The Solemnity of the Epiphany of the Lord – The Journey
January 6, 2024.
Long before telescopes and computers, people named the stars and charted their long journeys through the heavens.They felt the stars had the power to influence events on earth. Early books of the Bible testify to the power of stars in the life of ancient people. Job mentions three constellations: the Bear, Pleiades, and Orion. Childless Abram goes out at night and hears a promise from God that he will have many children, as numerous as the stars. Clearly, the stars held meaning for the ancient people of God. In our Gospel reading, we see wise men coming from the east, following a star and they brought gold, frankincense and myrrh to pay homage to Jesus and his mother. Matthew has masterfully cast Jesus into an impressively honourable context that does not fail to catch the attention of his original Middle Eastern audience.
Who were they, these three men called magi in Matthew’s Gospel? Were they kings? Popular tradition refers to them as the three kings, and maybe they were. The Hebrew prophets, particularly Isaiah, had foretold that kings would flock to Jerusalem to worship the Lord. So, it would be acceptable to consider them as kings. Sometimes they are referred to as magi or astrologers. Were they astrologers? Perhaps, they were more astronomers than astrologers. The ancient people believed that the birth of the Great One would be accompanied by rejoicing in the heavens. The Hebrew people also believed that nature would respond to the momentous event. Recent studies have shown that those east of Judea would have indeed seen a phenomenon in the sky, a star in their sense of the term, right at the time of the birth of Jesus. Were they three wise men? Certainly, they were wise, wiser than most men. They were willing to leave their lands, their comforts, and journey to find the great King whose birth was announced by the star.
And, how about this King Herod? Who was he? He was to be known as Herod the Great. His son, Herod Antipas, would be the king who would put John the Baptist to death and mock Jesus. The first Herod built up much of Jerusalem, including the new Temple, a wonder of the ancient world. This Herod was a fierce politician. Herod spent most of his reign trying to protect himself from being overthrown. His own family was not safe from his paranoia. So when the three magi called on Herod and asked where the new born King of the Jews was, all that Herod could hear was that once more his power was being challenged. You can understand the phrase, “He was greatly troubled and all Jerusalem with him.” That he would send his soldiers to kill all the children born in the vicinity of Bethlehem is in perfect keeping with how he protected his reign.
Herod and the magi offer a study in contrasts. Herod was a man of the political world, fiercely holding onto his power. The magi were men devoted to finding the King announced by the star, even though they did not know who this King was or exactly where the star would lead them. Herod was a Jew in name but a pagan in all things. The magi were pagans in name, but acted like sincere Jews seeking the One who was the summit of God’s Plan for mankind. Sixteen centuries later, the mystic and doctor of the Church, St. John of the Cross, would reflect on his own life in a way that was similar to the lives of the ancient magi as well as the lives of all who seek the Lord. In “Songs of the Heart….” John of the Cross wrote, “I went without discerning and with no other light except for that which in my heart was burning.” And so, we journey to the Lord. Where exactly are we going to find Him? We really don’t know. He may be in marriage. He may be in the priesthood or religious life. He may be in the life of the single determined to spread Christianity. He may be in children and Teens. He may be in a career. He may be in our caring for a sick spouse or relative. He may be in the outcast who reach out for us. He is in all these and countless more places. If we are wise, we will spend our lives seeking Him out, wherever He is. And yes, we might get sidetracked. Yes, we might find ourselves seeking Him in the wrong place, like in the palace of a hypocritical King Herod. We may start a career that is wrong for us. We may have to break a relationship that is unhealthy for us. But if we are attune to God’s Word, He will set us straight and direct us to the course we need to follow. I often come upon our young people who are struggling with the decision of what to do or where to go after high school. I tell them that they should pray over the decision. Then they should consider what would be the way or place that will prepare them to be their best selves and go with that direction.
The Magi’s journey across mountains and deserts, following the star, echoes in our hearts. We feel that we have our own star to follow – a yearning deep down within our being for meaning, truth and happiness – an individual path in life which we alone are called to tread. ”Where am I going with my life?” we ask ourselves. Ideally, our answer should be, “I am going to Jesus, wherever He might be.” “When will I get there?” we might also ask. And we answer, “I will get there when the Lord decides that the journey of my life is complete.” For none of us has arrived at the goal of fully embracing the Lord. We need to keep searching for Him throughout our lives. After all, our lives are journeys of love. There are always new places to find love. We will all get to our Bethlehem if we are open to God’s call, and with our eyes of faith open, we will be able to see beneath the surface of appearances and recognize, like the magi, in the child Jesus, God’s light which had come into our world. And so, we journey, not alone, but guided, guided by an interior star, the voice of the One we love who calls to us deep within ourselves. And we go “without discerning and with no other light except for that which in our hearts is burning.” We pray today for the wisdom to seek the Lord. We are to be the Wise Men for our day, making Jesus visible to the whole world as its Saviour and Redeemer. Like the Magi, we must be open to the many ways we follow Christ along the highways and by-ways of life, across desert paths of loneliness, pain, failure and illness. We must also be open to the ways people find Jesus, especially the people who are different from us. The Feast of the Epiphany commemorates the manifestation of Jesus to the peoples of the earth. Just as every human culture is unique and different, the ways in which different cultures find and understand Jesus will be different too. We cannot predict or assume how the diverse cultures within our own communities will find Jesus. We must be open to all the ways the Spirit leads people to our Savior, Jesus Christ. The vision John sees in his Revelation contains all the diversity of the human species: “And there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands.” They are all worshipping Jesus, celebrating the new life they have found in him. Like the wise men who watched the star stop over Jesus and were overwhelmed with joy, the people in John’s vision are overwhelmed with joy in the presence of God. Today, we are a community of people from many different backgrounds and places, gathered in the presence of Jesus in the church at mass. This itself is a miracle. Indeed, Jesus came to the world to save everybody and his influence is not restricted to any one culture. This means that there is hope for a better world. This means the good news that Jesus died and rose again is a story for everyone, no matter how far they have come to find him. So, rejoice today that the wise men followed the star and found Jesus. Rejoice today because we found him too. Christmas is about making two journeys. The journey to Bethlehem and the way home by a different route. We are all making our journey home through life. Having found Bethlehem, let us hope that at the end of life’s journey we will be met once more by Jesus and Mary.