The Epiphany of the Lord – January 8, 2023
St. Paul – Lyons, KS
Isaiah 60:1-6; Psalm 72:1-2, 7-8, 10-13; Ephesians 3:2-3a, 5-6; Matthew 2:1-12
It Was A Real Star
A couple of years ago—I don’t know if you remember this—but a few years ago, in December of 2020, every newsfeed online and on social media exploded with everyone making sure you knew that they were outside watching the “great conjunction” of Jupiter and Saturn. About once every 400 years, Jupiter and Saturn’s paths cross extremely close, and about every 800 years it happens at night. So it was just an incredible astronomical event. Go look it up, I don’t make stuff like this up.
The Magi, the “Three Wisemen,” the “Three Kings”—this is believed to be the exact same “star” they followed to find Jesus. Most biblical scholars and astronomers agree that the “star” the Magi saw all those years ago was the same “star” everyone could see a few years ago: what looked like one bright star was actually the “conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn in the constellation of Pisces” (Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives, 99).
The question for us today, though, is: Why is the arrival of the Magi such a big deal? Yeah, we get it, it’s a nice story: three visitors from far away bring gifts to cute little baby Jesus. But the Church doesn’t have huge feasts like the Epiphany because it’s a nice story to tell. This isn’t story time. Why is the arrival of the Magi such a big deal? Why is our attention fixed on the Magi? What is the great mystery, and what does it say about our lives?
The Restless Kings
These “Magi from the East”—these men represent anyone, all of us. They are people who have been searching for truth, for meaning, for purpose, for an escape from the meaninglessness we so often feel in our day to day life. They are men of hope, of longing, a burning desire. They’re searching for that “something,” that ultimate something that will fulfill. And they’re restless in their search. They’re like St. Augustine, that line I have quoted many times: “Our hearts are restless until they rest in you” (Confessions). They’re seeking the ultimate, the transcendent, the divine, God.
That’s what I mean when I say they’re us: each and every one of us, each and every single person in your family, in your neighborhood, in the city … everyone is searching for God, whether they know it or not. Our hearts are wired for God. “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.”
So these Magi. One day, in their constant and restless searching, looking for a sign, for anything that will point them to what they are looking for, they see it: this “star,” Jupiter and Saturn coming together in the constellation of Pisces. And they drop everything and follow it. Why? I mean, think about it: seems like a bold move. I mean, I saw it too; doesn’t mean I was tempted to pack up and follow it. But, while we looked up and saw a great astronomical event, tried to take a picture to post, and then moved on—the Magi saw so much more.
In their time, Jupiter was considered the planet of the kings, of the gods. Saturn was the planet of the Jewish people. And the constellation of Pisces was the constellation of the nation of Israel. So when we hear that they “followed” the star, we’re talking about how they interpreted the signs: in the land of Israel (Pisces), among the Jewish people (Saturn), a king has been born, a king that was also divine (Jupiter). So you have to imagine they asked themselves the question: Was this divine king in Israel the one who would provide an answer to their restless searching? Again, imagine them: they would have been looking for any sign, just anything to push them in the right direction. And clearly, they were convinced that this was the sign they had been waiting for! So they dropped everything, and they set out for the land of the Jews.
And where do you think they would go? If you were looking for a new born king, among the Jewish people, in the land of Israel—where would you go? Naturally, they show-up at King Herod’s front door, in Jerusalem, the capitol, ready to congratulate him on the birth of his new son! They say, “Hey! We’re here! Where’s the newborn king of the Jews? We saw his star at its rising and have come to do him homage” (c.f., Matthew 2:2).
The Magi knock on the palace door: that’s where a new king of Israel should have been born. They shows up with their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. But they don’t find what they are looking for. Not in the palace, not in high society, not in the place where they assumed they would find it. They go to the place everyone would have told them to go! But they come up empty.
So in a last-ditch effort, the religious leaders are called in, and the Scriptures are consulted. And as a result of that, they’re sent to look in Bethlehem. Bethlehem! A little dumpy town six miles south of Jerusalem. Not exactly what you would call “regal.” Not a palace, but a scandalously normal place. But they go! And in this normal place, this place where nothing screams “divine king who will satisfy your restless heart”—here, in Bethlehem, they find Everything.
Again, the question: Why is the arrival of the Magi such a big deal? Why is our attention fixed on them? Well, the answer is another question: Can you see yourself in them? We’re not here trying to retell stories because we need to learn some “Jesus history.” We need to know: Can I see myself in them?
Like I said, each and every one of us, everyone in your family, in your neighborhood, in the city has the same restless heart the Magi did … everyone is searching for God, whether they know it or not. Pay attention to your heart, that sensation, that restlessness: name it.
The “star” that God has given us to follow isn’t Jupiter and Saturn in the constellation of Pisces. It’s our heart. “The desire for God is written in the human heart…and God never ceases to draw [us] to himself. Only in God will [we] find the truth and happiness [we] never [stop] searching for” (Catechism 27).
And so what do we do? Just like the Magi, we start following our heart. In good faith, we start seeking whatever it is our heart seems to be be pointing us to. And naturally, we go looking in the “normal places.” Just like the Magi went looking for a king at the palace, just like everyone around them told them to go knock on the palace door—it’s the same for us: we go look wherever we think we can find happiness, we go try all the things everyone around us tells us to try. We go to the “palaces” of the modern world: romance, work and achievement and career, money and food and cars and clothes and stuff, politics. But just like the Magi? We come up empty.
So in a last-ditch effort, maybe we could consult the Church, maybe we consult the Scriptures. Maybe the direction given to us isn’t to the “normal places” that everyone tells us to go, but to places we might consider a little “dumpy,” scandalously normal even. And maybe if we go, maybe it’s there that we will find Everything we were looking for.
Our Parish Pilgrimage: Rerouting…
The KEY for us—the key isn’t even in the Gospel today, it’s only implied. We’re told, “When Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea…behold, magi from the east arrived.” They arrived. Which means? They made the journey, they made the pilgrimage—they dropped everything in their normal, day-to-day life, and made this search, the pursuit of this star, the desire of their hearts, the number one priority in their life!
I’ve talked about it before, I’m going to talk about it again. Here in the parish, in just a few weeks, we’re about to begin a journey, a pilgrimage of sorts, and we’re calling it, “Rerouting…” Rerouting is a way to engage the faith in a real and practical and relatable way, to make authentic connections with other people on something other than sports and the weather, and to live this and walk this path together. The Magi had that! They had a very real and practical path in front of them; what brought them together wasn’t just sports and weather but the deepest truth of themselves, the search they all shared; and they lived it and walked it together.
As you know, I’m leaving for a pilgrimage to the Holy Land on Monday. And it truly is that: a pilgrimage. St. Augustine says that a pilgrimage is a “self-imposed exile…in which one searches for God’s truth.” A pilgrimage is an exterior journey in order to undergo an interior one. And on this pilgrimage I’m in search of renewal, conversion, and transformation. I’m asking the question, “Why did everyone abandon everything in order to follow Christ? And how can I do the same?” I’m seeking that ever deeper surrender to Christ. But I’m also using this time to entrust our parish pilgrimage to God, to ask Him to lead us back to Himself, deeper into His Church, and to help us discover who we were born to be.
This is a privileged moment in the life of our parish as we are about to make this pilgrimage together. But we have to decide to make the journey. We have to decide to take our heart seriously, to take our desire for God seriously. Like I mentioned last week, we’re here right now, but we might be a million miles away. We “go to church” on Sundays, but maybe “we” aren’t really here. Let’s make this journey together. Let’s make this our priority.