“We need a strong life of faith to appreciate the wonder his providence has entrusted to us—a faith like that of the Magi, a conviction that neither the desert, nor the storms, nor the quiet of the oases will keep us from reaching our destination in the eternal Bethlehem: our definitive life with God.”– St Josemaria Escriva | Christ is Passing By, no. 32
When the Magi prostrated themselves before Christ, what sentiments must have filled their hearts? They must have thought: All of our hardship was worth it. The inconveniences of travel, the searching, everything was worthwhile. And since that moment of worship until today, this is the truth that all souls reach who seek Christ with all of their hearts. All that we embrace for Christ is worthwhile—and not only at the end of the journey, but even in the midst of it. Our privations, sacrifices, and hardships all lead us to deeper union with Him whom we are seeking.
The Magi offer us great encouragement on our own journey of faith. Their passage was fraught with hardship, both coming and going. And once they had found Christ, more suffering awaited. They had to escape in secret to “their own country by another way,” avoiding Herod’s notice. Had they been caught, there is no telling what Herod might have done. History remembers him as power-hungry, paranoid, and violent.
In fact, the next time the wise men are mentioned in Matthew’s Gospel, the evangelist reports Herod’s “furious rage” when he realized that they had departed without returning to him: “He sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under.” These were some of the circumstances surrounding the approach of these Gentile kings to their Lord and Messiah.
St Augustine in a way summarizes the strange and hard circumstances of their (and our) journey to Christ: “So you wanted to live a quiet life. But God wanted otherwise. Two wills exist: your will should be corrected to become identified with God’s will: you must not bend God’s will to suit yours.”
When sinners decide to become saints, we too can expect a lot of trouble—with ourselves, with the evil one, with the world. Ours is a narrow path, as the Lord promises, and it is not for the fainthearted. Nor is it a road of our own making, as the itinerary of the Magi had many turns that they were not planning for.
They arrived in Jerusalem after a long journey and had to ask where they might find the Messiah’s birthplace. God did not provide that information for them beforehand. He relied upon their willingness to investigate, to ask questions, to be guided by secondary instruments. The star was a divine sign that guided them only so far, then they had to trust that God would also work through other means—through things as dissimilar as the scheming of a tyrant and ancient prophecies of the birthplace of a ruler who would be a shepherd to his people.
They are sages, even kings, and yet they bow humbly to the divine will and flee like criminals after their long pilgrimage. Not exactly what one would expect. As soon as the nativity story is told in the Gospel, after we have heard about the angels, shepherds, Mary’s contemplation of these things, and the Magi’s visit, then there is cruel bloodshed. The Holy Family flees to the west, the wise men secretly return to the east. The peace, the silence, the joyful brightness that radiates from Bethlehem is rudely displaced by savage brutality, hasty departures, and intense grief.
There is no good human explanation for all of this. If we could invent the story ourselves, we would have it otherwise. There would be no awkward details, no conflicts. Everyone would do what they are supposed to do. Everything would fit nicely, as in an idyllic Christmas card. But reality, the reality into which Jesus was born, the reality into which He willed to enter, our reality, is seldom as perfect as we would like it to be. If it were so perfect, then Jesus would not have come to save us in it.
Our world, our families, our lives, are in a disarray that only God’s hand can untangle and set right. We must follow His star, the star that leads us away from our ways of thinking and acting, and into the presence of Christ and His mother. Keeping our eyes trained on the guiding light of God’s will prevents us from focusing too narrowly on the secondary things that He uses to bring us where we need to be.
Imagine yourself involved in the events surrounding the first Christmas. Think of how impossible it would be to obey God’s will if you were paying attention only to the attitude of the innkeeper, the inconvenience of the stable, Herod’s deviousness and malice. The stable seems like an afterthought. The flight into Egypt and the escape of the Magi seem like emergency measures taken against unforeseen dangers. But in God’s providence nothing is an afterthought.
It is a pattern throughout Sacred history that God tests us in this way: whether we will trust Him through others or not. From the call and trials of Abraham, to those of the patriarch Joseph in Egypt, all the way to when the Apostles heard God speaking in a human voice, with human inflection, and telling them to do the unthinkable: “Put out into the deep and let down your nets for a catch.” They too had to learn to trust God working through a human form. When, humanly speaking, there is no good reason to obey, faith makes us untie our boat, pull up the anchor, and go.
Ecclesiastes teaches us a similar lesson in a few words: “Cast your bread upon the waters, for you will find it after many days” (Eccl 11:1). Cast your bread means to cast one’s livelihood, one’s means of support, one’s fortunes, one’s very self, over something as uncertain as the currents of the sea. But if you take that risk for God, you will surely find yourself after having momentarily lost yourself for Him: “For whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”
The last verse of the Epiphany Gospel especially underscores this: “They departed by another way.” The Magi had been inspired to seek the Messiah; they persevered until they found Him; then they allowed God to direct their path ever after. And so, “They departed by another way.” Having undergone great hardship and inconvenience to find the newborn King of the Jews, they were prepared to do it all over again for the same Lord. And it made even better sense than before.
After we have found Christ our path changes radically. We cannot go back the same way. To go back the same way would mean infidelity on our part after having been shown a better way—a harder way, but a better one. There are plenty of easier paths in life, but only one that leads to God: Christ, who is the Way.
By Rev. John Henry Hanson, O. Praem