(James Tissot: The journey of the Magi)
"We have come to do him homage"
Is 60: 1-6
Eph 3: 2-3, 5-6
Mt 2: 1-12
Flashy magic shows are always an attraction. Masters of illusion as they are sometimes referred to, visually create something that seems to defy the laws of nature. Large animals may suddenly disappear; someone lies down in a box and appears to have a saw directly through their body but they seem to be unaffected. Mind readers are another draw. Those who seem to find a playing card you chose in the middle of a full deck or they claim to predict the future. Such “entertainment” despite its realistic appearance, is basically a trick. One could explain how such things are done and uncover the reality behind it.
Today’s Feast of the Lord’s Epiphany, however, is anything but an illusion. While the story of the visiting astrologers (Magoi) not Kings according to Matthew is richly symbolic it is also rooted very likely in some historical event. Such a story must have circulated around the early Christian community and found its way to a prominent spot in Matthew’s Gospel.
The true point of the story is the recognition by these astrologers of the physical revelation of God in the person of Jesus. That revelation, or “epiphany,” is at the very foundation of our Christian faith. Magicians are skilled in creating the appearance of an alternate reality but God in Christ Jesus has come from a place of the spirit to take on the world of the physical which he himself created. So, in Jesus both a spiritual and a physical reality are joined. God in particular embraces the beauty of human nature to make it whole again; in right relationship with God and offers us the hope of eternal life. There is no magic trick or illusion here but a deep truth and reality of what God has done in the whole event of our salvation in Christ. God in the flesh is an act divine love and mercy for all humankind.
Still we cannot help but speculate about who these Magi were. A common explanation is that they represent the larger Gentile world; the human cultures beyond the small geographic confines of ancient Israel and there certainly is a rich truth in that. As God reveled himself in the flesh to the Magi who recognized the unique superiority and future destiny of this child, they as non-Jews come to see him for who he is. We in the same way are called to recognize what God has done and how he has revealed himself through a human person.
We can make some practical applications to our own lives by their example. I’ve always loved the fact that they were in a search mode. Clearly, they set out; they went in search of a person whose new “star” they recognized. Despite the challenges before them, they continued on to Jerusalem. They were so fixed on finding this new born “King” that they came to the great Herod whose intentions were anything but benign.
Isn’t this something of what we find in our world today? The modern media, the earthly powers of Nations, the constant war of words and sadly much more threatening actions, the influence of technology over our lives, and the growing seduction of the secular world and its emphasis on the individual as the guide for moral choice, all present themselves to us and invite us to pledge our loyalty; to go in search of something more. Who or what is a guiding star for us?
If it is true that God has come in the flesh, as the Magi recognized and as our Christian/Catholic tradition is built upon, then how could any other “power” pull us with the illusion of their greatness? Yet we may have a tendency to not only put away our Christmas decorations but along with them any serious desire to continue our daily search, our daily journey, to discover where this Christ continues to be present in the flesh.
I think a common likely unintended posture many take is to view our rich Christian faith as more of a belief system or a philosophy of life. Many I think remove Jesus Christ from Christianity. We see being Christian as a set of behaviors and we measure our Christianity by how moral we are or by how we treat one another. Certainly, how we live out our faith in concrete actions is indeed a measure but to do so without reference to Jesus, as in imitation of him and according to his teaching, is to live a faith without reference.
Our behavior alone becomes the measure of our Christianity rather than how we see Jesus Christ as the measure of all things. The other danger is to remove Christ from the Church. It’s all about Jesus with little attachment to or acknowledgement of the place of the Church in our lives. So it becomes Christianity without Christ or Jesus without a Church.
The search of the Magi reminds us that they went in search of a person, not in search of a new philosophy. Once they found that person, one can assume, as for us, we desire to know more about him and to come to know him more deeply. That is the role of the Church where the Gospel calls us all to conversion of life. To know Christ we can only find him in his fullness within his Church.
The Church can reveal to us a rich spirituality that leads us to Christ, a community of faith to which we are attached through Baptism and where we feast on his Word and his sacramental presence especially in the Eucharist. Through the Church we hear the call to mission in the world where we become a star that leads others to Christ and his Body the Church. So, it isn’t just about Jesus alone but all things are then seen in light of him. The Magi laid down their earthly power and wealth to a greater power in Christ Jesus.
In the Church our liturgy, our sacraments, the power of Scriptures and the inspiration and support of a faith community we see Christ again over and over. The Magi did not set out as individuals but as a kind of people on search and in that community they found the Christ. We must then carry on Jesus' mission of love and mercy to make God visible to all around us in his Church and in the World.
“Rise up in splendor, Jerusalem! Your light has come, the glory of the Lord shines upon you.” With those beautiful words from Isaiah the prophet our liturgy begins this Sunday. The Feast of the Epiphany of the Lord is filled with the image of light. What kind of light do we bring to others? What sort of journey and I on and who or what am I looking for? Where do I hope to find him?
For today you have revealed the mystery
of our salvation in Christ
as a light for the nations,
and, when he appeared in our mortal nature,
you made us new by the glory of his immortal nature.
(Preface for Ephiphany)