Just before Christmas, on December 21, many of us were able to see a special conjunction of two planets that have come together only a few times in the past centuries—once, very notably, two millennia ago over the town of Bethlehem. That astronomical event, known to us as the Christmas star, was a time of holy awe. Starlight and angels drew shepherds away from their night shift into the warmth of a stable to visit a newborn child, and mysterious men from foreign parts brought exotic gifts and a foretaste of a king’s narcissistic rage. The story of the three Magi is one of the best-loved tales in the Bible.
Early Christian writers identified them as men who studied the stars and the planets—which, to the ancients, bore great astrological or mystical significance. When our Magi looked up at the night sky and saw a star brighter than they had ever seen hanging over Judea, they would have remembered the prophecies of the coming Messiah, and paid strict attention. We have to remember where this story is located, in the Gospel of St. Matthew. And this gospel presents a Messiah who isn’t only the Savior of Israel, but the promised light and hope for the nations. The journey of the Magi from the East represents the gentiles who came to adore the newborn King.
After adoring Jesus, the Magi left for their own land by another route, to avoid returning to Herod. They may have even been the first missionaries, since no doubt they would have been eager in their travels to tell others of what they had seen, of this Child who was so much more.
The example of the Magi going out into the world could also have inspired early Christians fulfilling Jesus’ Great Commission to “make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” The Magi were the first to go out into the world and spread the story of the manger, and after them came millions of other people, following in their footsteps, bringing the Good News of the gospel to all the ends of the earth, to all who would hear it. There is a real, solid hope inspiring those willing to take on the Great Commission.
This isn’t a hope that “maybe it will happen, it would be good if it did;” it is, rather, a hope born of love and empathy and determination. The Magi gave us hope that, no matter who we are, in places remote and familiar, far and near, we can share the message of the Incarnation.
So there is already hope for us built right into the account of the Magi who traveled to Bethlehem to honor Jesus.
This hope is something for us to carry with us into this new year as we learn different ways of being together, as we are given opportunities to spread the light. The same hope that inspired the Magi to travel weary miles in search of the real King, the holy Child, is the same hope that will set our hearts aflame anew every year. It’s the promise that there is so much more to life than our small moments and petty concerns: the understanding that a broken world awaits the grace and love of the King of kings, and the promise that he is here to give it. Now. With you. With us. With the whole wide world.
How extraordinarily right it is that those three mysterious people appeared on the scene! How wonderful it is that God’s love is revealed to everyone, everywhere, without bound or limit!
There are stars that beckon us. There are stories that reflect the meaning and hope of God’s presence for us. God is revealed in those we love, those whom we meet, and in the experiences we have every day. Life itself can be an epiphany of the faith. Hope and love are the great gifts of God to us this season and this year and this lifetime. Perhaps during this January, this Epiphany season, we might be like those Magi… searching, seeking, and following… looking for the radiance and brightness of God.
The hope of the Magi is our shared and blessed hope, as the star “guides us to that perfect Light.”