This Sunday is the second Sunday of the Christmas season when we celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany. Epiphany refers to a moment when God makes God's very self known in Jesus. This is the Sunday when we hear the account of the Adoration of the Wise Men. We always assume that there are three wise men because there are three kinds of gifts. But I like to imagine a whole crowd of wise men cramming into the house where the holy family lives. I admit I giggle a little each year, imagining the wise men at the back of the room waving and saying, "Excuse me, we all brought the gold," or "Hey, that myrrh is from me, too!" (My children roll their eyes. I will not be offended if you roll your eyes, too. 😂 )
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.”
We have to ask ourselves who these wise men are. We know that the Greek word used, "magoi," refers to people who study the stars, people from Persian areas who are not Jewish. They do not follow the One True God. They do not have the holy scriptures, and yet, they come all this way to Jerusalem. Why?
It is one thing to notice a new star and know it means the birth of a new king. It is quite another thing to embark on a long journey in order to pay homage to this child. They must have a deep desire to know God. Where does this desire come from? Or perhaps we can ask, from whom does this desire come?
We can tell that the wise men do not have a personal relationship with God the way the Jewish people do. There are no angels speaking to them as there are for both Mary and Joseph, and for the Jewish shepherds. Instead, God gives them a star--a bright light to follow. These are people who find signs of God in nature alone.
For centuries, this is enough--to find God in nature. But God is not content for things to remain this way.
God desires more. God desires relationship.
When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:
‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.’”
This is an interesting passage. Notice the fear. Herod and "all Jerusalem" are afraid. Why? Why is fear their response to the possibility that the Messiah is born?
The chief priests and scribes are the ones who study scripture. When they are asked where the Messiah is to be born, they seem to quote from scripture, but in fact, they do something even more interesting. They interpret scripture. The prophet Micah says,
‘you, Bethlehem... least among the clans of Judah...
The chief priests and scribes say that Bethlehem is "by no means least" not "least." Does their faith tell them that Bethlehem is great because of the one who is born there?
The chief priest and scribes also combine two different pieces of scripture. The prophet Micah does not mention the one "who is to shepherd my people Israel." That comes from another book of the Bible. (2 Samuel 5:2) Their interpretation is that the Messiah is Shepherd-King. This calls to mind King David, the original shepherd-king. King Herod knows that he is not a descendant of King David; he does not belong on the throne. No wonder King Herod is afraid.
But why are the chief priest and scribes afraid? Interpreting scripture requires understanding from God. It requires faith. But we notice that none of the chief priests and scribes join the wise men in searching for the king. What has fear done to their faith? what has fear done to their relationship with God?
The wise men leave for Bethlehem alone.
When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy.
Why are they filled with joy? Relief, we might expect, because the journey is over. Pleasure, too, because they have reached their destination. But joy is something much more. It is a fruit of the Holy Spirit, a sign that the God is active in their lives.
On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.
They follow a light to the one who is Light--the Light of the World. They kneel before him, and offer him all that they have. And then they leave in a new direction, changed by the encounter with the child Jesus. Notice, they are no longer following a star. Now God communicates to them in a dream. Much more personal. God has come near. God has entered into relationship with these wise men, these Gentiles.
And what has happened to the star? What has happened to the Light? I wonder what you think of this idea: the wise men leave, carrying the Light within them. Carrying it back to their own countries.
There is so much we can learn from the account of the Adoration of the Wise Men.
We can learn that it is God who plants a deep desire within us, a desire for relationship.
We can learn that fear prevents us from acting out of faith. No wonder the angels are always saying, "Be not afraid!"
We can learn that acting out of faith brings us joy, because we have allowed God to be active in our lives. We have relationship with God.
We can learn that relationship involves kneeling and worshipping, and placing the gift of ourselves, not before the child Jesus, but before Christ, risen and glorified.
We can learn that encounter with God changes us and sets us off in a new direction. The Light we receive in Baptism, we carry it out into the world with the graces of Confirmation.
And we can learn that God leads us even in our darkest moments. The wise men are given the star and later a dream--both of these are experienced at night. In our darkest moments, when fear is strongest, and when we are least distracted by other things, God is there, leading us.