Epiphany of the Lord

Maybe you’ve heard commercials or seen ads for something called the National Star Registry. For those who haven’t, it’s a service provided to consumers, starting at $40, who wish to name an actual star in the sky after themselves or someone else. Your purchase also includes a letter of congratulations, a detailed celestial map, as well as the exact coordinates of the star, so that should you have the desire to visit, you can find it. The website doesn’t indicate that if by chance there is life on your planet, whether or not the citizens who live there are notified of the change in name, that they live on the star now officially named “Steve” or “Betty”.

But do we even notice the stars? We have so often a clouded sky to contend with, as well as the flood of artificial lighting at night. The majestic stars in the night sky escape our notice, even on a clear night, because our attention tends to be occupied.

Today we celebrate the journey by the magi: on the first part, a light in the sky led them to the Light of the World, Jesus Christ; the second part led them back out into the world with the message of this discovery. The story of the Magi captures our imaginations, partially from the details that narrative provides, but even more from the details that tradition has provided. Artistic depictions of these visitors go back to the 4th century, in the catacombs of Rome.

They’re sometimes called kings, or wise men, but St. Matthew refers to them as magi. Indicating that they were men who looked to the sky; they were stargazers. They saw one particular star, perhaps more accurately, a vision, which called them to a journey. And that’s the first aspect of this story that relates to us. Like these magi, we are all seeking something that’s beyond us. You could call it meaning, purpose, happiness. As people of faith, we would say it’s therefore a search for God. Like Abraham, Jacob, Moses, the people of Israel, Saint Paul and these magi, God calls us forward, to move, to find him. And the thing is, God wants to be found. Like Abraham, Jacob, Moses, and St. Paul, the magi found him. A star led them to the house where within, they found the Child Jesus and his mother.

Before him, they prostrated themselves, a gesture of adoration. But in addition to their gesture of adoration, they presented the Christ-child gifts: gold, frankincense and myrrh. Early Christian tradition interpreted each of these gifts as matching a corresponding characteristic of Jesus: gold symbolizing his kingship; incense was used in temple worship and so it symbolized his priestly nature; myrrh, a substance secreted by certain trees, was used to anoint a dead body and so it foreshadowed his future death.

Regardless of the exact meaning of these gifts, we should understand that the baby Jesus had no practical need of such gifts. But perhaps consider that maybe they were not so much gifts, but instead things that the Magi simply chose to leave behind upon discovering Christ. That too is part of our journey: to abandon whatever we must, so that we can discover more deeply, Christ our Lord. I’ve heard it said that it’s only when our hands our empty that we can fully receive what God wishes to give us: the gift of Himself. Unlike King Herod, fearful and clinging to the things he believes he can control, his hands locked and clenched to what they held; there was no way to receive the gift that is God’s Son.

St. Matthew tells us they returned to their country. It was a two-part journey for the Magi. I imagine that their journey back was slower, more contemplative. Rather than looking to the sky for guidance, they looked within, peacefully considering their discovery, what their eyes beheld. They had left behind their riches, they had received him, and they took this discovery back with them, as what could be considered the first witness to Christ.

That’s our journey too—even in this Mass—because our God is one who puts us on a journey to discover him, to leave behind what needs to be left behind, so that we might receive him; and then to take him out into the world—all that, again and again. This story reminds us to look for the signs of God’s call—stars in the sky or even here today, the host held aloft above the altar—and to come to him with empty hands and open hearts and to receive the gift of his Son. As you journey forward in procession, consider what you need to leave….do him homage….receive the Son of God….and take what you receive out into the world.