Stay alert, for God is constantly at work. When you received the Lord’s message, act upon it. Expect opposition when following God’s way, but don’t be deterred by it. Give Christ the very best of yourself, since it’s the only gift he really desires. And set out with him on a whole new path, changed now and forevermore.
based on a reflection by B. Barron