If you are ever in Cologne, Germany, be sure to visit the Cathedral Church of St. Peter. It is an amazing example of Gothic architecture and a powerful testimony to the strength and persistence of Catholicism in medieval and modern Europe. You can walk around the sanctuary and there, behind the main altar, is a large reliquary said to contain the bones of the three wise men. It is a stunning masterpiece of the goldsmith’s art and actually does contain the ancient bones of three men. The wise men’s bones are said to have been found in Persia and then brought to Constantinople by St. Helena. St. Helena was the mother of the emperor Constantine who was the first Roman Emperor to convert to Christianity. The bones were transferred from Constantinople to Milan in the fifth century and finally to Cologne in 1163. So, the magi’s journey did not end at Bethlehem, neither in life or after their death.
My brothers and sisters, the theme of journeying is central to the Christmas story. Joseph and Mary, the shepherds, and the magi all journey to Bethlehem. The angels journeyed there from the realms of glory. All these journeys had the same end. They all culminated in worshiping the child in the manger. Each of these journeys have something to tell us about our journey, our life’s journey, which also has the goal of worshiping the Lord.
Exactly what “magi” were is not clear. Perhaps they are learned men; perhaps ancient astronomers. One thing that everyone does know, every child knows, is that the magi’s journey began with a star. A star that is actually pretty mysterious. Hundreds of scientists and philosophers have speculated about the star. Was it a comet, a conjunction of planets, a supernova, or an angel? Or something entirely different? We only know that the star was so far outside of the natural order that it motivated the magi to change their lives, to start on a journey that they knew not where would end. Ironically, they had no reason to search for the Christ because they were pagans; they did not know the God we know from Sacred Scripture. The star the magi followed was certainly visible to others as well, other magi who perhaps were not quite as wise, but only these three recognized the star as the star of promise. Only they followed the star in search of God. As students of nature, they followed the star, a distant point of light; as wise men, they sought Jesus, who is the ever glorious Light from Light, true God from true God.
Our own journey to the babe in Bethlehem also begins with a star. It is the star of faith. As is the star of Bethlehem, faith is something mysterious. It is precious, outside of the natural order, and it shines in the darkness. We receive the grace of faith in baptism and, like the star, it is available to many, to all the baptized. Not all who see the star choose to follow. To follow the star we need first to recognize it; we do not need to understand it. For those who do make the choice to follow and change their lives, the star of faith will lead to a journey that we know not where will end, that eye has not seen, nor ear heard. (1 Cor 2:9)
The magi faithfully following the star did not immediately reach the child of Bethlehem. The star led them first to Herod, treacherous, murderous and impious Herod. When the magi reached Herod’s court, I’m guessing they were surprised, even discouraged. The reigning king knows nothing of the birth of this new king. In fact, Herod seems more than surprised; he seems threatened and agitated. He calls in religious leaders to get further information about this new king. They open the Holy Scripture and the magi hear of a promised king. But Herod and the religious leaders seem unenthusiastic, and after providing the prophesized location of his birth, make no effort to find him themselves. Maybe they even tried to delay the magi’s journey. How odd this must have seemed to the magi! Perhaps they even thought about abandoning their search.
Thanks be to God that the magi did not turn back. God, who orders all things, used the totally unsuitable King Herod and his court to point the magi to Bethlehem. Their star of faith did not leave them but continued to lead them to worship of the Lord. In our journey to the manger, we may encounter discouragement. Perhaps the journey seems too long, or distractions lead astray for a while. Perhaps those that should be most enthusiastic, most interested in helping to follow the star may seem less than helpful.
Thanks be to God that we do not turn back. Constancy in faith is what it takes to overcome the darkness and discouragements of the world. In fact, it is in darkness that the star of faith appears most luminously. As it did for the magi, Sacred Scripture points us in the right direction if we choose to study it and recognize it as a source of wisdom. Herod, for all his faults, knew this much.
Jesus is the light who illumines our personal existence and who guides us toward the fullness of life in heaven. Faith in his promises is the star which guides us on our journey. The actions and responses of the magi reveal how the divine light destroys the darkness and leads to worship of the true God. Through the grace of God the magi’s eyes were opened to the star and then they had faith in its call. Like the magi, we also travel far in our journey of faith in order to enter into the presence of Jesus , prostrate ourselves and do him homage. The journey of the magi has something to tell us about our journey, our life’s journey, and our goal of worshiping the Lord. We, too, are called to search diligently for the child and to worship.