Faith Like That of the Magi

“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


The Pope’s homily on the feast of the Epiphany

Pope Francis presided over Mass for the feast of the Epiphany which was celebrated on Friday in St Peter’s Basilica.

Below is an English translation of the Pope’s homily.

“Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?  For we have observed his star in the East, and have come to worship him” (Mt 2:2).

With these words, the Magi, come from afar, tell us the reason for their long journey: they came to worship the newborn King.  To see and to worship.  These two actions stand out in the Gospel account.  We saw a star and we want to worship.

These men saw a star that made them set out.  The discovery of something unusual in the heavens sparked a whole series of events.  The star did not shine just for them, nor did they have special DNA to be able to see it.  As one of the Church Fathers rightly noted, the Magi did not set out because they had seen the star, but they saw the star because they had already set out (cf. Saint John Chrysostom).  Their hearts were open to the horizon and they could see what the heavens were showing them, for they were guided by an inner restlessness.  They were open to something new.

The Magi thus personify all those who believe, those who long for God, who yearn for their home, their heavenly homeland.  They reflect the image of all those who in their lives have not let their hearts become anesthetized.

A holy longing for God wells up in the heart of believers because they know that the Gospel is not an event of the past but of the present.  A holy longing for God helps us keep alert in the face of every attempt to reduce and impoverish our life.  A holy longing for God is the memory of faith, which rebels before all prophets of doom.  That longing keeps hope alive in the community of believers, which from week to week continues to plead: “Come, Lord Jesus”.

This same longing led the elderly Simeon to go up each day to the Temple, certain that his life would not end before he had held the Saviour in his arms.  This longing led the Prodigal Son to abandon his self-destructive lifestyle and to seek his father’s embrace.  This was the longing felt by the shepherd who left the ninety-nine sheep in order to seek out the one that was lost.  Mary Magdalen experienced the same longing on that Sunday morning when she ran to the tomb and met her risen Master.  Longing for God draws us out of our iron-clad isolation, which makes us think that nothing can change.  Longing for God shatters our dreary routines and impels us to make the changes we want and need.   Longing for God has its roots in the past yet does not remain there: it reaches out to the future.  Believers who feel this longing are led by faith to seek God, as the Magi did, in the most distant corners of history, for they know that there the Lord awaits them.  They go to the peripheries, to the frontiers, to places not yet evangelized, to encounter their Lord.  Nor do they do this out of a sense of superiority, but rather as beggars who cannot ignore the eyes of those who for whom the Good News is still uncharted territory.

An entirely different attitude reigned in the palace of Herod, a short distance from Bethlehem, where no one realized what was taking place.  As the Magi made their way, Jerusalem slept.  It slept in collusion with a Herod who, rather than seeking, also slept.  He slept, anesthetized by a cauterized conscience.  He was bewildered, afraid.  It is the bewilderment which, when faced with the newness that revolutionizes history, closes in on itself and its own achievements, its knowledge, its successes.  The bewilderment of one who sits atop his wealth yet cannot see beyond it.  The bewilderment lodged in the hearts of those who want to control everything and everyone.  The bewilderment of those immersed in the culture of winning at any cost, in that culture where there is only room for “winners”, whatever the price.  A bewilderment born of fear and foreboding before anything that challenges us, calls into question our certainties and our truths, our ways of clinging to the world and this life.  Herod was afraid, and that fear led him to seek security in crime: “You kill the little ones in their bodies, because fear is killing you in your heart” (SAINT QUODVULTDEUS, Sermon 2 on the Creed: PL 40, 655).

We want to worship.  Those men came from the East to worship, and they came to do so in the place befitting a king: a palace.  Their quest led them there, for it was fitting that a king should be born in a palace, amid a court and all his subjects.  For that is a sign of power, success, a life of achievement.  One might well expect a king to be venerated, feared and adulated.  True, but not necessarily loved.  For those are worldly categories, the paltry idols to which we pay homage: the cult of power, outward appearances and superiority.  Idols that promise only sorrow and enslavement.

It was there, in that place, that those men, come from afar, would embark upon their longest journey.  There they set out boldly on a more arduous and complicated journey.  They had to discover that what they sought was not in a palace, but elsewhere, both existentially and geographically.  There, in the palace, they did not see the star guiding them to discover a God who wants to be loved.  For only under the banner of freedom, not tyranny, is it possible to realize that the gaze of this unknown but desired king does not abase, enslave, or imprison us.  To realize that the gaze of God lifts up, forgives and heals.  To realize that God wanted to be born where we least expected, or perhaps desired, in a place where we so often refuse him.  To realize that in God’s eyes there is always room for those who are wounded, weary, mistreated and abandoned.  That his strength and his power are called mercy.  For some of us, how far Jerusalem is from Bethlehem!

Herod is unable to worship because he could not or would not change his own way of looking at things.  He did not want to stop worshiping himself, believing that everything revolved around him.  He was unable to worship, because his aim was to make others worship him.  Nor could the priests worship, because although they had great knowledge, and knew the prophecies, they were not ready to make the journey or to change their ways.

The Magi experienced longing; they were tired of the usual fare.  They were all too familiar with, and weary of, the Herods of their own day.  But there, in Bethlehem, was a promise of newness, of gratuitousness.  There something new was taking place.  The Magi were able to worship, because they had the courage to set out.  And as they fell to their knees before the small, poor and vulnerable Infant, the unexpected and unknown Child of Bethlehem, they discovered the glory of God.