Homily for the Solemnity
of the Epiphany
Jan. 2, 2011
Ursulines, Willow Dr., N.R.
“After Jesus’ birth … magi arrived in Jerusalem inquiring, ‘Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We saw his star at its rising and have come to do him homage’” (Matt 2:1-2).
Many of you are familiar with O. Henry’s famous short story “The Gift of the Magi.” In that turn-of-the-last-century tale of working-class New Yorkers, the young couple Jim and Della both sell their most prized possessions in order to buy Christmas gifts for each other. Della sells her long brown hair to buy Jim a fancy fob chain for his gold pocket watch. Jim sells his watch to buy Della a handsome set of tortoise shell combs for her hair.
At the end of the story, O. Henry calls them 2 foolish children for sacrificing for each other the greatest treasures of their house. In the next sentence he tells us these 2 were the wisest of gift-givers. All such givers and receivers are wisest. They are the magi.
O. Henry doesn’t tell us why Jim and Della are so magi-like. We’re supposed to figure that out. And it’s not hard. They’re wise because they give what’s most precious for the sake of the one they love.
The magi of old brought precious gifts to Christ, the newborn king of the Jews. Were those gifts motivated by love? by scientific curiosity? by lust for power? I think St. Matthew means for us to see love in what they do: recognition by the wise people of the non-Jewish world that God will save the world thru this child, who is therefore wiser than they. He is wisdom. He is the light.
The magi show their wisdom in several ways. They are wise in watching and interpreting the heavens. In the ancient world, it was commonly believed that significant events were indicated by heavenly signs. You may remember the meteors and other omens associated with the murder of Caesar, at least in Shakespeare’s play. You surely remember the darkening of the skies when Jesus died on Calvary. So these star watchers—perhaps they were priests from Babylonia or Persia, tho we can only guess—note a bright new star and understand its meaning.
They are wise in asking for assistance when they reach Jerusalem. (You’ve all heard the joke about why the Hebrews spent 40 years wandering in desert—because Moses wouldn’t ask for directions.) Quite naturally the magi looked for a new prince in the capital city. They admit their puzzlement; they adjust their thinking. They haven’t mastered the Hebrew scriptures, and they ask for help, direction, guidance.
They are wise in paying homage to Christ, acknowledging him as their lord, bestowing on him truly worthy gifts. If Matthew understands the magi to be pagan priests, their actions show that Christ surpasses the pagan gods, and the mystery of God-made-man surpasses all pagan rituals and mythologies.
They are wise, finally, in heeding a heavenly warning and not heeding the cajolery of King Herod. Perhaps they already know his murderous reputation. At any rate, they wisely avoid him on their way home.
At Christmas we imitate the magi by giving gifts. In itself that doesn’t make us wise. We are wise, like Jim and Della, only if we give with love, only if we give ourselves as part of our gift.
We are wise like the mysterious astrologers only if we act in faith. The magi read the heavens and sought in the stars indications to guide their decisions. Once they found signs, they acted on them. Ralph Waldo Emerson advised us to hitch our wagons to a star. We can read his signs, his indications, in the gospels and the rest of the holy scriptures, which we accurately call the word of God.
The magi asked for help in finding the newborn king. Very often we put our demands on God and don’t even think of adjusting our expectations to fit God’s plans. When we don’t understand God’s directions, indications, or plan, we have to look for guidance. Wise Christians have someone to turn to for help and advice—a regular confessor, a spiritual director, a spiritual friend, spiritual writers in addition to the Bible.
The magi paid homage to Christ and gave him gifts. We are wise when we pay our homage to him in daily prayer; when we give him the gift of ourselves. To give ourselves to Christ means to seek his will for us and to try to follow it each day in the circumstances of our own lives: at home, at ministry, doing errands.
The magi avoided Herod and found another way home. Many temptations try to lure us to disaster. In our traditional act of contrition, we promise to “avoid the near occasion of sin.” The magi weren’t fooled by Herod’s soft words or the glitter of his court. If we are wise, we will not be fooled by the empty promise of the world around us, the glitter of materialism and consumerism. Yes, we religious are susceptible to those temptations, too. The magi took another road home after finding Christ. When we have found Christ, we must take a different road than the pagans take if we want to reach our heavenly home.
In the opening prayer of the Mass, we ask God our Father to lead us to his glory in heaven by the light of faith. May Christ his son enlighten us with faith and guide us with love in this world until we live with him forever in the next world.