The story of the wise men from the East is a story about coming to meet Jesus. That’s going to make it a very interesting story, if you agree with me that coming to meet Jesus is the most important thing — and the best thing — that can possibly happen to a human being.
The Biblical details are sparse. We know that magi, usually translated ‘wise men’, followed a star to where Jesus was. They brought Gold, Frankincense, and Myrrh. They arrived via King Herod but chose to avoid him on the return journey.
There’s a reason that this first reading from Isaiah 60 is paired with the story of the Magi; Israel always knew that their mission was to reveal God to everyone. They were the chosen people, but they weren’t chosen only for their own sake. Their purpose and mission was to reveal God to the rest of the nations. Isaiah dreams of that mission being fulfilled. He dreams of all the nations streaming toward Jerusalem to worship the God of Israel.
If you look at the Church of Jesus Christ today, you will see that dream fulfilled to a great extent. Isaiah’s words, and all the Bible, have been translated into every language, taken to every corner of the Earth. If you go to the main centers of the global Church… the seat of Peter in Rome, or the Holy Land… you will see something very like Isaiah’s vision, all nations streaming toward the Temple of God.
There is no place in the world better for people-watching than St. Peter’s Square. On any ordinary day, 365 days a year, you can watch people walking into that great plaza, with its colonnade reaching around like arms to embrace the whole world. And the whole world comes. You hear every language, see every flag. That’s an ordinary day. When there’s something big happening, and the square fills with something on the order of a quarter of a million people, it’s incredible. A group of pilgrims from Tanzania will spontaneously break out in a hymn in Swahili, joyfully answered by one in Polish, and so on. It’s easy to see how much division there is in the world. Elsewhere many of those same flags fly over warring armies. But in Christ, in the Church, we are one. The vision of Isaiah is not complete, but the Church is bringing it to birth.
That story starts with the Magi. From the beginning, they were seen to represent the nations coming to meet the Messiah of Israel, the whole Gentile world coming to know the God of Abraham and Moses and David. So it’s a highly symbolic story, for sure.
But it’s also a very simple story about people finding their way to Jesus, and let’s look at it that way for a moment.
To begin with, what begins their journey? They are stargazers (I like them already). They don’t just gaze at the stars, though, they see portents and signs in them. Isn’t that just — gasp — astrology? Which is funny, because that’s not supposed to work. There’s nothing in the Old Testament about it. There’s nothing in Christian doctrine about it. It’s superstitious and unfounded and certainly out of bounds for a Bible-believing Christian. But this time, it worked.
There’s an important lesson there. Do we believe in astrology, in telling fortunes by tracking stars? No, absolutely not. But can God use it if he wants? You bet he can! It’s a moment of beautiful condescension; these well-intentioned men looking for God in their own way, and God meeting them there.
Before Benedict XVI was Pope, an interviewer posed the question, “Is there really only one road to God?”, and he was surprised when the Cardinal replied, “there are as many roads to God as there are people.” To put it another way, the Holy Spirit is working on everyone. Most people are seeking spiritual truth in one way or another. Even if they seem to be on the wrong track, no one is out of the reach of God. Probably all of us have people we love very much who don’t seem to be on the road to Jesus. But if God doesn’t mind showing up in the stars to catch the fortune-tellers in the East, then perhaps we shouldn’t be so quick to put limits on how He communicates.
Now if you took that lesson the wrong way, you might say that ‘see, religion doesn’t really matter as long as you mean well and try to be a good person and seek God in your own way.’ And this is a very popular attitude. But there’s another side to the story; the moral isn’t that it doesn’t matter what you believe or what religion you follow. Quite the opposite: the point is that these men did find their way to Jesus, and they recognized the Way and the Truth and the Life when they saw Him. We should honor every sincere seeking, even those which wander far afield. But we should also never forget that the whole point of seeking is to find something. And the Magi did.
After all their wandering and seeking, they came to the moment of decision and commitment. They knelt before the baby and acknowledged him as their king. Sooner or later that commitment must be made. It’s the difference between a long and winding road that leads to discovery, and aimless blundering that leads nowhere.
We can put off the commitment out of fear or uncertainty. We can put it off because we love the idea of ourselves as seekers or wanderers. It must be said, it’s quite possible to grow up Catholic, receive all the Sacraments, and attend Mass weekly for decades without truly committing yourself to Christ.
If that’s you, welcome to you and you’re in the right place. The Magi had their road and you have yours. But maybe today is the day, and if not I hope it’s someday soon, that you make that commitment. That is when Christianity stops being a hobby and becomes the center of your entire life. If you come to that commitment, then whatever road led you there will seem providential and beautiful. If you don’t, then what was the point really?
So there are the first two important elements of the story of the Magi: they searched, and they found. There are two more: the gifts, and the return. The gifts are of Gold, Frankincense, and Myrrh. They are highly symbolic and would make a great sermon in themselves. But they also represent the simple desire to make an offering to God. It’s a good image of spiritual life. No gift can buy grace, or purchase redemption. That’s not the point. But they don’t come empty-handed. They offer what they have simply because that’s what love does. Whatever we have to offer, we offer, because that’s what love does.
And finally, the return. What Luke tells us is that they return home a different way, having been warned to avoid Herod. If we’re really committed to Christ, there are things from our past that have to be rejected and avoided. We might even be grateful for the way those things in their own strange way might have led us to Jesus, but that’s not us anymore. To meet Christ is to be changed. It is to be given a new course. It is to leave certain things behind.
If you’re here, you’ve arrived at Nazareth. You are face to face with the King of Kings. Whatever road led you to this point, God was with you — even through the wrong turns. This Holy Mass brings you face to face with the Real Presence of Jesus Christ. Are you committed? It’s not just a one-time decision, but a decision you make every day. Will you let Him be your King? Will you offer what you have? And will you allow Him to turn you aside from all that is harmful, and set your new course, your road home? A question for this Epiphany day.