Christmas is more than a birthday party; it is the manifestation of the newborn king of heaven and earth. In the early Church, the Epiphany of Christ, the manifestation of his divinity to the world, unveiled the meaning of Christmas. In fact, the 12th Night of Christmas, Epiphany Eve, culminated the celebration, with the largest gatherings, feasts, and dances happening that night. The birth of Christ was not complete without the Wise Men, representatives of all the nations, paying homage to the king. Our celebration, likewise, falls short unless we join them in finding Christ and worshipping him.
Father Dwight Longenecker, in his 2017 book, Mystery of the Magi: The Quest to Identify the Three Wise Men, presents strong evidence that the Wise Men were from a region neighboring Judea, Nabataea. This proximity made them familiar with scriptural prophecy of the Messiah and led them to watch the stars for signs of his coming. Nature itself pointed to the coming of the Christ, the king who would rule not only Judah but all the nations. Even if Jesus’ birth happened in obscurity, the Wise Men recognized the alignment of planets and stars that bore witness to the coming of their creator. Rick Larson’s The Star of Bethlehem (DVD, 2017) provides additional clues on the nature of the star they followed.
The Magi not only search, they actually find. It is popular to speak of searching today, in a way, however, that makes the searching itself the goal. It can be fun to look around aimlessly, like a tourist, denying that life has a clear purpose that can be discovered. The Wise Men, like pilgrims, were looking for something in particular, and found it. God may remain hidden in some ways, even as he makes himself present to those who search for him. He does not just reach out and grab our attention, not usually at least, but wants us to make the effort to drop what we are doing and to look for signs of his presence. Nature can point the way to some degree, giving evidence of its Creator, although it is Scripture that points to the entrance of God into history, as the Magi needed the confirmation of prophecy to go to Bethlehem (Mt 2:5-6). Although the star alone could not lead them, it did confirm the presence of Jesus, as “it came to rest over the place where the child was” (Mt 2:9). Some scholars think this resting arose from the retrograde motion of a planet, perhaps in conjunction with the constellation Aries, which the Greeks associated with Judah.
The Wise Men also reveal the nature of Christmas by modeling how we should respond to Jesus: with joy, recognition, worship, and homage. Matthew’s Gospel describes the Magi’s actions: “When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy; and going into the house they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh” (Mt 2:10-11). They rejoice that they found the goal of their search, knowing that they had discovered what mattered most. They recognize the king as they see the child, having faith in his true identity, Emmanuel — God with us. They pay him homage through worship, not just finding the child out of curiosity, but relating to him by falling down before him. They surrender their wealth and possessions to him, truly honoring him as their Lord and putting themselves at his service.
We need to follow the journey of the Wise Men, with all of its actions, each Christmas. The Church gives us the celebration of the Epiphany so that we can continue to seek, to find and recognize Jesus with joy, to worship him as our Lord and king, and to give our lives to him. The Magi challenge us to find Jesus in a new way, accepting him as our true light, a fixed star that guides our own pilgrimage through life. Jesus offers the peace that comes from finding life’s true center and purpose, ending our restlessness and aimless distraction. Christmas gifts are symbols of what we find in Jesus, the gift of his life for us, but we should also think about giving a gift back to him, like the Wise Men, such as spending more time with him in prayer, reading the Bible, giving a gift to the poor, and making sacrifices for him in love.
We can take Christmas for granted — the manger, the animals, tame looking angels — which all seem so soft and trite. Breaking through the pervasive consumerism and trivialized entertainment, the birth of Christ should shock us: God has become man, the Creator has come into his creation, the Lord of all has made himself into a small baby. Finding him and accepting this child as Lord should turn things upside down: moving us from concern about the outward to the inward, from pain and bitterness to peace, from anxiety and fear to joy. We can allow him to reign in us in a new way, for this is why he came into the world: “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government will be upon his shoulder, and his name will be called ‘Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace’” (Is 9:6).
Christmas is a celebration of 12 days, giving us time to soak in this reality and to extend the celebration after the preparation of Advent. The Epiphany culminates the Christmas celebration as we embrace not only Jesus’ birth, but accept the lordship of the newborn king. Christmas extends to the Epiphany and should shape the new year that begins during these 12 days (which we count from the birth of Christ). Christmas marks a new beginning that grounds our plans and hopes in Christ’s kingship. Looking ahead to 2021, we need to affirm again that Jesus is the true Lord of the world. For this reason, we do not fear, whatever may come, because we have the joy that Christ brings to us at Christmas.