Today being the Epiphany, we remember especially the magi and how they came from the east to worship the new-born King of the Jews.
If Christ’s birth had been set in our time, we might imagine Joseph posting a shot of Mary’s child, and then receiving an unexpected ‘like’ from Persia. A star, though, makes for a far better story.
The magi were a known elite of the ancient world, hailing from what we now call Iran. They were intellectuals, scientists, astronomers, astrologists. They foretold the future. They interpreted dreams. They gave political advice. They acted as diplomats. The arrival of a delegation of them in Jerusalem would have caused precisely the kind of stir the Gospel mentions, especially in the mind of a corrupt, paranoid politician like Herod. But in the Gospel they are more still. They are more than themselves. They are, without realising it, a fulfilment of the ancient Jewish prophecies that spoke of foreigners coming to worship the God of Israel. They are the future too. They are the first of a long, ever-expanding procession of non-Jewish, Gentile believers in Christ. In a real sense, they are us, our spiritual ancestors.
“Arise, Jerusalem, your light has come.” That light is Christ, “the light of revelation to the Gentiles and of glory of your people, Israel”, as Simeon will say (Lk 2:32). Today, the light of Christ, lit at his birth, shining first on a Jewish girl and her husband and local shepherds, now rises higher, becomes a star in the sky and begins to draw people from outside, from beyond the borders of Israel. Something vast, all-encompassing starts to happen. The light of God goes global, goes viral. It starts to shine in unexpected places and unknown faces lift their eyes towards it. Something stirs. Something begins. A movement. A future. In the Gospels, even though Jesus explicitly confines his ministry to his own fellow-Jews, non-Jews too sense “the drawing of this love and the voice of this calling”. In their various distresses, they turn to the kindly light on the face of Christ: the Roman centurion with the sick servant, the Gerasene demoniac, the Syro-Phoenician woman with her demon-tossed daughter, the Greeks at the feast of Passover telling Philip and Andrew how they want to “see Jesus” (Jn 12:21). In the Acts of the Apostles, we see the “wall dividing” (Ep 2:14) Gentile and Jew dismantling and, in Antioch first, the pagans pouring through the gap. St Paul, struck down by a “great light” en route to Damascus, is sent by God to the Gentiles “to open their eyes, so that they may turn from darkness to light” (Acts 26:18). The universal mission of the Church begins.
So, what happens today? At Christmas, we keep the birth of Christ. Next Sunday, at the feast of the Lord’s Baptism, we remember our birth as children of God by baptism. Today, as the Gentile magi enter the house, and see the child with Mary, his mother, and fall down in worship, there is another birth: the birth of the Church, the Ekklesia. “The birthing of Christ”, said St Leo, “is the origin of the Christian people, and the birthday of the Head is the birthday of the Body.” “Unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given”; we are given a Lord and a Leader – at Christmas. And then, at Epiphany, we are given a place, a home, a people to belong to, a mother, the Church. From the time of man’s Fall, from the time of the Tower of Babel, humanity’s unity had been shattered and human beings scattered, broken up into various tribes and nations. Superimposed on that came the further division of Gentile and Jew. Now, aglow on the lap of Mary, shines a point of convergence, which gathers rather than scatters, in whom all things hold together (Col 1:17). Now, the nations begin to come to the dawning brightness. The light of faith takes hold of souls and ancient enemies find themselves side by side before a divine-human child. The Church expands in ever-growing circles around him, and does so generation after generation. A new kind of co-existence, beyond suspicion and hostility, has become possible. In the Body of Christ, there is space for the reconciliation of heaven and earth, angels and man, Gentile and Jew, rich and poor, aggressor and victim. “After this”, John the Seer will say, “I looked and behold, a great multitude, that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the lamb” (Rev 7:9). The magi prostrated themselves before the lamb on the throne of his mother, and already the same reality – Ekklesia – was visible.
Yes, let’s go back to the Gospel and to the magi, our spiritual fathers. What, after all, is it that we learn in the Church, “mother and teacher”? Why should we be overcome with gratitude at being part of such a family as hers? Because the house they entered is the house we have entered too, and in that house like them, we have been given a prioceless gift, worth more than all their gold, frankincense and myrrh. We have been given Someone to see and have learned the secret of our humanity: namely the gift of ourselves in worship. We have been given to see what the magi saw, the Child and his mother Mary; the Lamb of God John the Baptist saw; the dying Son of God the centurion saw; the risen Rabbuni Mary Magdalen saw; the One lifted up in bread and cup at every Mass, the One who will look at us as Saviour and judge when we die. And in the light of such seeing we meet the truth and become free to adore. We can let our pride slip away and fall to our knees. We can offer the poverty and wealth of ourselves. We can give ourselves. We can know what the magi knew as their quest arrived at its goal. St John would express it: “And we know that the Son of God has come, and has given us understanding so that we may know him who is true. And we are in him who is true, in his Son Jesus Christ” (1 Jn 5:20).