Lessons from the Magi

“Epiphany: this word indicates the manifestation of the Lord, who makes himself known to all the nations, today represented by the Magi. In this way, we see revealed the glory of a God who has come for everyone; every nation, language and people is welcomed and loved by him.” With these words Pope Francis began his homily on the feast of Epiphany in 2019. (Pope Francis homily at Mass on Epiphany. Vatican News 2019)

Those words do capture the essence of the feast, but I had to grow slowly into that level of understanding. My early childhood memory of the Epiphany revolved around the fact that this was the Sunday that we “undressed” the Christmas tree and took it to the curb. Only secondarily did I consider my version of the story that probably was based on Christmas card images and a hymn.

As a child I pictured three exotically dressed old men of three different races presenting packages to a simply dressed young couple, obviously the parents of an infant who is lying contentedly on the hay someplace in a barn. Sometimes there might even be a few angels along the fringes and a bright star shining above the stable, but the focus is on the people. At a bit older age I became aware that those pictures showed powerful strangers showing total respect to the poor couple and their child. Along with the familiar Christmas card scene I recall singing “We three kings for Orient are, bearing gifts we traverse afar…” because in its many verses it told the whole story – or so I thought.

However, as with so many things in life, youthful impressions do not prove to be sufficient nor totally accurate; repeated reading couched in prayerful silence and openness to life’s realities can yield a more mature version.

The men were not kings at all; they were Magi, wise men, possibly astrologers. We can presume that they were people of wealth and influence because their gifts were expensive. At one point they had an audience with King Herod, and certainly Herod would not bother with commoners. The Magi also had the means to plan a trip of unknown duration, something that a common laborer would never attempt. They apparently had studied the night sky well in order to recognize the arrival of a new star, and somehow they associated it with the birth of a new king of the Jews. Presumably as scholars they discussed the origin and significance of the star while making careful preparations for what could be a lengthy trip. It took considerable time from their home in the East to Jerusalem, and from there to Bethlehem traveling at night in order to follow the star. By the time they arrived at the place the star had designated, they would have found Mary and Joseph in a house, not in a barn as depicted in so much religious art.

Details, like those above, flesh out the story but there are still so many questions that the passage does not address. For instance, one could go deeper by pondering the following:

Because the scribes in Jerusalem knew where the new baby king could be found, why didn’t they make any effort to see him themselves? They had knowledge but no motivation to act upon it. Why not?

What would I have done under the circumstances? What tends to motivate my decisions?

When the Magi finally saw Mary and her child, whom did they really see? Certainly, if Herod had ever been able to locate the child, he would have seen a disastrous threat to his power, a potential catastrophe that must be destroyed. But what reality did the Magi see? How did they respond?

What would I see? Would factors in my life tend to cloud or sharpen my vision? How do I respond to people or situations which are new?

When the Magi were inspired to return to their homes by a different route, where did the new route take them? To whom were they exposed? What situations might they have encountered? How were they received as thy traversed possibly unfamiliar territory? How did they adapt to changes in their plans?

As we prayerfully consider the Epiphany story, each of us in our life’s journey will experience times when we find ourselves in unexpected situations, times that bring with them amazing opportunities, dangerous options, difficult choices. When we find ourselves in that situation, let us learn a lesson from the Magi and raise our eyes to the heavens. Search for the star that will lead us to “God who has come for everyone; every nation, language and people is welcomed and loved by him.”

Sister Janet Moore