The wisdom of the Magi: sermon on the Epiphany

“We have seen his star in the east and are come to adore him.”

What was the purpose of the Magi, in coming from the east, from their own land; in making so long a journey, at a time of year that was least suited to long journeys? What inspired them to undertake this adventure, which would probably have caused them in their own land to be considered foolish, perhaps as superstitious or even mad, setting out from their homes for an unknown destination with no guarantee that they would ever return? Nor was it only in their own country that the Magi risked to be considered unwise. Important and rich though they must have been, or else they would scarcely have obtained an audience with King Herod, they surely knew that they might well be received in Jerusalem with suspicion and incredulity, and with an ill-concealed scorn. The priests and elders might well have said to themselves, or to each other, “Who are these people, to busy themselves about our religion? What is it to them whether there is a new king of the Jews or not?” Nor, I think, could the Magi have been so naïve as to suppose that Herod would be untroubled to hear them say a king had arisen in Judea, and that this king was not him. They could have foreseen that, as St Matthew says, “All Jerusalem”would betroubled”; and it is not comfortable to find oneself in a foreign city if one is responsible for having thrown it into confusion.

What, then, motivated the Magi in their endeavour? We do not need to seek far for the answer. They themselves provide it, when they speak to Herod about the new-born king. “We have seen his star in the east, and are come to adore him.” “To adore him” — that is the whole reason for their journey. But it is perhaps sometimes overlooked when we hear this story. It is all so vivid and dramatic, with the arrival of the mysterious strangers from the east, the hasty summoning of the priests by the king, the plot against the life of the child, the counter-plot of the Magi instructed by a dream, that we can miss the essential thing. What lies at the heart of this story is something much greater than all these merely human encounters. It is an act of adoration. This is what the Magi have come all the way from the east to perform. And, when at last they find “the child with Mary his mother”, it is the first thing they do: “Falling down, they adored him.” Only afterwards do they open their treasure-troves and present their gifts to St Joseph and the Blessed Virgin. Nor does Scripture give us any more details of their time with the Holy Family, or in Judaea. The Magi have done that which they came to do: they have adored the Son of God. Therefore, having done that, they go away.

It is worth reflecting on. The Magi were “wise men”. Their own land must have had its problems, of which they would have been well aware. Yet they do not make their arduous journey west to seek a political alliance, or to improve diplomatic relations, or to negotiate an agreement about trade. They do not even come, as far as we know, to ask for missionaries to be sent them from Judaea. No, they come to adore. Venimus adorare. 

The Magi teach us thereby, as the saying goes, to put first things first. Whatever problems may arise in the world, man’s first duty will always be to adore God, and to do it in the way that God Himself has ordained. And for the Christian, who alone knows what the religion is that God has ordained, it is not only a duty but also a wonder and a delight to adore God who “has appeared”, as the canon of the Mass says today, “in the truth of our bodily flesh, visibly”.

We adore God because He is worthy of adoration, not for our own gain. Yet whenever we adore Him, and do it in the manner that He has appointed, blessings flow for ourselves and for others. What do we hear chanted in the preface of the Epiphany? 

“It is truly right and just, always and everywhere to give Thee thanks, holy Lord, Father almighty, eternal God. For when Thy only-begotten appeared in the substance of our mortality, He repaired us by the new light of His immortality.”

It is a strange phrase, to repair something with light. There is a tradition that when the Blessed Virgin held up her Son before the Magi, and they knelt down to adore Him, Christ’s body was transfigured and became radiant, as happened much later, on Mount Thabor, in the presence of Peter, James and John. Whether or not this is true we don’t know, since it is not contained in Holy Scripture. But we can certainly believe that at that moment, His light streamed into their minds, and began to heal the Magi of whatever passions or other human weaknesses they were still subject to. Whoever recognises Christ as the eternal Son come in the flesh begins to be repaired with new light.

Not everyone in this story adores. King Herod, of course, does not, even though he lies to the Magi and tells them that he will adore the child as soon as they have identified Him. That is perhaps not surprising, since Herod was not really a Jew, though he pretended to be one. He had usurped power over the people, unwittingly fulfilling the ancient prophecy of Jacob that the Messiah would not come until the sceptre had passed away from the descendants of Jacob’s son, Judah. What is more surprising is that “the chief priests and the scribes”, though they report the Scripture correctly, also fail to adore. As St Augustine says, they are like sign-posts, who point the way, but do not themselves walk in it. This illustrates a point of Catholic doctrine that was disputed by the Protestants at the time of the Reformation, but which is nonetheless true: namely, that it is possible to have “dead faith”. The scribes and chief priests believe in the prophecy of Micheas, that the Saviour of the world will be born in Bethlehem, but it has no hold over their hearts. Their faith is dead. Probably they are busy men; anyway, they do not bother going the seven miles south from Jerusalem, to see if the prophecy has come true.

We have Christ present on earth, and for many of us, He is more easily reached than He was by the Magi. Wherever there is a Catholic church with a tabernacle, there He is present. We can go in — at least I hope we can — and we can fall down like the Magi and adore Him. But no one will force us to. God leaves us free, as He left the scribes and chief priests free to decide to go to Bethlehem or not. Perhaps if we do, we will be considered a little eccentric by our neighbours, as the Magi in the gospel were probably considered a little eccentric by the other Magi, the ones who stayed at home. But we shall not care too much about that; for what is the purpose of our earthly pilgrimage, if not to find “the child with Mary his mother”? Come, let us adore Him.