Adoration of the Magi (c. 1660) by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo
With each passing year, traditional Christmas cards seem to become more and more relics of the past. I am as bad about sending them out as anyone. In the age of ever-present social media, and with Skype and FaceTime so accessible for many of us, the practice of actually sitting down to write out Christmas greetings by hand seems increasingly quaint, and perhaps for that reason, all the more meaningful.
If Christmas cards seem increasingly scarce these days, then far rarer still are receiving personal Christmas greetings. In the Gospel today, we heard the story of the original personalized Christmas greeting, not in a card but in a visit. The Solemnity of the Epiphany presents us with an annual opportunity to reflect upon the Magi and the adoration that they come to bring the Christ-child. On the one hand, the Magi are very familiar to us – wearing their fine robes and crowns, bearing gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, accompanied by camels. On the other hand, they are quite mysterious – they come from an unknown country, from an unknown past, and then disappear as quickly as they have come, to an unknown future. While many scholars have speculated about who exactly these Wise Men are, and how they could have known about Christ’s birth, the Gospel account highlights instead the purpose for which they have come – to worship the newborn Jewish king. More than where they are from, or what they do after, what is important is the fact that the Magi have actually come in adoration.
As we heard, they came to adore a king – but surely not the kind of king they expected to find. Jesus’s birth was foretold by prophecies and heralded by the light of a star, and yet the Magi find him in a lowly place. It is interesting that the Gospel account gives no indication that the Magi are taken aback by Jesus’s humble circumstances. There’s no doubt the Magi would have expected to find him in some palace, not in a humble dwelling; but nonetheless, having found him, they are not shocked or repulsed but only filled with great joy. And then, as we heard, having presented him the gifts they had brought, they return to their own country by another way.
There is a lot in this account, and about today’s feast in general, that is worthy of our reflection. But perhaps it is sufficient to return to the central theme: the adoration of a king, but a king born in a very un-kingly way. Whatever their expectations, whatever their preconceptions, the Magi worship the one they find. We know even better than the Wise Men precisely who this newborn child is: not just the king of the Jews, but the God of the Jews, born in human flesh. This appearance of God in our world – as a humble child, small and vulnerable – probably does not fit our expectations. It is not how we would have drawn it up – it’s not how we would imagine God revealing himself in our midst. And yet it is what happened.
If there is a lesson for us in this, to reflect upon on this great feast, it is perhaps that God’s humility must always prompt humility in us as a response. We all are guilty at times of creating Christianity in our own image, so to speak. We tend to make of our faith and our relationship with God what we believe it should be. For example, some of us gravitate more toward the doctrinal and theological aspects of our Christian tradition. For others among us, we are attracted to the social witness of Christianity, engaging with various causes and issues in the world around us. Those things are good and necessary, but they are not the core of our faith. Our Christian identity cannot be reduced to dogmatism, or activism, or any other “-ism.” Instead it is about what the Magi demonstrate for us: about a basic encounter with a Person, born into our history, who reveals God to us, and then adoring him.
The great Jesuit theologian Avery Dulles once wrote, “The Incarnation does not give us a ladder to climb out of the human condition. It gives us a drill that lets us burrow down into the heart of everything that is, and there, to find it shimmering with divinity.” Surely, such a drill can only be wielded by humble hands. Until we have grappled with the reality of God becoming Man in the person of Jesus – until the profound humility of his coming elicits from us a similar response, humble, adoring – then we really haven’t grasped what our relationship with God is all about.
It is worthwhile perhaps to reflect upon what “adoration” looks like for us in the 21st century. The Church gives us a certain number of basic foundational points: Mass every Sunday and Holy Day of Obligation; confession at least once a year, but probably more often if we’re being honest with the state of our own souls; observing days of fasting and abstinence, and helping provide for the needs of the Church; taking time for daily prayer, whether it be praying the rosary, reading Scripture, quiet meditation or Christian reading. But those make up just the starting point. If we really want to grow in worship, we have to look for God where he presents himself in the unexpected and seemingly ordinary encounters of life. Jesus the newborn king meets us in other places too: around the dinner table, at the water cooler, in the checkout line, surfing the web, in traffic, on our phones, in disagreements and disappointments, in laughter of friends and loved ones, in the quiet moments of believing and being aware of his Real Presence in the Eucharist.
My friends, what kind of greeting will we bring this day, every day to the newborn king? Is it merely perfunctory piety, like a token Christmas card? Or do we instead need to learn how to adore, like the Magi can teach us? Amid the hustle and bustle of our lives, it is easy to let our worship become merely an hour on Sunday and a hasty prayer now and again. It is perhaps all too common to adopt a merely nominal notion of being a Christian. The Wise Men present us with an alternative witness today – that faith is a long and sometimes arduous journey, that we must be always willing to meet God not according to our expectations but rather as he presents himself each day and to be filled with joy at every humble opportunity to adore. That is a wisdom available to all of us if we are humble enough to receive it – a light to guide our steps if we are wise enough to follow it.