Following the Magi for Our Christmas Journey

Jared Staudt

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.

“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

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. 

COMING UP: Five tips for reading the Word of God

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Sunday, Jan. 24 marks “The Sunday of the Word of God,” instituted by Pope Francis last year and to be held every year on the third Sunday of Ordinary Time. This may strike us as odd, as we might think to ourselves, “but isn’t the Bible read at every Sunday Mass?” Certainly so. Not only that, but every daily celebration of the Mass proclaims the Word of God.

What’s different about “The Sunday of the Word of God,” however, is that it’s not just about hearing the Bible read on Sundays. As the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith notes, it “reminds us, pastors and faithful alike, of the importance and value of Sacred Scripture for the Christian life, as well as the relationship between the word of God and the liturgy: ‘As Christians, we are one people, making our pilgrim way through history, sustained by the Lord, present in our midst, who speaks to us and nourishes us. A day devoted to the Bible should not be seen as a yearly event but rather a year-long event, for we urgently need to grow in our knowledge and love of the Scriptures and of the Risen Lord, who continues to speak his word and to break bread in the community of believers. For this reason, we need to develop a closer relationship with Sacred Scripture; otherwise, our hearts will remain cold and our eyes shut, inflicted as we are by so many forms of blindness.’” This gives us a wonderful opportunity to pause and reflect on the Sacred Scriptures. 

There are two means by which God Divinely reveals truths to us: Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition. As such, the Bible is not merely a human document, nor simply a collection of amazing stories that call us to do heroic things, or a collection of wise sayings. Rather, the Scriptures are “inspired.” St. Paul has a beautiful teaching about this in 2 Timothy 3:16-17 – “All scripture, inspired of God, is profitable to teach, to reprove, to correct, to instruct in justice, That the man of God may be perfect, furnished to every good work.” By “inspired” we mean that God is the principle author of the Bible.

Certainly there were different men who physically wrote the words on the papyrus. Yet these men were influenced by the grace of inspiration to write, not just their own words, but God’s. And so the Scriptures are a mysterious congruence of Divine and human authorship – the human writers capably made full use of language, literary forms, creativity, and writing style to communicate their message, yet they did so under the grace of Divine inspiration. This means that while they wrote in such a way that they had full freedom to write as they wanted, what they wrote was also, “to a tee,” exactly as God wanted written. God is the principle author of the Bible, the human author its secondary writer. Such inspiration is how, despite the various human authors, events, and historical and cultural contexts behind the 73 Biblical texts, we’re still left with only one story since they all have the same one primary author. 

Given that the Bible is the written word of God, I’d like to offer a few “tips” for reading the Bible, since it certainly cannot be read like any other text. 

1. Pray! We must pray before opening the Scriptures for enlightenment from God. We must pray after reading in thanksgiving to God. And we must pray throughout reading in order to encounter God in Scripture and apply it to our life. Of course, the tried and trusted practice of praying the Scriptures is Lectio DivinaThe Ladder of Monks by Guigo II is the ancient resource for Lectio Divina, while a helpful book to get you started is Dr. Tim Gray’s Praying Scripture for a Change: An Introduction to Lectio Divina

2. Remember that you are in no rush. The important point is encountering Christ in the Scriptures, not racing through them. Speed reading isn’t reading, after all, much less when applied to the Word of God. It’s not about getting through the Bible, but encountering Christ therein. That may be a few chapters at a time or may actually be only one verse that you pray with. Whatever the case, slow and steady wins the race, as Aesop reminds us. 

3. We have to read the Scriptures regularly, daily if possible. We read in Psalm 1, “Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers; but his delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night.” Meditating day and night. A good way to start would be to read one Psalm a night as a part of your nightly prayer. Ever better would be praying that one Psalm with your spouse, if married. 

4. Do not worry about starting on page one and reading from cover to cover. It’s easy to get overwhelmed and lost in the text. We all know about Adam and Eve, Noah and the Flood, Moses and the Plagues. But how many understand animal sacrifices in the Book of Leviticus or its purity laws? It’s very easy, starting from page one and flipping straight through, to lose sight of the story of salvation history. Start from page one if you’d like, but don’t feel like you can’t start with whatever book (especially the Gospels) that you find yourself drawn to. 

5. Come take classes with the Denver Catholic Biblical School! In chapter eight of the Book of Acts, we read of an Ethiopian Eunuch reading from the Prophet Isaiah. When the Deacon Philip asks him if he understands what he’s reading, the Eunuch responds, “How can I, unless some one guides me?” This is what we at the Biblical School are here for – to guide you in your encounter with Christ in the Sacred Scriptures. We’re in the middle of our Scripture classes already for this year, but we always start new classes in the fall every September. And in the meantime, we have plenty of things still coming for this year – a class on Catholic Social Teaching that begins on Jan. 27 a lecture series for Lent that starts on March 1, a conference on the Sacred Heart being offered on May 15 and Aug. 28, and a six-week class on St. Joseph in the summer starting in July. We have something for everybody – just reach out to us!