The arrival of the wise men in Bethlehem is one of the world’s most well-known stories. Although there is no certainty that these figures were actual kings, we do know something about them. The nature of their gifts means we know they were wealthy. They were influential as they attracted the attention and bribery of King Herod. And we know that they were – as their name in Scripture suggests – wise.
What made them wise, these travellers to Christ the King? Ultimately, the answer is simple. They were wise through their search for God. They made not only a significant physical journey but, through it, a gift of sacrifice and trust – in terms of what they left behind. What might they have turned their backs on in order to face the arid desert and unknown territories in search of the King of kings? What luxuries, what lives of peace, what kingdoms of their own, perhaps? None of their renunciation mattered in the light of their trust and wisdom, the assertion inside their hearts that they would find Him if they went out looking.
Where are we in this picture of trust and wisdom? Where in our lives do we go out looking? Is the call of our loving Creator a priority, a priority that makes it more than a Sunday morning appendage, and governs every day of our lives, governs our decisions, governs the words we choose to use to those we meet? Do we value the temporal security of home and money above the vocation to become a child of God? Do we choose to knock the message of Christ into a small, convenient shape so that we can live without it having to challenge us and change us? Are we open to being changed in ways that threaten our worldly standing?
And this is the next point about these enigmatic travellers of today’s Gospel. They were open. Yes, they were rich, they were well educated, they no doubt had people in their power. But did this cut them off from remaining in a posture of openness? Clearly not, because their openness shines through their journey, as well as their destination, in a special way. Can they have possibly imagined that their long journey would end in a dirty backstreet of an obscure town, deep inside a rude shelter designed for housing animals? Let us imagine this for a moment, from their perspective. We arrive there after a long and probably difficult journey, and we see no palace, no royal trumpets, no prosperity, nothing on a par with the gifts we have brought with us. Perhaps we think we have it all wrong. Perhaps we become angry at ourselves for being so wrong in our projections. Maybe we blame one of our companions, saying, ‘See, I told you it was the wrong way’, or some other such rebuke, to make ourselves feel a little less stupid. Yet what did these kings do? They remained open to the extraordinary logic of God’s love, and fell down before Christ, adoring Him.
Where are we in the wise men’s openness towards God? Do we follow the path only when it is convenient to do so, only when the stepping stones are well-spaced, clean and dry? Or do we remain attentive to the opportunity of encounter with God? When darkness falls on our way, to we blame the one who leads us through it, or do we carry on, exclaiming: ‘though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, no evil would I fear.’? Do we allow ourselves the openness to live outside of our own stilted vision, or does everything we subscribe to have to pass through that narrow prism of our ego?
Their wisdom also came in the community aspect of their search for God. They joined forces, seeking Him through their combined efforts and resources. At their journey’s end, too, their act of adoration was community-based, nestled not only within the Holy Family, but alongside fellow kings, the poorest of the poor, and God’s beautiful animals.
Where are we in the community-based journey of those wise men? Are we travellers alongside the ones we love as well as those we do not love? As we journey, do we allow these people to change us, to help guide us, or must we be in charge? Are we the instruments of God’s peace to those around us, regardless of differences that are such stumbling blocks to humanity: race, skin colour, age, education, background, etc? Do we fall down before Christ within a community of others who love Him? Are we happy to pool our resources as did the first disciples, without developing selfish niggles? Are we happy to stand with a community of faith, even when that community is in crisis?
These wise men also listened and responded to dreams. Notably, they heard that they were to return home another way. We know, then, that they paid heed to prayerful channels of grace and were led to safety, away from the jealous clutch of King Herod. In so doing they also possibly saved the life of Jesus at that moment in time.
Where are we in the world of prayer and contemplation? Do we see ourselves as contemplatives, as is the calling of all Christian? These channels of grace are open to all of us, yet they are so often pooh-poohed as hocus pocus or mere child’s talk. We cannot see grace so we disbelieve. We don’t hear the words of God in the way we want, so we drift away from Him. Do we stand up for prayer, are we witnesses to the presence of mystery in this world, or do we cap our realities just above our heads, insisting that man must be the most powerful entity in the world?
Perhaps these wise men – wise by their search for God – can teach us a great deal, and today’s feast presents us with a wonderful and timely opportunity to re-evaluate our journey. As we enter into 2019 with fresh minds and new resolutions, we might examine the destination we have picked, the way we carry it out and who we travel with along the way. Where in our life are we those wise men, searching for Christ through a world of darkness?