Light From the East

"The light shines in the darkness, a darkness which was not able to overcome it." –John 1:5

Magi (photo: Pixabay / CC0)

What could possibly have possessed three perfectly sane men to leave off everything and go follow a distant and elusive star? Were they mad? How otherwise does one account for behavior so obviously aberrant? Surely, these are not the actions of sane or wise men.

“A cold coming we had of it,” says one, long after the tale as told by T.S. Eliot in Journey of the Magi, has ended. “Just the worst time of the year,” he continues,

For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.

So, why did they do it? Why go at all? Certainly, as Eliot reminds us, there were times when they wished they hadn’t.

… times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.

And, yet, for all that, for all the distractions along the way, not to mention “night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,

And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly  
And the villages dirty and charging high prices…
they nevertheless press on, traveling all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.

But it wasn’t folly at all, was it?  Because, at journey’s end, they had actually arrived, “not a moment too soon,” says Eliot.

Finding the place; it was (you may say) satisfactory. 

And while it was, he muses, “a long time ago,” he is yet resolved to do it again. Leaving only one question, one that haunts him still: “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  
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death. 

Which is why, on returning to their old haunts, kingdoms long familiar to them, they feel “no longer at ease,” amid such ancient arrangements, surrounded by “an alien people clutching their gods.”  And so, in the very last line of the poem, he tells us:

 I  should be glad of another death.

On the blessed feast of Epiphany – which will be  marked in most places Jan. 6 but which, in the  United States, oddly fell so soon after Christmas this year, not even allowing for the customary Twelve Days to elapse – St. Peter Chrysologus reminds us:

Today the Magi gaze in deep wonder at what they see: heaven on earth, earth in heaven, man in God, God in man, one whom the whole universe cannot contain now enclosed in a tiny body. As they look, they believe and do not question, as their symbolic gifts bear witness: incense for God, gold for a King, myrrh for one who is to die.

No earthly construct or program could possibly compete with so astonishing an appearance. The eternal God has come to earth to be with his people, to redeem a fallen race. Not just the Jews, although they remain the privileged point of entry, but the Gentile world as well, seen in the faces of the Magi who have come from afar to worship their King. The Christmas story, after all, does not end with the shepherds returning to their flocks. Their presence before the Christ-Child is followed, perhaps not at once as the liturgists so cavalierly have decreed, but soon enough by the three wise men from the east.  

Indeed, among the three, we are told, there is even a representative from Africa, leaving us in no doubt regarding the universality of the Church. The Jews were to carry the Good News of the Fatherhood of God, who sent us his Son courtesy of the womb of a Hebrew  woman. But it was the truth of the Brotherhood of Man entrusted to the Magi that remains to this day as an ideal towards which we must all continue to strive.

But how did the Magi know where to go? It is not enough to call them astrologers, whose close study of the heavens revealed the trajectory of a single, very special star. News of that sort could not have come out of a book, only from above, an afflatus divinely communicated. It was the star, to be sure, that guided their steps across so great an expanse, that drew them unmistakably to the place where dreams are born. But it was God who orchestrated its peculiar movements, and their own.  

"So their journey was inspired by a powerful hope,” writes Joseph Ratzinger, “strengthened and guided by the star, which led them toward the King of the Jews, toward the kingship of God himself.” And yet, despite every possible difficulty along their way, why exactly do they persist in finishing the course? It is because, he says, “of a deep desire which prompted them to leave everything and begin a journey. It was as though they had always been waiting for that star.  It was as if the journey had always been a part of their destiny, and was finally about to begin.”

Isn’t this at the heart of the Christian vocation, that on hearing God call us, summoning us to do his will, we too are obliged to set out, leaving every impediment behind? When the Magi at last came unto Bethlehem, we are told, they entered the house and on seeing “the child with Mary his Mother, they fell down and worshipped him” (Matthew  2:11).

Going into the house. What does this mean? It surely means that,

in order to find the Savior, one has to enter the house, which is the Church. ...  ’They fell down and worshipped him…and offered him gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh’ (Matthew  2:11-12). Here is the culmination of the whole journey: encounter becomes adoration; it blossoms into an act of faith and love which acknowledges in Jesus, born of Mary, the Son of God made man…

We have all been called to the same vocation, leaving behind “an alien people clutching their gods,” to go in search of the true God, no longer hidden away in a stable but at home in his Church. We are all Magi now.