Coming at the end of the Christmas feasts, the Epiphany, at least in the Western Church, focuses on the journey of the Magi, recounted by Matthew (Mt 2:1-12) and their discovery of the child Jesus with his mother, who they then prostrated before in worship and offered him homage, giving him three gifts from their store of treasures.
It is a story that easily captures the imagination of children and adults alike, the long journey, following a star which leads them to Bethlehem, but then mysteriously disappears when they have to deal with the evil King Herod, only to reappear over the place where Jesus was! The edge of menace in the story, Herod's questioning, the hint that dark forces are at work, and their dream telling them not to revisit Herod make for good drama. And so it should be, for this story touches on our own life journey and asks of us the same questions that the Magi were asked.
The Magi are entrancing figures, we don't know who they were or how many were actually present. Traditionally the three gifts created the impression of three figures, but there could have been more and no doubt with them were servants and other travellers, so I'd like to look at these people, just a little, and stay with them on this feast. Perhaps the thing that strikes me most is what a massive undertaking their journey was, a once in a life time pilgrimage, searching for something that they only guessed at, a new king revealed by astrology. Who were they? Magicians (Magi), priests, royal persons? We don't know, but what matters is that they left home to follow a star, trusting in something greater than themselves.
It was a crazy enterprise, but then so is our faith, for we like them are asked to follow Christ our Morning Star wherever he goes, often not knowing where we will end up. Like theirs, ours is also a journey that does not stop at finding the Christ. And then the gifts! For some reason, out of their treasures they give three distinctive offerings to Jesus and though we think we know what they represent, I for one am not sure. Yes, incense for prayer and offering, but gold? Was it a response to the poverty they saw? Maybe this gold enabled Mary and Joseph to take Jesus into safety as refugees in Egypt, and then Myrrh, an expensive gum used in medicines, perfumes and ointments, particularly mentioned in the scriptures as an expensive and sacred anointing oil. It must mean more than a hint of death? What does it mean? Like the Magi's gifts our own offerings to the Christ are treasures that we hold dear but may not be understood by others .I like it that we cannot quite get a handle on all this, for it means we will have to keep on coming back to the scene time and time again, just as we do with our faith.
Yet, the one part of the story of the Magi that we really can make our own is unsaid, unknown, their return home, were they changed by this experience? Did they believe in the Messiah? We presume so, but that then begs the question, in what ways did this encounter change their future lives? It's the same question they ask us on this feast; I use TS Eliot's words, from his poem, The Journey of the Magi, to sum it up for us:
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.
Is that where we end up? Knowing that the Nativity is only the start of a life-times' pilgrimage that finishes with another death, but one that heralds the second coming of the Lord? I hope my star leads me home to that encounter!
The Magi (1914)
By William Butler Yeats.
Now as at all times I can see in the mind's eye,
In their stiff, painted clothes, the pale unsatisfied ones
Appear and disappear in the blue depths of the sky
With all their ancient faces like rain-beaten stones,
And all their helms of silver hovering side by side,
And all their eyes still fixed, hoping to find once more,
Being by Calvary's turbulence unsatisfied,
The uncontrollable mystery on the bestial floor.
Collect for the Epiphany
O God, by the leading of a star you manifested your only Son
to the Peoples of the earth: Lead us, who know you now by
faith, to your presence, where we may see your glory face to
face; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns
with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.