How about some biblical trivia to start off the New Year? Did you know that if we had only the Gospel of John, we would not know the name of Jesus’ Mother? Did you know that if we had only the Gospels of Mark and John, we would have no details at all of Jesus’ infancy? And, did you know that if we did not have the Gospel of Matthew, we would not have the Magi story we hear today?
In many places today’s feast is known as “Little Christmas” because the Epiphany completes Christmas with the revelation of Jesus to the Gentiles. It is really good that we have a second chance to look at Christmas now that the secular hustle and bustle of the holidays is over and the crass commercialism has retired for another year. And so, we ask ourselves what the coming of the Christ-Child should mean.
Christmas begins God’s definitive work of revelation. Today’s feast is a great epiphany or revelation with untold significance for us Gentiles. Traditionally, the liturgy also commemorates the revelation of Christ at His baptism in the Jordan and the revelation of His glory as He worked His first sign at Cana. Thus, a three-fold “manifestation.”
Our Gospel-writer goes to great lengths to note with precision the Person, the place and the time of this particular revelation because every genuine epiphany of the divine occurs in concrete circumstances, never amid vague generalities, leading us to ask precisely how and where the Messiah is revealed today.
“The Journey of the Magi,” described so beautifully by T.S. Eliot, provides the pattern for our own journey to the Lord. Eliot has one of the wise men declare, “A cold coming we had of it,” for the pilgrimage to the glory of Heaven by the light of faith is never easy. It is, however, always rewarding. We need to recall that the Magi do not go to Bethlehem in our stead but merely in advance of us. They represent us in being open to the movements of divine grace. They represent us in seeking out the Lord of all creation. They represent us in finding Him. They represent us in giving Him gifts which reflect our love and adoration. They represent us in receiving in return that Gift of inestimable value – the Gift of Himself.
While many similarities exist between the epiphany to the Magi and the epiphany to us, important differences also surface. Our experience of the Messiah’s revelation is marked by even greater clarity. Jesus reveals Himself to us through His Church, gathered into one from every people and nation on earth, symbolized so powerfully when Pope John Paul II used to consecrate as bishops on this feast men from every continent. While the ancient scribes could search the Scriptures and direct the wise men to the Christ, many of them were unable or unwilling to reach Him themselves. Today the Messiah reveals Himself to us through His holy Word as that is faithfully expounded by His Church – no dead letter here but a vibrant and loving encounter between the Word spoken once for all and the Word received and lived in obedience and joy. The Lord reveals Himself to us in His Church’s sacraments, especially in the Eucharist. And so, we pray after Holy Communion “that we may perceive with clear sight and revere with true affection the mystery in which you have willed us to participate.”
All of these epiphanies prepare us for the final epiphany when the Lord will come not as the helpless Babe of Bethlehem but as the very Judge of the Universe. Herod’s fearful and paranoid reaction to the birth of the Christ Child caused St. Augustine to look to the Second Coming with no small degree of concern. He asks, “What shall the tribunal of the Judge be like, when the Nativity of an Infant makes proud kings tremble?” Because of the tremendous clarity of the Lord’s revelation in and through His Church, how much more responsible shall we be to live like those who have truly been introduced to the “God Incarnate, Man Divine”! That is why Thomas Merton – very sensitively and insightfully – suggests that an appropriate response to this feast on our part should be one of repentance: “Look up, you timid flocks, where the three kings are coming through the wintry trees: while we unnumbered children of the wicked centuries come after with our penances and prayers, and lay them down in the sweet-smelling hay beside the wise men’s gold jars.”
The three kings present themselves to the King – the King of Kings. Having been touched by Him, is it vain to imagine that their lives were completely changed? Indeed, tradition suggests that they became the first missionaries to the Gentiles. They are our forebears, then, in being led to Him Who is “Light from light.” They are our forebears in accepting and living the Gospel message. They are our forebears in sharing that very revelation which they so enthusiastically received from God Himself.
