On 6 January we celebrate Epiphany, the day three kings bowed low and presented gifts to the King of kings. Many commemorate the event with different family traditions. However, our familiarity with the story may lead us to overlook important lessons. So, let us look at Epiphany more deeply, for it has much wisdom to help us navigate the challenges of life today.
Nativity scenes often show the wise men or magi as three kings. As Epiphany gets closer, families move the kingly men ever closer to baby Jesus’ manger. In reality, as most of you know, Jesus would have been older and possibly a toddler by the time these men arrived.
After seeing a special star, the wise men traveled a great distance. Arriving in Jerusalem, they asked about the “One…born king of the Jews,” because they “saw his star when it rose,” and wanted to “worship” the new king. Upon hearing this, King Herod did not take the news well.
Historians describe King Herod as “ruthless,” “intensely paranoid, and cruel.” He had his wife and at least two sons executed as well as numerous others. When the magi asked about the new “king of the Jews,” Herod tried to use them unwittingly in his barbaric plan against Jesus. Herod invited them to the palace where he wined and dined them with hopes of snaring the men in his plans. As the serpent deceived Adam and Eve, King Herod tried to deceive the magi. With false motives, he asked them to “search” for and “report” Jesus’ location, so he could “worship Him.”
What do we know about the magi? Father William Saunders, who wrote Celebrating a Merry Catholic Christmas: A Guide to the Customs and Feast Days of Advent and Christmas, said they most likely traveled from Babylon. Located in present-day Babil Province, Iraq, I remember the area well from serving there. After leaving populated Babil Province, they probably traveled 715 miles west across what is still a vast and barren desert to Jordan and then Israel.
The guiding star, the magi’s visit, and their gifts fulfill prophecies in Numbers, Psalms, and Isaiah. Including the magi in both the Old and New Testaments demonstrates their importance to the Messiah’s birth and also highlights their godly character. Fr. Saunders’ wrote that a medieval publication described them as “undergo[ing] many trials and fatigues for the Gospel.”
Trained in astronomy, they had noticed a celestial sign different than any other. Fr. Saunders’ book mentions possibilities such as Halley’s Comet and several different conjunctions of planets. Whatever magnificent starlight the magi saw in the sky, it roused them into great action.
They made preparations for a long trip, gathered precious gifts, then left all they knew to travel to a foreign land. Consider the meticulous planning the magi undertook: a camel caravan for protection and supplies, food and water for people and animals (camels drink around 30 gallons of water at a time), and shelter from dust storms. In our ease of travel, we underestimate the effort, time, and resources necessary for the 715-mile journey. Ponder the dangers they faced.
Think of the conversations as the magi explained why they would be away for months.
Family / Friends: Where are you headed?
Magi: To Bethlehem.
Family / Friends: But, where in Bethlehem?
Magi: We do not know.
Family / Friends: How will you know?
Magi: We will follow the star.
Family / Friends: What star?
Magi: We “saw” a “star when it rose” and want to “worship” the “one who
has been born king of the Jews.”
Family / Friends: But, you are not Jewish. And, why the excessive gifts? Have you all lost your minds?
Even before setting out on the journey, they experienced “trials and fatigues” for their faith.
Returning to the story, the magi left Herod and journeyed five miles to Bethlehem. They followed the star until it “stopped … where the Child” lived and had finally arrived after an arduous trip. Perhaps as the magi “bowed down and worshiped” Jesus, the Son of God made Man looked through childlike eyes and thought, “well done, good and faithful servant[s].”
That night, God warned the magi in dreams to not report to Herod. These faithful men obeyed the Lord and “returned to their country by another route.” How easy for them to have curry-favored Herod – in exchange for sharing Jesus’ location, Herod may have rewarded them with wealth and prestige. Instead, they chose the opposite of what the world expected; they chose Christ. They demonstrated fortitude by going against Herod, a tyrannical man who had ordered the deaths of family members. The magi trusted God and did just as He asked.
The magi embarked on their return journey. Only miles from Herod’s palace, they likely expected Herod – “intensely paranoid” – to realize quickly they had given him the slip. As they spent weeks and months traveling back home, they probably knew Herod – “ruthless” and “cruel” – would have sent his army out searching for them and their secret knowledge. Whatever their fears, they continued one camel step at a time refusing to betray Jesus’ location.
God “sees the heart” of man, and He saw the magi truly loved Jesus. The Lord protected them, for they had protected His beloved Son. In contrast, the Lord saw Herod’s foul heart and divinely interfered to “thwart the schemes” of Herod. Likewise, God “sees the heart” of men – and leaders – who scheme against us today. Be assured that in God’s perfect timing, He will thwart them, so their malicious efforts “will not succeed” against His beloved children.
When life seems uncertain, tempests threaten, or the powerful imperil what we hold sacred, let us look to the wise men, the magi, the three kings. From courage in the midst of fear to reliance on God despite bewildering circumstances, we can learn from their faithful fortitude. They knew what we must remember – our God is omniscient, omnipresence, and omnipotent. He looks beyond our one-dimensional plane and understands beyond our intellect, so “will not” the God “of all the earth do what is right?”
Like the “Kings of Orient,” we fix our eyes upon our Almighty God and Heavenly Father. He will providentially protect us and “guide us to thy perfect light,” for He alone is King of kings, “ceasing never, over us all to reign” forever.