Who were these “magi from the east,” who set out to follow a star and found instead “the child [Jesus] with Mary his mother”? We know the magi from other translations as “the Wise Men.” To their contemporaries they were not wise. They were crackpots who were not playing with a full deck. Who were they in reality?
The Wise Men were searchers
They were not content with routine, with life as they found it. They wanted more. Yet the Wise Men were not idle daydreamers. They were willing to abandon routine, to set out on what seemed to everyone but themselves a madcap journey, following a star.
People are searching today – searching for answers to life’s mysteries. If this is God’s world, people ask, why does he permit so much pain, injustice, and suffering? Must we always live under the threat of international terrorism? How can we master the dark forces within ourselves that threaten to drag us down from the highest and best that deep in our hearts we want, and to destroy our inner peace: dark forces like envy, hatred, lust, resentments, sloth, and the self-centeredness of conceit and pride? Is death simply the end, like the snuffing out of a candle? Or is there life beyond death?
Those are just some of the questions that perplex us today. There are many more. Sometimes it seems there is no end to life’s questions, problems, and mysteries. When we are tempted to fear that there are no real answers to our questions, because life at bottom is meaningless, the Wise Men can help us. Like us, they were searchers. But they were more.
The Wise Men were discoverers.
They continued their search despite its seeming futility, despite all discouragements and setbacks. In the end they were rewarded. They found the One they were looking for. Matthew tells us that when the Wise Men finally arrived at the end of their long journey, “they were overjoyed.”
The One whom they encountered as a baby would speak about this joy three decades later. He would tell of the shepherd’s joy at finding his lost sheep; of the woman’s joy at finding her lost coin; the joy of the dealer in precious stones finding one day in the bazaar a pearl so large and flawless that it made all he had seen and owned up to then seem cheap baubles by comparison; the joy of the day laborer at discovering in his employer’s field an unsuspected treasure that would change his life.
For all these people the joy of discovery was purchased at the price of lengthy searching. Even the laborer accidentally finding the treasure buried in the field he was plowing had behind him years of grinding toil, when the very idea that he could ever rise above the subsistence level seemed ludicrous. The Wise Men’s joy was purchased at the price of perseverance in the face of many defeats and the scorn of those who thought them mad.
Our own search for answers to life’s mysteries is – whether we know it or not – a search for the One whom the Wise men found. It is a search for God. The search is not in vain. God can be found. God wants to be found.
We think the search is all ours. In reality, God is already searching for us. The One who led the Wise Men by the shining of a star leads us onward by the powerful attraction of his love, shining in the face of his Son, Jesus Christ. For us, as for the Wise Men at the end of their search, great joy awaits: the overwhelming joy of knowing that we have been found by the One who, all along, was searching for us, though we never realized it at the time.
The Wise Men’s search, and their joy in discovering the One they sought, encourage us. But the Wise Men were not only searchers and discoverers –
The Wise Men were worshippers
Matthew tells us that in the joy of discovery, “they prostrated themselves and did him homage. Then they opened their treasures and offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh” – the most precious, and the most costly thing that each possessed.
The end of the search, then, is neither the discovery nor the joy. When at last you have found the One who, all along, has been searching for you, everything is transformed. The only fitting response is worship.
To worship means to forget ourselves. It means entrusting ourselves to the One who is greater than our greatest thought and higher than our most lofty imagining; and yet who is present in the humblest and smallest and weakest of his creatures, as he was present in the infant at Bethlehem. Worship is the highest form of prayer there is. The late Bishop Fulton Sheen wrote:
“The person who thinks only of himself says prayers of petition. The person who thinks of his neighbor says prayers of intercession. The person who thinks only of loving and serving God says prayers of abandonment to God’s will. And that is the prayer of the saints.”
So who are the Wise Men? They are our fellow travelers on life’s pilgrimage. Matthew leaves them nameless. Hence they can bear our names. Wise is every Anne and John and Mary and David who is not content with life as it is; who is willing to break with routine in order to search for answers to life’s mysteries; who refuses to admit that life is meaningless, but continues to search for answers and meaning despite all difficulties and discouragements. Yes, wise are all those who persevere in this search until it ends in joy – and joy gives way to worship.
Who, then, are the Wise Men? The Wise Men are ourselves, in God’s plan and according to God’s will. One thing alone can prevent the accomplishment of God’s plan and God’s will for your life: your own deliberate and final No.
“And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod,” we heard at the end of the gospel, “they departed for their country by another way.” The Fathers of the Church say that this was natural: no one comes to Jesus and goes back the same way he came. The encounter with the Lord changes us. We go home from worship changed, because here we have been brought into the bright circle of God’s love – not just to give us a warm feeling inside, but so that we may share that love with others: Jesus’ sisters and brothers – and ours too.