At Midnight Mass we heard the song of the angels praising God and announcing peace. Above the sky heaven’s glory had come down to the darkness of earth’s night. In the heavenly light of the angelic hosts the shepherds were told of a sign lying in a manger, and they went to see the baby and with Mary and Joseph they worshipped him.
Sometimes the heavens come down and cast their light upon us. And sometimes the heavens stay where they are, and without an angelic voice we are to find the right way forward. Today we have the second group of visitors to Bethlehem, the magi Matthew tells of in his Gospel.
They come to Christ without the light of a heavenly revelation but by their own careful observation of times and seasons. When they come to Jerusalem, the custodian of the ancient revelation, the chief priests and scribes confirm what they have already begun to understand, that the Messiah is to be born in Bethlehem. But the stewards of divine mysteries do not accompany the wise men on their way: they are sent on their way to unwittingly spy out the territory of the new King so that Herod can destroy him.
And when they go forward they see the star once more, and are filled with joy. Everyone who persists in the search for truth knows something of that joy, but the joy of these men leads them to see the child, and find that after all it is God who has seen them and known them, and has called them to be his. And opening their treasures they get to the heart of who Jesus is, pointing to his definitive triumph over sin through his priestly suffering
This journey of the wise men is important for us who proclaim Christ in a world which is not longer motivated by Christian revelation. This is partly because the feast of the Epiphany is a celebration of the universality of the people of God, renewed in Christ. Traditionally the wise men were shown as being different racial types representing the three branches of humanity descended from Noah’s sons - all are called to belong to the Church. Devotion to the magi has been said to originate from the so called ‘dark ages’ to show the inclusion of the Germanic tribes in the Church, each representing a different people, such as we see on the walls of san Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna, built by King Theodoric. All are called to come to Christ. But there is another universality the magi show us.
It is more than where they come from or who they represent that makes the magi so important for us. They show us that it is not just those who are the unworthy recipients of divine revelation who are called, but those who by the light of reason have not lost the divine image imprinted in creation. It is not just those who have some sort of experience of faith, those who have a natural interest in religion, an affinity with prayer and worship who are called to worship Jesus. He is Lord also of those who have no religious roots, those who in our secular culture search for what is true and good and beautiful.
Christ is available to all. Whether we are waiting for him, or have not yet responded to the call, he has come for all. Whether our journey to him is a response to heavenly light given through baptism and confirmation and sustained in the Eucharist, or it is the result of looking honestly at our world and refusing to flinch from the deeper questions: he calls all to make their way to him with great joy.
What can we learn from this journey of the magi if we are to encourage others to make their way to Jesus and find in him their true goal? First to encourage every truthful enquiry, every search for purpose and meaning. There may not always be a star to lead to the manger, but everything true is an echo of the Word through whom all things were made. Secondly, not to misuse the scriptures as Herod did for his own ends, but to present the truth of the Gospel faithfully in its entirety, even when it costs us greatly. The revelation we have received is not in our possession - we are its stewards and like John the Baptist have to point to the fulfilment of God’s promises, not to ourselves. And thirdly as the gifts the wise men offer point so powerfully to who Christ is, so we must be ready for those who come to Christ to pass beyond our experience of him, and to get to the heart of his mystery while we are still floundering. That of course is the usual experience of every priest and teacher of the faith!
Let us pray for our world on this blessed Feast that men and women may be led to the beauty of the Son of God, and that together all may become his disciples.