On December 22, we started winter. On that day, the sun came up a little before 7:30am. It went down around 4:50pm. That is about nine hours of daylight and fifteen hours of night, six more hours of night than day. This was a very important time for many ancient civilizations. Some scientists believe that ancient monuments like Stonehenge were aligned a certain way to catch the setting sun within the monument. The Irish monument at Newgrange was aligned so that the rising sun on the first day of winter illuminated the entire structure.
To the ancients, this “shortest day of the year” meant the daylight would soon return. That meant warmer temperatures and the beginning of the growing season. Even in our modern society, it means the same things, especially the return of the warmth. Our celebration of today’s Feast of the Epiphany is all about this return of the light.
We hear this very clearly in our first reading from the prophet Isaiah. The prophet uses light to make a contrast between Jerusalem and the surrounding countries. These countries, all pagan, are under thick clouds. They are covered in darkness. Yet, there is light. This light is shining from the Lord on Jerusalem. The light does not go unnoticed either. Those living in darkness see it and it evokes a response in them.
All come streaming toward the light, and isn’t that true. When driving on a lonely road in the country, don’t we all feel some small amount of comfort when we come across a few lighted buildings or when we come into a well-lit town. The darkness is always a little intimidating. It represents the unknown. Light is a sign of civilization. Those who are streaming toward the light don’t come empty handed either. They bring all they have and are welcomed.
For Christians, the light we have is a person-Jesus Christ. He brings us the promise of eternal salvation, life unending with him in heaven, and union with the Father. Like the light mentioned in Isaiah, Jesus beckons all to come to him. From the very beginning, humanity’s response as been quite varied. We see that in our famous gospel story of the magi. There are many who are hostile to Jesus’ invitation. We see this in Herod’s response. To Herod, Jesus was a threat. He was the King of the Jews. If the magi were looking for the King of the Jews, they should have come to him. He would not put up with a “Newborn King of the Jews.”
Those who had Jesus crucified were not going to put up with a “Grown Up King of the Jews.” It should be no surprise then that today, there is still a great hostility to Jesus. Being his follower means taking up our own crosses and following him. It means living according to his teachings. Jesus does beckon, but he also makes demands. Like Herod, the Sanhedrin, and the Roman rulers, many answer these demands with outright hostility.
Another reaction that we see to Jesus’ invitation in this story is indifference. When the magi showed up in Jerusalem with their message of a newborn king, wouldn’t you have thought that the chief priests and scribes would have taken a great interest? This was the possible culmination of all they had been waiting for. Yet, they quickly disappear from the story. Matthew doesn’t explain their lack of action. My thinking is that something got in the way of their curiosity. Could it have been fear of Herod’s response to a threat? Maybe it was pride. After all, there is no way pagans could have seen the coming of the Jewish Messiah when they didn’t.
Finally, we see the invitation accepted from the most unlikely of individuals- pagans from the east. They were not Jewish. They looked for God not in the Law or the Torah. They did however know enough about Judaism to use their wisdom and knowledge of planets, stars, and their interactions with constellations to look for and identify a sign. When they saw that sign, they set out on what probably was a pretty long journey through desert, heat, and foreign lands.
Whatever the nature of this star sign was, it led the magi right to the “New Born King of the Jews.” Finding this king not in a palace and not sought out by his own people didn’t seem to discourage them. Matthew said they were overjoyed. They bowed before Jesus and presented their now famous gifts. God rewarded both their initial interest, their hard work, and their faith. The magi were one of the first to see God’s promise to humanity fulfilled.
With the arrival of the magi, we see the beginning of the fulfillment of the prophesy in Isaiah. I would encourage anyone who has the opportunity to go to Jerusalem and the Holy Land to go. Our tour group was one of many. We saw the faithful from all over the world. It is true that all now stream toward Jerusalem. Of more importance though, the story of the magi gives us a clue about how God works.
The invitation to faith in Jesus Christ goes out to everyone, regardless of their cultural background. This invitation is geared toward the personal circumstances of those called. We are not called in the same way. He called the magi through something they would understand, the stars, not just through scripture. God is also no respecter of persons. What should have been the response of the leaders of the Jewish Faith when the magi showed up in Jerusalem? Their indifferent response did not stop God from rewarding this group of pagans. Let us never be so full of our own spiritual selves that we don’t have room to learn from others.
Answering the invitation may take a long journey. The journey may lead us through spiritual deserts or through circumstances very foreign to our past experiences. We may encounter our own Herods or chief priests along the way. The conclusion of our journey, like the magi’s discovery of a king born to working class parents, may be very different from our pre-conceived ideas or prejudices. Please, keep an open mind before Jesus Christ.
It is interesting to note that after the magi’s visit, they went home via another route. No one is the same after answering Jesus’ invitation. I have heard many spiritual writers say that Jesus knows us better than we know ourselves. Answering the invitation will change us. In this time of winter darkness, the light of Jesus Christ still shines brightly and beckons us to him. Let us imitate the magi in our own ways and life circumstances to summon the spiritual courage and strength to answer. We can be sure that Jesus Christ waits for us at the end.