Solemnity of the Epiphany
Isaiah 60:1-6; Ephesians 3:2-3, 5-6; Matthew 2:1-12
When I was a kid, I remember that there used to be a lot of ads on TV that promised anyone who would call a certain phone number, which they called a “psychic hot-line,” would be given some sort of supernatural advice of someone who could supposedly change their life for the better. I don't see these ads much anymore – the pharmaceutical companies and lawyers seem to own the airwaves now, although maybe they are just a different type of advertiser that is promising a quick way to make one's life better. In my research for today, I found that these same or similar groups of supposed psychics are alive and well on the internet, still promising to provide that missing piece to the puzzle that will make all the difference. I have always been a rather logical, if nerdy, person, and so I've never really understood the lure of these types of non-scientific approaches to understanding one's world and making decisions. Whether it is astrology, tarot cards, Ouija boards, or whatever, I don't understand why people would believe, let alone pay, for these types of advisers.
So this was my outlook when I was young and heard today's Gospel when I was in Mass. We have astrologers, also called Magi, whose root is also the root for the English word “magic,” who have seen a star and decide to follow it to see what it means. The account in Matthew we read today does not call them kings, although people that could afford to do this type of star-gazing would have had royal patrons to fund their careers, and could potentially have been royal themselves, and would have been highly educated for that time. Nor does Matthew tell us that there were three of them, nor their names, although tradition has filled in these details. They came from the East, and therefore are not Jewish, and so do not profess the same God that the Israelites worshiped and Christ taught about which we profess today. So exactly how does one fit together the idea of pagan astrologers with Christianity?
The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches only one significant lesson from this scriptural passage, although that lesson has important implications in many of its other teachings. That lesson is simply that Jesus was born to save all humanity [CCC 528, https://www.usccb.org/sites/default/files/flipbooks/catechism/134/ ]. All people, whether Jewish or Gentile, are looking for a connection to the one true God, and our Savior was born to bring all people to Him. Isaiah promises that salvation to Israel in the first reading, and Saint Paul promises a share in this same salvation to the Gentiles. So we should see in the story of the Magi a group of people, in this case pagan, who are thirsting for the understanding of God, and are therefore looking to the heavens – the stars and the planets that God has made – to see if they can discern His way. And they found it in the infant Jesus.
The Magi were not astrologers in the modern sense of the world, practicing some sort of pseudo-science occult mysticism, although in their ignorance they probably did some of this as well. They were astrologers more in the sense that we use the term astronomers today, that is to say they were ancient wise men, philosophers, and scientists. So they studied nature to try to find out what it tells us of the nature of God. God made the world in a certain way, following certain laws, and therefore by studying these we can discover something about the plan of God. This is called natural theology, and the Church uses it herself. For instance, Saint Thomas Aquinas used his observations of the natural world to make five different proofs, or arguments, for the existence of God [ https://www.corpuschristiphx.org/blog?month=202007&id=868252034&cat=9316... ]. One of these arguments is one that the Magi would have studied, that is the regularity of the travels of the stars and planets and other objects of the universe, as an evidence of intelligent design and not randomness. Although many scientists have allowed their intellect to blot out signs of God in the universe, many more have seen the beauty that is inherent in this world in the laws of nature to give them the awe to appreciate a God of love and wonder. This is what the Magi sought. This is what we seek.
So today, we have the fusion of the two great sources of our theology, the great magisterium of the Church. We have natural theology that we observe in the world around us, and we have revelation, what God has revealed to the world through all the events of the Old Testament, culminating in the greatest revelation of all, the incarnation, God made flesh, that we just celebrated at Christmas. The New Testament is the story of how Christ has come to the earth to teach us about God that is not visible in the natural world. And we need both, since natural theology can only get us so far: we understand that there must be a prime mover, a source for our world, and therefore we understand that there must be a God, but this does not teach us what that God is like or what he expects of us: for this we need him to reveal it to us. Jesus Christ is the revelation we seek.
I guess that those calling the “psychic hot-lines” are looking for the same answers as were the Magi – for understanding of one's role in life and how to enjoy the fruits of God's many gifts to us. But unlike the Magi, they are looking for it in the wrong place. They are looking to people with slick messages and vague encouragement of future opportunities and whatever else they use to try to give a paying customer some temporary hope. The Magi were looking to the heavens for God, and found him in Bethlehem. We too should look to God for our star to lead us to true joy and lasting hope. Fortunately, we have what the Magi didn't – the teachings, the revelation, of the grown-up babe that they met and adored that famous night.
As we continue with the Mass, let the great sacrament of the Eucharist that Jesus revealed on the night before he died nourish us for our journey through this life, guided by the star that is our God. As we start the new year, let us resolve to keep our head up and looking at our guiding star, putting aside the distractions of psychics, and all of the other distractions and vices that keep us from doing the will of God. Let us ask for God's grace to follow the star, like the Magi, or rather Three Kings of song, “Westward leading, still proceeding / Guide us to thy perfect light.”