In this child something great lay hidden, of which these
Wise Men, the first fruits of the Gentiles, had learned, not
from earthly rumors, but from heavenly revelation. Hence
they say, we have seen His Star in the East. They announce,
yet they ask; they believe, and yet they seek to know and
to find: as though prefiguring those who walk by faith, yet
still desire to see.(R.D. Crouse)
Today we celebrate the great feast of the Epiphany. Epiphany means manifestation or shining forth and in this season we contemplate the various ways in which the love, wisdom, and power of God the Father, flow to us through the life of Jesus Christ, his only-begotten Son made flesh. In the Eastern Church, Epiphany is more important than the Nativity, for on this day God welcomes the Gentiles along with the Jews onto the road of salvation. God's intention to save all men is fully expressed when the Magi or Wise Men from the East journey to find the infant Jesus at Bethlehem. What is remarkable is that Gentiles see a paranormal star in the heavens, they ponder, they ask, and they believe that they must follow this star to know and understand what God intends to reveal to them. It is astounding then that these sages or wise men, who come from cultures that knew nothing of Israel’s God and His promises, should be drawn by his power to Bethlehem. It made sense that Jewish shepherds should come to the manger. It is far more unusual that the non-Jewish scholars of science and wisdom should find this mighty thing that had come to pass.
But, again, remember that these Magi were sages or wise men. They studied nature and the stars. They sought, through scientific expertise and skill to understand the creation and preservation of the earth in relation to the heavens. In other words, they probably had a deep sense that the heavens had much to do with the operations of this planet, or that something higher and more powerful guided and governed the course of the created universe. So, they looked up and beyond themselves to find the mover or movers, the higher reason and truth that might make sense of created life on earth. In addition, if tradition is right in claiming that they came from Persia, they would have been irritated and bothered with the arbitrary and irrational will to power and tyranny that ruled the kingdoms they inhabited. They were those seekers and searchers that forever explore until they have found the truth and meaning that liberate the soul.
So, we might well imagine, on one night, as they gazed into the permanent and unchanging heavens, that something shifted. One star began to outshine all others; one ball of celestial fire began to sing of a Word that had not been heard. The sight bewildered the eyes; the sound rang in the ears of these Eastern sages. What they saw and heard was nothing less than God’s own Word: follow me. It was probably strange, and they might have had their doubts, but this star arrested them and called them from their usual haunts. They began to make their journey; it would not be easy- as the heavens had shifted, so had their perspective. They were not longer at home with their accumulated wisdom. This star moved them to laden their camels and summon attendants, and to gather provisions for a long journey where faith believed but knew not why or how. Tonight, they might have said, we travel to see what this star means and on what new reality it shines. Tonight we seek to discover the nature of this star that sings out to us, ‘come follow me. Until now, the stars had been silent; but this one star called them forth. The heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament sheweth his handiwork. (ps. xix. 1)
Thus, these Magi or Wise men began their long journey after the Star that blazoned in the skies. T. S. Eliot describes the nature of this journey they made in his poem The Journey of the Magi:
A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.
They saw a star, they asked, they believed, and they followed. They were called out of comfort onto a long, hard, cold, and cruel journey. Nature and society would not be accommodating. The hardened, frozen hearts of most men would oppose them. The journey to find the Infant Babe of Bethlehem would never be easy. It would be a journey through the land of sin, with the voices singing in [their] ears, saying that this was all folly.
As Eliot imagines it, the Magi left behind one kind of obstinately oppositional hell found in the pagan Persia, only to come into another strange and confusing place. They emerged out of lands whose histories neither respected their spiritual questing nor cared much for deeper metaphysical meaning. They came into the promised land of God, into Israel. Probably, they had high hopes; but they experienced a different sensation and climate in this place. It was temperate and warmer. It was wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;/ With a running stream and water mill beating the darkness, / And three trees on the low sky… Here, new life was waiting to be born. The Streams of Living water began to beat against the darkness. Three trees on the horizon were growing up to be cut down and shaped into crosses. Men here were gambling, like men in their own land, preferring seamless robes to brilliant stars. Even here, in the Promised Land of the Jews, the Wise Men found only fragments of interest in the star that they followed. God’s priests and kings had forgotten their first love, their promised destiny, their intended course. The land of the Jews was not as they had expected. And so we continued, say Eliot's Wise Men, and arrived at evening, not a moment too soon/ Finding the place; it was (you may say) satisfactory.
First, the Wise Men’s reason led them ignorantly to Jerusalem, but the star did not shine there on her king, Herod. Besides, he was too old and hardened to be born or even born again. There was no room in Jerusalem, the holy city, for the birth of the king the wise men sought. Its temple had no room for the birth of a Heavenly king; its priests were the puppets of power and pretention. The newborn king the Wise men sought could not have been born there. Instead, the Star insisted on leading them to a place that was satisfactory, more sufficiently suitable for the birth of God’s Son. They found what appeared to be an ordinary birth, of ordinary parents, in an ordinary place. And yet they believed and saw that this was the kind of king for whom their gifts were prepared. They offered gold, frankincense, and myrrh. The gold offered to this king would be used to sustain the child, with Mary and Joseph, as they fled into exile and then returned to rear up God’s own Son in a carpenter’s shop. The frankincense pointed to the priesthood and holiness of this child who would become God’s priest and victim. The myrrh they brought was a funerary ointment to be held in reserve to embalm the king born to die for all men. The Star moved them to discover the king through sacred gifts of mystic meaning.
The Wise Men left, warned by an angel not to return to Herod, they withdrew to their country by another route. (St. Matthew ii. 12)
All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different. This Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death. (Idem)
The Wise Men were moved by the Star to see, believe, find, and know the birth of a new king. They witnessed a birth but offered their gifts for life, holiness, and death. In the simplicity of this new life, they found the holiness of God. With holiness, they foresaw sacrifice and death. They offered gifts to an infant king whose holy life would call all men to share in His death.
Nevertheless, as Eliot has them admit, they would do it again. We must always desire to follow the Light that leads to the Infant Child of Bethlehem. In Him, The Wise Men, full of truth, found a new kind of love. Ye are dead, St. Paul would say long after the Magi were dead, and your life is hid with Christ in God. (Colossians 3:3)
Eliot's poem, The Journey of the Magi is about the death and new life that must always characterize our relationship with Jesus Christ, or what is manifested and revealed in this season of Epiphany. His poem concludes like this:
We returned to our places, these kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.
Something remarkably spiritual had taken place with the Wise Men, and something equally remarkable is meant to take place in the lives of all who have the courage to follow the Star to Bethlehem and there to find God in Man made Manifest. We should be glad of another death. A new death. Death to sin. Death to darkness. His Death and our Death. His Life and our Life. We are being led by the bright beams of a star. The star brings us to Christ the Light. In the Burning Love of this Light, we must be changed, no longer the same, uncomfortably aware of the need for our spiritual death if we are to embrace this remarkable new life in Jesus Christ. Ye are the light of the world, he says to us, a city that is set on a hill cannot be hid. Neither do men light a candle and put it under a bushel, but on a candlestick; and it giveth light unto all that are in the house. Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven. (St. Matthew v. 13-16) Christ the Light enlightens us today, and so now let us continue the journey we have begun together, heading for a new home, starting here and now, fearing nothing but the loss of heaven and the pains of hell. Let us look forward into the Burning Love of that Light, Jesus Christ, God’s Epiphany, who alone can lead us home,
no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With alien people clutching their gods. (Idem)
St. Michael and All Angels Sermons: