Nations shall come to your light…
The Magi are some of the most mysterious and intriguing characters in all of the Scriptures! We don’t know their place of origin or how long they traveled to find the child Jesus, or what happened to them when they returned to their native lands. Yet 2,000 years later, their journey has come to symbolize a profound truth of human existence: human beings seek wisdom and meaning and have a deep desire for the truth. According to tradition, the names of the Magi in Greek were Melchior, Gaspar, and Balthasar. Matthew tells of the question which stirred in the hearts of these mysterious, wise figures: “Where is the infant king of the Jews?” (Matthew 2:2). This child was the object and goal of their great search. For Him they would endure great hardships and sacrifices, and never yield to discouragement or the temptation to give up and return to the safety and comfort of their princely lives at home.
If we read the Bethlehem story of Matthew’s Gospel, we will realize that far from being a children’s tale, it is a tragic adult story. Already at Christmas we see a hint of the inevitable sacrificial death of this “newborn king.” A child is born at the same time as a death-dealing power rules. The Magi knew that the world was in disorder, and for that reason their hearts were troubled. They set out on a long journey to the truth. At the end of their search, they discovered that this truth has a Face and a Name: He is Emmanuel, the Saviour, Jesus the Lord. King Herod tries to co-opt the astrologers to betray their journey, to end their commitment to future possibility. The mad king is afraid of this “great joy for all the people.”
Matthew’s description of the Magi’s discovery of the Christ Child is stirring: “They were overjoyed at seeing the star, and on entering the house they saw the child with Mary his mother. They prostrated themselves and did him homage.” Despite what we might assume to be their knowledge of the world and its brokenness, they were yet open to joy, to being seized by it and brought face to face with its Source. Their own princely status and power did not prevent them from recognizing the King of creation and bowing humbly in adoration before Him.
The Adoration of the Magi by Jan de Bray
What could the journey of the Magi 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? The story of the Magi and the brightness of the star in the heavens evoke profound feelings despite the fact that, as with many other signs of the sacred, it runs the risk at times of being emptied of its meaning.
The journey of the Magi and the star speak to our secularized culture, awakening in our contemporaries the nostalgia of our condition as pilgrims in search of truth, of the absolute desire, and of a deep, abiding joy. The great English Christian writer and apologist, C. S. Lewis, is associated more than anything else with his use of the word “joy.” It is interesting that he used it, not so much to describe his sense of the abiding presence of God, as to speak of the ongoing longing for God.
The Magi teach us to refuse to be seduced by cynicism and indifference or waylaid by distractions, and instead to commit ourselves to holding onto Christ, our lasting joy. May we have the perseverance to continue on our pilgrimage, rejoicing because we too have seen and experienced the glory of the Lord shining on the face of Jesus. If we are truly wise, let us do what the wise astrologers did. When we hear the voice of the old king of death and fear and cynicism, let us have the courage to go our own way – rejoicing. The star and the journey will send us onwards, by newer paths, to come into the presence of the Child of Light and the Prince of Peace, who is the fulfillment of humanity’s deepest hopes and desires for light, justice, love, and peace. Gaspar, Melchior, and Balthasar, bless our hearts and our homes with your peace and humility! On the great day of the Lord’s Epiphany, let us exclaim with deep and abiding joy: Lord, every nation on earth will adore you!