The feast of Epiphany. We meet the Magi, these well-loved characters in every crib. Today, they are contrasted with another character, Herod. Between them, they represent the best and worst of what man can become.
Who are the Magi? They could be considered astronomers, but also astrologers in the modern sense of the word. But there is a crucial difference between the Magi and astrologers of the New Age movement. Their knowledge is not a means to predict and control their future or manipulate things. Knowledge should lead to love, not manipulation. The Magi exemplify a wisdom, the best of what all spiritual and intellectual traditions outside Christianity have to offer. They understand what the star means. The arrival of the great king. There is only one proper response. To go and bow down, put themselves at his service. Not to get something from him or try and manipulate him. Not to trade on their knowledge to gain power or wealth. They are given just enough to understand what has happened and the direction in which to go. Nothing more will be shown till they act on what they know. And they set out on their journey. And, unlike the cards we find with the Magi walking with the star before them, the Bible actually implies that the star disappears, reappearing only at the end of the journey.
Let’s look at the journey itself. It could have taken them the better part of two years to reach Jerusalem. They go, unsure of what’s in store for them at the end. It’s a journey fraught with dangers. They brave the cold and the heat, wild animals and brigands. Not to mention the lack of water and food. I wonder how many times they wanted to turn back. Could they be even sure of what they discerned? Something like this has never happened before. And all along, they have no clear knowledge of what awaits them at the end. This is the risk of discipleship.
Why is this so difficult? Because that is the character of Truth, the character of Love. We can only receive truth as our hearts are open towards it – as much as we are willing to change ourselves towards it. It is in acting according to what we know to be true, that we become more open to truth. It is in the journey itself that they will be changed, prepared to encounter the baby who is Truth itself, who is Love itself.
Finally, they reach Jerusalem and before finding the true king, they find the pretender, Herod, the exact opposite of the spirit the Magi represent. While they have made the long journey, Herod never leaves his palace. Herod searches, but unlike the Magi, only to kill. He is neither willing to go on a journey or change. He will destroy everyone and everything that might threaten him and the power he is clinging to. He knows and calls the child the Christ – which is the King – something he learns from the Scriptures. But his lust for power and his egotism blinds him so much, he will fight God himself and massacre children to have a few more years on the throne.
As the Magi leave, the star appears again. It says, they rejoiced with a great joy – the Greek is the equivalent of being wildly ecstatic. They have finally been confirmed in their journey of faith. It has not been in vain. How beautiful! It appears at the right time. God has never been absent, even while hidden. The Magi come, find the Christ child, with Mary, his mother. Joseph has been edited out of the picture. Because, the Madonna with the Child is an icon of the Church. The Magi, in their long journey, finally find the Him, in the arms of Mother Church.
Before the child, they lay down their last and greatest treasures. They don’t need it anymore having found something greater. And while they used all their learning and reason to discern the signs outside, now, they can hear God speak to them inside – like Joseph, God speaks to them in a dream, guiding them from within. And their transformation in the encounter causes them to go back a different way from before. This is not the end of their journey, it’s just the beginning. From now, it will be a new journey altogether, having touched the God they never knew.
This journey that the Magi is a pattern for the Christian life, an invitation to you and me. The journey of our lives involves a risk. It’s a risk anyone who has discerned a religious calling would be familiar with. ‘God, is this really you? Can you please give me a clear sign?’ But no. The sign is not clear because our eyes don’t see clearly. You simply have to do the hard work of discernment. The only clear sign will come, right at the end, in the Church, when you’re ordained.
If you’ve not made this journey, you will not have the strength to bear the weight of grace and responsibility that comes with it.
The same is true of marriage because the journey of discipleship is the journey of learning to love. To marry someone is to take the risk of love. And it involves change both before and after being married. You will not know everything about the other person – how can you? you don’t even know everything about yourself. But that’s why you have the rest of your life to discover together. And in this union, you promise yourself to the other in self-gift. That you are committed in love to the other. That involves a willingness to change. That is why cohabitation is the antithesis of marriage. It works on the exact opposite spiritual principle. And it is certainly not preparation for it – not Christian marriage, at least. In cohabitation you come together and each person wants to find out if the other will change for their sake. You want to remain the same and make sure your needs are taken care of without any cost to you.
But if you’ve been faithful to your search, done the hard work of learning to know and love the other person – chastely – you will know enough and have the freedom at some point to say yes (or no for that matter!). And then, the sign is made clear as you meet God in the Church, who seals the union. From there, you go back a different way, seeing the world differently, together. There is no promise that your life together is going to be all rosy. Precisely the opposite! But there is the promise of grace. And that God will be in your union and he will lead you. At the end of the journey, you will come face to face with your Creator, the God who is Love itself. If you’ve been faithful to your journey, you will have been transformed into becoming fully the same image of love. Then in seeing God, your heart will be satisfied, wildly ecstatic, like the Magi. But if you have rejected this invitation and withdrawn into yourself, there is the frightful prospect of becoming a Herod and this encounter will be hell. This word has come to you and me. The journey is long, but never without joy or grace. The strength to make it, we find in the Eucharist.