The Magi hungered for the Light—and found him

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Epiphany of the Lord: Jan. 8, 2012
Isa 60:1-6; Ps 72; Eph 3:2-3, 5-6; Matt 2:1-12

When Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem, saying, “Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We saw his star at its rising and have come to do him homage.”

Who were these magi? How to we imagine them? What motivated them, inside, to make their journey?

I often enjoy looking at what ancient and medieval commentators had to say about the Scripture. Because they have thoughts and questions that are different from commentators today, which are often refreshing. One handy source to look at these is this set of books compiled by St. Thomas Aquinas in the 1200s, in which he collects different sentences from different commentators before him, into what he calls a “Catena Aurea,” a “golden chain.”

And when we look at this passage about the Magi, we find that they are not talking about things like document hypotheses. Rather, they want to know: Where did these guys come from? How did they travel? How did the timing all work out? Because they are operating on the assumption traditional in Western Europe, that Christ was born on Dec. 25 and that the Magi arrived 12 days later, on Jan. 6. And so they ask, how could this work? And they have different ideas:

  • One writer mistakenly identified as St. John Chrysostom wonders whether the star first appeared two years before Christ was born—since Herod killed all boys in Bethlehem two years old and under, based on what the Magi had told him; and this would have given the Magi plenty of time to prepare for their journey and to make it.
  • A monk from the 800s named Remigius wonders whether they came from the east, but not really that far to the east—so they didn’t have that long a journey to make.
  • And an unnamed commentator from the 900s wonders whether they used dromedaries and Arabian horses, so that they could travel very fast.

And it’s that last suggestion that catches my interest. Because don’t we often imagine the Magi as terribly exotic—dressed in long robes and turbans, traveling with lots of servants in a large caravan, winding slowly and bumpily through the desert? So very exotic; so very different from ourselves. But maybe they weren’t so different after all.

This word “magos” (singular) or “magoi” (plural) gets translated as “magician” when used in the Book of Acts, and as “enchanters” or “conjurers” in the Book of Daniel in the Old Testament. And we read that the Magi were originally a caste of Persian priests who interpreted dreams; and they came to be associated with magic and astrology.

So I suggest that you call to mind images from Harry Potter—if you’ve seen any of those movies or read those books. Think of the students at Hogwarts; and think of the young Magi as having been like them. Young, energetic, and lots of time in the books and in the lab, studying away about the stars, occult or hidden knowledge, interpretation of dreams; probably Greek philosophy and culture as well. They study hard and they learn.

But it’s a pretty cold, dark, empty life, isn’t it? They’re penetrating some of the secrets of the dark universe; but its vastness stretches on before them. There is so much they don’t know. And what they have learned, dabbling in this hidden knowledge, has exposed them to some harsh and evil powers. This has hardened them a bit; made them sad, a little lonely, a little cynical. We know about that, don’t we?

And then the star rises—this highly unusual star. And somehow they had been waiting for this. They must have known of the prophecy of the prophet Balaam, some 1200 years before, recorded in the Book of Numbers (24:17-19): I see him, though not now; I behold him, though not near: A star shall advance from Jacob, and a staff shall rise from Israel. This is what they had been waiting for! And we can just imagine Gaspar shouting, “Melchior! Balthasar! Saddle your horses!” “What, do we leave tomorrow?” “Tomorrow? No, we leave in an hour! There’s no time to lose!” Can you see them in your imagination, these young men, hungry for hope, galloping west as fast as their Arabian horses will carry them?

The Pony Express, in 1860, with its relay of men and horses, could cover the 2000 miles from Missouri to California in 10 or 11 days. The distance from Persia to Jerusalem is 1200 miles or less. Could they do it? Sure, why not?

I’m leaving a million questions unanswered here, I know. What I want us to see on this Feast of the Epiphany is that the Magi are our spiritual ancestors; and what a day it was for them, and for us, when they encountered the Light of the World, our Lord Jesus Christ.

See, the People of Israel had had the revelation from the Lord for more than 1000 years. They knew his name; they had had covenants with him; he had rescued and cared for them. He had given them the moral law, the priesthood, the prophets; they had lived with him and known him. But the Gentiles, the other nations, not ethnically Jewish—our ancestors, for most of us present here today—had had none of this. They had natural revelation and the light of reason, but not more than this. They lived in darkness.

Until the star of Bethlehem led the Magi to the One they had been seeking. Centuries earlier, the Lord had said through Isaiah (49:6), “It is too little … for you … to raise up the tribes of Jacob…; I will make you a light to the nations.” And there, under that star, the Magi found that the truth was a person: Jesus Christ, true God and true man, the Light of the world, the life of humanity, love himself, the Savior of the world.

Wise men still seek him, the saying goes. And how appropriate that today we have present with us these catechumens and candidates who are on their own journey, seeking him. It is a journey that takes longer than 13 days, and it doesn’t involve any galloping horses, as far as I know! But it is ultimately the same journey to the same destination: to encounter Christ himself and be transformed by him, at the Easter Vigil.

And the presence of these men and women can prompt the rest of us to examine ourselves.

  • Are we conscious of the Light of the World that is so close to us?—of who he is for us? Or have we let those embers grow cold?
  • And are we ready to share that Light with others? Do we know what a gift that is—to share the gift of Christ, the gift of faith—in this New Year?

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