Two radically different groups of men visited Jesus in his infancy: Jewish Shepherds and Eastern magi. The shepherds learnt of Jesus as we might expect- through a divine intervention that fits easily into a Judea-Christian narrative; God does something utterly amazing, then sends his angels to tell his chosen people about it. It makes sense.
But the magi, quite possibly Zoroastrian astrologers from the school of Isaiah (for he was the prophet obsessed with Virgin births and the Messiah) learnt of Jesus by following a star. A star that said nothing aloud. They had to interpret a sign to know what it meant, to discern where it led. And this means of unlocking divine mystery is shocking within a Judea-Christian narrative. For the magi found God via mystical means not so far removed from gazing into crystal balls or tea leaves. A pagan tradition is manifest.
Many are those who think, not only that their tradition or faith is best, but that it is the only way to God. The magi demand we broaden our horizons a little. Understand that God is never limited nor straightjacketed by dogma nor creed. In fact he is often active in places we ourselves would fear to tread. Why? Because God has little interest in how we first find him. Only that we do. So he reaches out beyond the safe confines of sound faith to call to those who seek him with a sincere heart.
But be careful here! Don’t make the silly but frequent mistake of confusing the worth of the journey with the worth of the destination. God may be active in strange and myriad ways but, no matter where he first calls to us, it remains essential that it is the true faith we ultimately find. The true church. The true revelation which God revealed to gentiles via the Magi.
We begin to see that journeys are less important than destinations within the Christian faith. Consider the accounts of Christ’s birth. People came to Jesus by many different ways. The shepherds through angels. The magi by a star. Herod’s scribes, though they did not follow through, by searching the scriptures. Visions, stars, scriptures – different paths that all led to the one same truth. And it is this sacred destination, not the routes, that matters; the sacred destination that is Jesus our Lord.
Understand then that religious searching is good because it can lead to God but it is not good in and of itself. In fact spiritual searching can be useless if it does not lead us to Christ and to a life transformed by grace. It can even be dangerous and bad if it leads us away from him to the occult or to mumbo jumbo nonsense like healing crystals, psychics et al.
Next consider that though a strange Eastern practice led the Magi towards God, it only took them so far. The star dimmed when it got to Jerusalem. To complete the mission, the magi needed more conventional means of spiritual direction. And they only found it when Herod consulted the sacred scriptures on their behalf. Then the star moved to Bethlehem! Over and above the natural light of the star, they needed the supernatural light of scripture. It was this that led them, in the end, to Jesus the Lord.
And here we find also another warning as regards spiritual searching. Namely that the possession of truth itself is quite worthless if we choose to do nothing with it. See Herod and his scribes, not only possessed scripture, but even used them accurately to predict Jesus birth. God was calling them too. But they chose not to hear. They resented bowing to the Christ child. Of submitting to God. So they refused to worship. Refused to do what scripture ordained. What God decreed. And it was this pride, like all human sin, which led to chaos and destruction. To the slaughter of the innocents.
Are we prepared, not only to search for Christ and find him, but ultimately walk in his light? This is a profoundly question because many Christians today are modern manifestations of Herod’s scribes. They have the faith but refuse to live by it. They have the teaching of Christ but resent it and deny it. Especially in the area of faith and morals. Hence the rise of modernism.
Be warned. This is not good enough! Epiphany tells us it is, in fact, better to have only the dim light of a star and follow humbly, than to posses the full faith of scripture and yet neglect it. As Christians today we are fortunate. We need not grope in the dark like magi because we have received precious gifts- not gold, frankincense or myrrh, but a bible, the catechism, the teaching of the church, tradition, the sacraments. But these gifts mean nothing if, like Herod’s seers, we choose to ignore them. If we refuse to live by them. If we seek instead to re-interpret them to conform, not our wills to God, but his word to our ways.
Today let us delight in the mysterious and manifold ways that God calls to us all. But let us be warned and remember that sincerely committed pagans will find the truth of Jesus quicker than apathetic scribes and seers. The feast of Epiphany serves to remind us that we should be as broad, inclusive and liberal in our pastoral approach as possible, for all must hear the Gospel, but we must simultaneously be rigidly faithful doctrinally. For unless we are leading the people we embrace to the true and living God then we fail them. We leave them chasing around after impossible stars instead of leading them to Jesus that they might do homage.