These Magi are probably Persian and would be devoted to studying the stars in order to find meaning in the events here on earth. They are, therefore, Gentiles and, even worse, are engaged in practices that are forbidden in Jewish Scriptures. But they have seen a star rising in the East. And their “science” tells them that this new light in the heavens announces the birth of a king, and more specifically, a King of the Jews. From their study of the shape and movement of the stars, they also may have concluded that this newborn king was a Capricorn! 1
Other than these things, all is a mystery. But they left their homeland anyway, traveling afar in their journey. Bringing gifts suitable for a king, they do not linger in one place, but follow the star on to Jerusalem. “Where is the newborn king of the Jews?” ask the Magi. They have arrived in Jerusalem and are seeking information from King Herod. This question, though, will set off a whole series
of terrible events, but the Magi are unaware of this political tangle into which they have stepped.
Herod, you see, not really being a Jew for one thing--and Herod having a history of brutality and violence used to protect his throne. We have a foreboding even before St. Matthew tells us that Herod was “deeply troubled, and all Jerusalem with him.” Looking ahead, we sense that things are fraught with trouble. Herod springs into action, not motivated by a desire to help these foreign dignitaries, but to learn exactly where this newborn king of the Jews was located. He is already making plans to deal with this threat. So he summons the chief priests and the scribes, the Temple leadership, and asks them where the Messiah is to be born. Knowing Scripture is their specialty and they immediately respond with the prophecy from Micah: “The One who will shepherd Israel is of Bethlehem.” They really do know their Bible! However, this biblical knowledge does not stir them to head on down to Bethlehem with the Magi. 2
Apparently, they have satisfied Herod—always a smart thing to do—and now head back to the Temple. But you have to ponder about these religious leaders. They have to be so enwrapped in their own priestly affairs that they just blurt out this death-dealing information to their Roman-installed “king,” or they know all about him and wind up co-conspirators with this royal thug. Naiveté beyond imagining--or cohorts of terror. But Matthew will not disclose the answer until he narrates the arrest and trial of the Lord. (It winds up that the Temple leadership is much in the same vein as the Patriarch of Moscow, Krill, known as “Putin’s priest.” Krill announced last fall that any soldier dying in Ukraine has offered themselves as a sacrifice and, therefore, will have all sins forgiven!) So the Magi head off to Bethlehem, leaving behind a seething mess of intrigue and plots and death. They head down to Bethlehem and its quiet peace.
Once again, the star from the East gained movement and led them onward. Finally it came to the place where the child was, and there it stopped. The Magi were “overjoyed” at seeing the star,” or perhaps with the Greek text, “rejoiced with great joy.” Then, entering the house, “they saw the child with Mary his mother.” They knelt down, as if kissing the ground, a sign of total devotion and worship. They were on holy ground. Opening their treasures, they placed their gifts before this child. Gold and then frankincense and myrrh, all truly sacrificial gifts. In their own country and among their own people, these were the appropriate treasures to offer at the arrival of a royal dignitary. And they offer them here before the Christ child in Bethlehem. It was in this act of worship and adoration that the whole tradition of gift-giving arose. And it becomes woven in with Israel’s notion of sacrifice. These gifts are offerings of what we and God’s people value the most.
So at this Mass, when (the homilist may name the persons, the family or children) or (“those”) who will be bringing the Eucharistic gifts to the Altar, we are all offering what we honor the most. But other gifts from our daily lives are also
connected to these sacrificial gifts. (The homilist may name those who will receive the sacrament of Holy Baptism tomorrow if the parish will have baptisms at the festival. “These young children/members are also precious gifts of God.”) Notice the interplay between today’s Feast and tomorrow’s Baptism of the Lord.
Today we celebrate the Magi, “come from afar,” who offer the Christ-child their most valuable gifts. Tomorrow, as Jesus is baptized by John at the Jordan, we celebrate the gift of our own baptism into the Body of Christ, God’s own people.
Of course, this is the time in a homily on the Magi to contrast the base commercialism that permeates the entire observance of the Incarnation of the Son of God. Since, when was it? We have been bombarded with sales pitches that insist that we should accumulate all of these things since they are the perfect gifts “for the holiday season”! But not too much time is needed to gesture towards this dreadful misuse of the biblical notion of gift-giving and sacrifice. We know about it already. But this we also know: God came down to us in the form of a vulnerable, tiny baby. Disclosing infinite love and compassion, there at the first were these odd visitors from the East, kneeling in complete adoration before the Christ-child.
After the adoration and gift-giving at Bethlehem, the Magi were warned in a dream not to return to Herod. So “they departed for their country by another way.” Having prostrated themselves before the Christ-child, they really couldn’t return by their old way with its old ways and old habits. That “home” was no longer available to anyone who has encountered the holy presence of Jesus Christ. Again and again the stories mount up about the impossibility of returning to the old life with its familiar patterns and ways of thinking. Sometimes, the impossibility of returning by the old way involves profound life changes. A person addicted to some substance or other encounters the risen Lord Jesus and within days is in a recovery program for good. “This time will be different!” the former addict announces. Perhaps for some of us here on this Epiphany Sunday, we will return home by another way, with firm resolve to leave our addiction behind. Some enter this New Year still chained to past resentments or defeats. We cannot let go of the old complaints and grievances. But then, everything changes. We have met the living Lord and know his amazing grace. Now, we’re able to let go of the chains and we are given a different way home.
Some of us recall that we have already gloried in the presence of Christ, even received his call—to the Order of Deacon, Priest, or religious vocation. That call may have been set aside, as we followed the same path again and again. But this day is one further opportunity to meet the living Lord, be fed with his Body and Precious Blood, And we bump into the same call, now as if for the first time. Maybe this is the crucial “cross-filled” day when we do come home by a different way.
An optional example: [But encountering the Christ child on this day may have us as a parish “going home by another way” as well. We have talked about the startup of a new ministry (please name the ministry in question) Along with the Magi, our dreams now urge us to pick up this new parish ministry and come home another way, led by the Spirit.]
Whatever else the Feast of the Epiphany is about, it is the time to celebrate that the Magi fearlessly followed the star, were open to the Spirit’s guiding, and worshipped the Christ child. We also give praise that they did go home by another way and that same invitation is open to us all. We don’t know exactly how it was on the way home for the Magi, going by some other way.
T. S. Eliot offers one interpretation in his “Journey of the Magi.”
There was a birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt.
I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death. 3
Or, perhaps, if we’re no longer at ease in our old dispensation, in Christ, we are finally given another way home and new and eternal life.
1 I am indebted to James Howell, “Commentary on Matthew 2:1-12,” Working Preacher, January 6, 2021, for this astrological insight.
2 Karl Rahner, “Epiphany: The Blessed Journey of God-seeking Person,” The Great Church Year: The Best of Karl Rahner’s Homilies, Sermons, and Meditations (New York: Crossroad, 1993), 106.
3 T. S. Eliot, “The Journey of the Magi,” 1927.