What “stirring” readings we hear in the Epiphany liturgy! Consider the scene from Isaiah’s prophecy (60:1-6). Gentiles come from distant places, attracted by the splendour of Jerusalem, bringing gifts and tenderly carrying the sons and daughters of the Holy City! Though darkness may have surrounded the people, the glory of the Lord allows the light to burst forth and shine like a bright new dawn. What a fitting way to describe what we have just celebrated at Christmas!
Matthew’s Gospel story of the Magi (2:1-12) reveals to us the inevitable struggle that God’s manifestation in Christ implies for the world. If we read the story carefully, we realize that far from being a children’s tale, it is a tragic adult story. The battle lines are drawn and the forces are being marshaled. A child is born at the same time as a death-dealing power rules. Jesus was a threat to Herod and to them: to the throne of one, to the religious empire of the others.
At home in their distant, foreign lands, the Magi had all the comfort of princely living, but something was missing – they were restless and unsatisfied. They were willing to risk everything to find the reality their vision promised. Unlike the poor shepherds, the Magi had to travel a long road; they had to face adversity to reach their goal. The shepherds also knew adversity, and it had prepared them to accept the angels’ message. But once they overcame their fright, they simply “crossed over to Bethlehem” to meet the Christ Child.
The Magi, on the other hand, had a much more difficult journey to Bethlehem. It was anything but a romantic, sentimental pilgrimage that we often see in our manger scenes! The Magi were not just holy visionaries or whimsical religious figures; they were willing to wager their money, their time and their energy, and perhaps even their lives to seek out someone who would bring true peace.
The Magi were not completely lost upon their arrival in Jerusalem – the city did not stop their pilgrimage. In fact, in Jerusalem, they were redirected to Bethlehem. These men of the East, foreigners in every sense of the word, were guided not only by their own wisdom and knowledge of the stars, but were aided by the Hebrew Scriptures that now form the Old Testament. The meaning of this is important – Christ calls all peoples of all nations, Gentiles as well as Jews, to follow him. We could say that Jerusalem and the Old Testament serve as a new starting point for these Gentile pilgrims on their road to faith in Jesus. The people of the big city, indeed even Herod himself, were instrumental in leading the Magi to Christ.
What could this mean for our own pilgrimages to the truth today? More than the obvious fact that the Old Testament must be a central part of our path to Christ, might it not also mean that our own cities, with all of their confusion and ambiguity, might also serve as a starting point for our journey of faith?
At the centre of this whole Gospel story of striking contrasts lies a Baby, Jesus of Bethlehem, who is joy. Herod is afraid of this “great joy for all the people” (see Luke 2:10). From Matthew’s Gospel, we do not know what happened to the Magi when they returned to their native lands, but we can be sure that they were changed men. They discovered in Jerusalem and in Bethlehem that there is no longer a God of this or that country, nor an oracle uttered in some distant place, but a God and Saviour who has become flesh and blood for of all humanity. And the Saviour is joy.
In the end, the Magi went their own way, and because they refused to be seduced by cynicism, because they allowed themselves to be surprised by this great joy, the star to which they had committed themselves appeared again. This is not only the description of the times into which Jesus was born, but also our times. When we have found our lasting joy in the midst of the encircling gloom, cynicism, despair, indifference and meaninglessness, the only thing to do is to kneel and adore.
Gaspar, Melchior and Balthasar, bless our hearts and our homes with your peace and humility! When we hear the voices of old kings of death and fear and cynicism, may we have the courage to go our own way ... rejoicing, because we, too, have seen and experienced the glory of the coming of the Lord.
I conclude with the words of St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (Edith Stein), that great Carmelite mystic and lover of the cross, who wrote so beautifully about the Christmas mysteries:
“Those kneeling around the crib are figures of light: the tender innocent children, the trustful shepherds, the humble kings, Stephen, the enthusiastic disciple, and John the apostle of love, all those who have followed the call of the Lord. They are opposed by the night of incomprehensible obstinacy and blindness: the scribes, who know indeed when and where the Saviour of the world is to be born, but who will not draw the conclusion: ‘Let us go to Bethlehem,’ King Herod, who would kill the Lord of Life. Ways part before the Child in the manger ...”
Some will choose the path of life; others will choose the path of death. Today as we move away from the manger of our newborn King and Lord, let us recommit ourselves to the cause of life that is the heart and the joy of Christmas.
Fr. Thomas Rosica, CSB
CEO, Salt and Light Catholic Media Foundation
This reflection first appeared on the Zenit International News Service in 2008 as well as on the Salt + Light Blog. The complete collection of reflections for Year B is now available in book form. You can order your copy of “Words Made Flesh: Volume 2, Year B” from the website of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops Publications Service.