The Magi have come and gone. With the Epiphany the Christmas narrative concludes.
The popular story of the foreign travelers charms the masses with a star-studded discovery of the Nativity and the presentation of unique gifts. But that scene by which the Christmas creche is completed takes up just one verse in the Gospel story (Matt 2:1-12)!
The bigger drama to consider arises from the contrast between the Magi and everyone else in the biblical tale.
The Magi are adventurers, inspired to make an 800-mile trip from Persia to Judea by an unexpected light in the sky. But it’s not for their knowledge of stars that tradition refers to them as “the three wise men.” It’s the choice they make to acknowledge, even to their great surprise, that lying before them is a newborn King – Jesus, the child “they saw with Mary his mother.” So convinced were they that they had found the One, “they did him homage” and offered lavish gifts, valuable in material and symbolism, though not very useful for a newborn!
The others in the story are the “influencers” of that time and place: King Herod, his chief priests, and the scribes of the people. They provide the narrative foil that generates meaning for us in this day and age.
Upon hearing the extraordinary news from the Magi that “a star had risen” signaling a royal birth, Herod was “greatly troubled,” as were “all the people of Jerusalem.” Yet, amazingly, none of those religious leaders or believers – in fact, no one at all – made the short trip to Bethlehem to see whether the news might be true.
Why not? What stifled their curiosity? How could they be so indifferent? Was no one willing to consider the possibility of what that star meant for everyone?
Among the possible explanations, Matthew Kuchem proposes a political one. They preferred to remain in the safety and security they had already created for themselves, where the meaning of their lives was found in the values of this world, without any need to refer to the realm of heaven.
“They sought first their own power and position within the political order of the day. They seemed to think they could achieve their religious and political purposes through allying themselves with a powerful and successful political figure. They lost sight of to whom they owed their allegiance, and they equated their religious and political agenda with the building of God’s kingdom.” In short, they abandoned their sacred convictions for the sake of social conventions.
Celebrating the Epiphany invites us to see again the incredible gift of Christmas – the grace of God coming into this world, to inaugurate a new kingdom, to bring the heavenly light of truth through the Word becoming flesh, to transform our world by means of a redeeming love from within the very midst of our sinful human lives. This is the Good News of Christianity that makes for the greatest story ever told.
But it seems that story is losing its impact, as a star loses its light. Writing of the legacy of Benedict XVI, Larry Chapp reminds us that the contemporary world appears to be constructed on the proposition that God is completely irrelevant to how society should operate. Indeed, an increasing number of people live as if God does not really matter. Chapp notes that the pope emeritus identified this trend years ago. “The real problem at this moment of our history,” Benedict wrote in 2009, “is that God is disappearing from the human horizon, and, with the dimming of the light which comes from God, humanity is losing its bearings, with increasingly evident destructive effects.”
That moment continues as our new year begins. Now we return to our routines, but with another gift from the Magi – the Christmas choice.
Will we remain overjoyed at God’s having come into our world, or be overwhelmed by the tribulations we face? Will we follow the supernatural light from heaven, or the supposed enlightenment of human ideologies? Will we pay homage to Jesus as the source of ultimate meaning in our own lives, or not?
We call the Magi “wise men” because they made the right choice – and did so despite the indifference or opposition of others, and without regard for their own power or prestige. They chose to adore the Christ-child and to share their gifts in gratitude for his presence in the world.
Hopefully, the perfect gift that Christmas is will inspire us to do the same, in weekly worship and everywhere we go throughout the new year.
Oblate Father Thomas Dailey holds the John Cardinal Foley Chair of Homiletics and Social Communications at Saint Charles Borromeo Seminary in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.