A new year has dawned. Like a venerable Christmas stocking, the “old year” was stuffed with blessings, but they tend to be forgotten like auld acquaintance in the frosty light of the multiple misfortunes and mishaps that have seemed to strike every month, from flood and tempest, to wildfires, the latest variation in the Covid-19 pandemic, and what seems an endless cycle of school shootings. Americans will soon recall in graphic detail the horrific event of last January 6th and pray that we will never see another like it. The celebration of the Christmas feasts could hardly come at a more opportune moment.
They have piled on this year – in just over a week Christmas itself, then the Feast of the Holy Family, New Years (The Solemn Feast of the Virgin Mary), and today, the Feast of the Epiphany of the Lord. Each has its way of reminding us that damage things as we might, the levers of history do not rest solely in human hands. Père Lacordaire said it well: “All I know of tomorrow is that Providence will rise before the sun.”
We usually associate the Visit of the Magi with today’s celebration, traditionally observed on January 6th, the twelfth day of Christmastide. But from very early times, the Church commemorated three different events — the account of the homage given to the infant Jesus, the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan, and the Wedding Feast at Cana. Each was seen as a manifestation of God’s presence in Jesus. Each revealed a facet of God’s plan to save humankind – primarily from itself.
Today the Magi are the primary focus of attention — these mysterious strangers, outsiders from the East. From the earliest times, Christians have wondered who they were. One thing is certain: they three kings of Orient weren’t. The
title is linked to the Persian priests, the Maghdim (or ‘Magoi’) of the cult of Mithra, an offshoot of Zoroastrianism. There were in fact other Magi around Palestine at the time – two are mentioned in the New Testament: Elymas and Simon [see Acts 13:8 and 8:9-13]. Neither come off well. The title ‘magus’ itself is sometimes (erroneously) translated as “Magician.” But Magi were real, and they did study the stars.
Like the ox and ass invariably added to scenes of the Nativity, the crowns and gowns, camels, and slaves owe everything to later Christians’ imagination. The royal aspect, like the gifts — not to mention the ox and ass — are meaningful adornments supplied either by tradition or by Matthew himself based on verses from Hebrew scripture: Isaiah 60:6, Psalm 72:10-11, and for the ox and ass, Isaiah 1:3. Matthew’s gospel is in fact the only source for the story of the Magi, including the grim role played by Herod the Great, the Massacre of the Innocents, and the flight to Egypt. No historical records back up any aspect of the dramatic story, which may simply have been Matthew’s very Jewish way of making his case using scriptural allusions – Jesus is called out of Egypt as the new Moses. Otherwise, it was a very roundabout way for the evangelist to get the Holy Family from Bethlehem to Nazareth. Luke doesn’t even try.
After worshipping the child and leaving their mysterious gifts, the Magi pass out of sight. But what do they and their gifts tell us about this strange little king who was not a king and his plan for us?
What the Magi brought wasn’t necessary, wasn’t big, and wasn’t even useful — except, perhaps, for the gold. What they brought represented lasting value and precious fragrance. Gold, it is said, stands for eternal worth, because it never tarnishes and never loses its value. Frankincense, which means pure incense, was used in the temple as a sacrificial offering to God. Myrrh is a resin gum often made into an oil used in medicine, perfume, and incense. These are rich gifts, not so much costly as priceless — for they are only appropriate as gestures of homage, love, and reverence — odd gifts, fit only for a king. Or a god.
But these were also dangerous offerings. The Magi very nearly paid for their visit with their lives, and the Holy Innocents certainly did. For these Persian star-gazers first looked for the King of the Jews where a king was likely to be found: in a palace. Palaces are dangerous places. The Magi eventually found what they were looking for, Matthew tells us, in a house, probably a very ordinary house, even a temporary lodging place. For Joseph, Mary, and the infant Jesus were about to become homeless refugees.
So who are the Magi, these representative Gentiles looking for the meaning of life? We are, of course, strangers and outsiders now brought into the realm of God’s saving love. And where do we look for the King not only of the Jews, but of all humanity? Among the rich and powerful? Or among the poor, the outcast, the homeless and oppressed? And what gifts do we bring?
If, like those first Magi, we look in the wrong place, we may not lose our lives, but we could lose more than our way. We could lose our souls if the gifts we bring reveal a real lack of insight into the mystery continually opening before us: “when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift” [Mat 5:23-24].
There hasn’t been much talk this year about New Year’s Resolutions. But there is still more than enough time to pledge ourselves to a better, greener, more just and freer world, one in which the empty promises of ever-expanding commercialism are displaced by concern for the welfare of the planet and all its myriad living creatures. That would be a gift worth giving!
Like the Magi in Matthew’s gospel, let us search for the place God has chosen to be found, not just where we think God ought to be. Let us pray for the grace to recognize Christ where he is still in hiding, and the wisdom to use our gifts in his service, to extend his gospel of truth and freedom, peace and justice and love especially to those who most need to hear it.