The Wise Men
On the Feast of the Epiphany all over the Mediterranean little children excitedly open the presents the three Kings have brought them. Three gentile pilgrims from the East still bring gifts and share some of that joy first experienced in Bethlehem.
The Magi – the three Kings – had a date with destiny, a child they recognized as ‘King of the Jews.’ It is this title that Pilate, also a Gentile, will give to Jesus, and have it inscribed above him on the cross, and it is the title with which the soldiers will insult him: ‘Hail, King of the Jews!’
It is interesting that it is pagan pilgrims who recognize the child of Bethlehem, the envoy of God. God’s ‘manifestation’ on earth. Such is the meaning of the word ‘epiphany.’ From the beginning of his Gospel, as he addresses Jewish converts, Matthew wants to show how God sent his Son for the salvation of all, Jews and Gentiles, believers and nonbelievers, all are invited to welcome the Messiah. We are also called to be pilgrims. We cannot be too anchored, fixed, settled in our certainties and moral comforts, sometimes we may even need to be ‘disturbed,’ as a prelude to our own conversion.
The gifts of the Magi honoured the new-born child: gold because he was king, incense because he was God, myrrh because he was mortal. May our hands this feast of the Epiphany bring our gifts to him:
As King, we offer him our pledge to live as citizens of his Kingdom, our hands for the construction of Peace, for the efforts of solidarity, the steps of reconciliation, so many gestures that will participate in the establishment of his Kingdom of love. This is our first gift.
As God, we offer him our prayer. Our gift being the time we take to celebrate each Sunday Liturgy, to meditate on the Word of God, to offer our praise and to present our need. This is our second gift.
As God made human, we offer him our commitment focused on all humanity, especially the smallest, the poorest, the most isolated and rejected; recognizing his face in each of these. Our conviction being that what we do to one of the ‘little ones’ we do also to him. This is our third gift.
The Wise Men are known as astrologers or philosophers from the East. They were certainly ‘seekers’, looking to the skies for signs and guidance; their hearts and minds set on finding God These Wise Men embarked on an amazing journey, determined.
For Herod, the thought of a new King who might threaten his reign forces him to call together all those considered to have authority on religious matters. He must find out who this King is. Herod is concerned with his power structures; the possibility of a new King is too much. In contrast to this, the Wise Men are humbled before these leaders and genuinely seek to learn from them. They are open. We are told that the sight of the star ‘filled them with delight’. This story has much to say to us today as we ‘seek’ out new insights or fresh manifestations of God.
As the Wise Men go ‘into the house they saw the child with his mother Mary, and falling to their knees they did him homage’ scene describes a moment of great joy, of grace and is in total contrast to the scene of Herod frantically calling the religious leaders together. God is found in the simple spaces.
The Wise Men represent all peoples, all cultures, a clear message that God is for all regardless of nationality, culture and even faith. Today let us recall our own journeys to moments of epiphany, moments that led to a new grace in our life, a new stage of spiritual growth. What ‘star’ had brought us there? What gifts did we leave there? What gifts did we receive?
The wisdom shown by the wise men is not unlimited. Evidently, they are men of good will, yet they represent the quintessentially modern phenomenon of believing without belonging. Indeed, the wise men bear a striking similarity to those who ‘practice their faith at Christmas time’, then disappear as quickly as they have appeared. They have been drawn, intrigued, fascinated, but they have not been captivated. Their mysterious and short-lived presence in the Gospel story offers us both a consolation and a challenge.
Jesus Christ is for all. He is not the lord of the virtuous, the pious, the observant, the practicing, but the Lord of all. It is consoling indeed to reflect that God’s providence and love for every human person simply does not admit to being tied down by all-too-human distinctions such as practicing or non-practicing, member or non-member. God is a lover, not a lawyer, and admission to the manger is free.
On a more challenging note, the wise men remind us that departure from the manger is also free, and that having encountered the Lord, we are at liberty to return to a life that is untouched by his presence. It is, in fact, the adult Christ that wins men and women: the Christ who spoke and healed and suffered and died, the Christ who overcame death. The best that the crib can do is revive our nostalgia, sharpen our longing for a real encounter with the risen Lord. But we remain free to pursue this encounter or not to do so; the Lord invites but never imposes.