With good reason, we make our own the lovely words of the Epiphany hymn which prays:
As with gladness men of old did the guiding star behold;
As with joy they hailed its light, leading onward, beaming bright;
So, most gracious Lord, may we evermore be led to thee.
As they offered gifts most rare at that manger rude and bare;
So may we with holy joy, pure and free from sin’s alloy,
All our costliest treasures bring, Christ, to thee, our heavenly King.
Holy Jesus, every day keep us in the narrow way;
And, when earthly things are past, bring our ransomed souls at last;
Where they need no star to guide, Where no clouds thy glory hide.
There is yet another angle from which to consider the Wise Men, not simply as our spiritual ancestors in being Gentiles but as our spiritual ancestors in that they were men searching for answers to the mysteries of life, what St. Paul would later call “God’s secret plan.” As educated people, they had access to forms of wisdom and knowledge the poor shepherds did not, but they were still dissatisfied. Can we not see modern man in them?
G. K. Chesterton made the connections very clear and strong: “Oh, we have learnt to peer and pore on tortured puzzles from our youth, We know all labyrinthine lore, We are the three wise men of yore, And we know all things but the truth.” “We know all things but the truth” – how sad but how reflective of so many in the world in which we live. Chesterton has the Magi continue: “We have gone round and round the hill And lost the wood among the trees, And learnt long names for every ill, And served the mad gods, naming still the Furies the Eumenides.” In other words, with all our so-called progress, we’re no better off than our forefathers who worshiped the fire or the sun. Practically speaking, the differences are hard to find.
An old cigarette commercial used to declare, “I’d walk a mile for a Camel,” which was meant to highlight the importance of a good smoke for a truly committed smoker. With no pun intended, we look upon the Magi today and realize that they rode on camels for hundreds or even thousands of miles looking for answers. Ours is an age of searchers, too. People seek out cheap highs and find themselves dead or addicted for life. People look for pleasure in the abuse of drugs and sex and discover they have AIDS or worse. People want the joy of sex without the responsibility of parenthood and come to learn that their birth control pills have given them cancer. People try to manipulate nature and wake up to find they have created monsters. Am I saying that God punishes these seekers with physical or even lethal problems? No, ours is not a vengeful God; this is just how life works when man refuses to accept the answers God gives him in and through nature. The Magi were truly open to answers and so finally found the Answer. And as the old coffee commercial put it, they heard a voice say, “Welcome, pilgrim, your search is ended.” And they knew it. And they changed their lives.
Another seeker is mentioned in today’s Gospel, one we cannot afford to dismiss too quickly because his breed is not dead and is, in fact, very much alive today. That individual is Herod. He was genuinely interested in the Christ Child, but for all the wrong reasons. His spiritual descendants live in the Church today within those who want a Christ and a Church which pose no threat to their “normal” lifestyle. They will not listen to a Church which says: “Be generous to the poor. Be peacemakers, not simply in theory or on a banner but in your day-to-day relations with family and co-workers. Save sex for marriage. Be open to and accepting of human life. Be different from a pagan world.” Like Herod, when they find Christ (this time not in a dwelling in Bethlehem but in His Church), all they will do is kill Him – at least the real Christ. They want a Savior Who makes them feel good without really being good, and that is just impossible.
The Wise Men had learned that from long and painful personal experience. Like so many today, they had tried everything, short of Shirley Maclain’s New Agism, and discovered the shallowness, the absurdity, and even the destructiveness of it all. That is the kind of wisdom we need. As educated men, they still desire to teach us centuries later, and they can, if we are willing to learn. The carol tells us the Magi prayed to a star; we might well pray to them in the same words: “Guide us to the perfect Light,” to the One Who is “Light from Light,” the “Light which enlightens every man who comes into the world.”
Caspar, Melchior, Balthasar, lead us to Bethlehem – and beyond!
(Editor’s note: Due to an editing error, the latter part of this essay was not included in the original posting. It has now been corrected and updated.)