Sunday, January 08, 2006

Follow the Star

(The Solemnity of the Epiphany-Year B;This homily was given 8 January, 2006, at Our Lady of Mercy, East Greenwich, R.I.; read Matthew 2:1-12)

This morning we celebrate the feast of the Epiphany. The word “epiphany” means “appearance” or “manifestation.” What we celebrate is that Christ is made manifest not only as the Messiah and King of the Jews, but as the light to all nations, the salvation of all peoples. As we heard in the responsorial Psalm: Lord, every nation on earth will adore You.

Our Gospel this morning is a familiar one: The story of the Magi, the Wise Men. God is “made manifest,” makes Himself known to them by the appearance of a star; they follow that star and come to worship Christ in Bethlehem. Their story is a remarkable journey of faith, and it is a journey that each one of us will encounter in our own way as God is made manifest to us and calls us forth to worship Him.

“We have seen his star in the East” (Matthew 2:2), the Magi announce to King Herod. In the East. The Magi are outsiders, living in a country far from the land of Israel. They were far away from the town of Bethlehem; but not far, it would seem, from God.

Many Scripture scholars believe that the Magi were from the land of Persia; the Persians devoted themselves to the study of the stars, and so it was there that God chose to reveal Himself. Seeing this great star appear in the sky they were drawn to it; they left the place where they were and they followed it.

In our own lives, God often makes Himself known in the things that are familiar. He comes to us in the midst of our ordinary lives and reveals Himself in extraordinary ways. We see this all throughout the Scriptures:

Think about Moses, tending the flock of his father-in-law as a simple and humble shepherd. God reveals Himself to him in the burning bush and Moses is never the same.

Look at the first Disciples of Christ, standing on the docks in Galilee after a long, hard day of fishing. The Son of God walks right into their lives, right into their businesses, and says, “Come, follow me.”

We see it in the Magi, who were expecting anything but the God of Israel to appear in the Persian sky. But do we really believe that the same God can make Himself known to us?

St. Jose Maria Escrivá, a saint from our own time, canonized only a few short years ago, says that:

Like the Magi we have discovered a star—a light and a guide in the sky of our soul. ‘We have seen his star in the East and have come to worship Him (Matthew 2:2).’ We have had the same experience. We too noticed a light shining in our soul and growing increasingly brighter. It was a desire to live a fully Christian life, a keenness to take God seriously.
—Escrivá, Christ is Passing By, #32

Have we experienced that desire in our lives recently? God often makes Himself known to us in the ordinary desires of our hearts. It is there that He calls us to follow Him, to lead “a fully Christian life.”

It has been said that God loves us just as we are, but that He simply loves us too much to leave us that way! If we are going “to take God seriously,” then we must be willing to follow Him wherever He leads us. The Magi in our Gospel this morning did exactly that.

But a strange thing happened on the way to Bethlehem: at some point in their journey—we do not know when—the Magi lost the star. It was no longer before them and so they were forced to do what men almost never do: they were compelled to stop and to ask for directions!

St. John Chrysostom, the great 4th century preacher, says that:

The star had been hidden from them so that, on finding themselves without their guide, they would have no alternative but to consult the Jews. In this way the birth of Jesus would be known to all.
—Chrysostom, Homily on Matthew, #7

The Magi were learned men of great pride and dignity, but they were willing to humble themselves and ask the people who knew far more than they did about this Messiah whose star they had seen in the East.

In our own time, unfortunately, this humility, this willingness to seek the Lord where He may be found, is sadly lacking. Our culture is one that desires to stand on its own authority, to seek guidance and direction from no one.

People move from star to star, from one religious experience to another: from Christianity to Kabala, from Buddhism to Hedonism, and everywhere else in between. But do they ever really find what they are looking for? W. H. Auden, in his poem “September 1, 1939”, describes it this way:

Faces along the bar
Cling to their average day.
The lights must never go out,
The music must always play . . .
Lest we should see where we are,
Lost in a haunted wood,
Children afraid of the night
Who have never been happy or good.

Maybe sometimes we, too, find ourselves moving from star to star, trying all kinds of things that will make our lives more meaningful, more worthwhile, hoping for something new that will change the direction we are going in. But all the while, what we are really looking for, what we really need is God; as St. Augustine says, “Our hearts are restless, O God, until they rest in You.”

But we will never come to truly know God as deeply as He desires if we are unwilling to humble ourselves and seek Him in the Church that Christ founded. God has given us the Scriptures, His very word to instruct and guide us. He has given us the teachings of our faith, by which we can build our lives on the solid foundation that is Christ. He has poured out His very life for us in the Sacraments—cleansed us from our sins, given us His Body and His Blood to nurture and strengthen us.

These are the things we need to turn to when the star goes out in our lives. We need to have the humility to seek the Lord where He may be found. The Magi were willing to do that. If we want to grow closer to God, we must be willing to do the same.

Matthew tells us that after they consulted the Jews, the Magi set out,

And behold, the star that they had seen at its rising preceded them, until it came and stopped over the place where the child was. They were overjoyed at seeing the star.
—Matthew 2:9-10

We may, for a time, lose sight of God; we may lose that sense of His closeness, feel as if He is not as near to us as He once was. But God never loses sight of us; we are never out of His sight. The star returned and the Magi were overwhelmed with joy! At that point they came to the end of their journey, the goal of all that they had set out for:

On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother. They prostrated themselves and did him homage.
—Matthew 2:11

Literally, they worshipped Him. The word used in the Scriptures means adoration; it is translated into the Latin phrase ad-oratio. It means a mouth to mouth, face to face relationship. The Magi came face to face with the living God.

The very goal and end of our lives is to be in that same relationship. God does not want us to love Him from a distance. God did not become man so that we could remain distant from Him; Christ did not die on the cross so that we could worship Him from a distance. He wants us close. Like the Magi, we are called by God to encounter the person of Jesus, to adore him face to face.

Are we ready to do that? Are we willing to draw that close to Christ, to worship Him in a real and intimate way? 2000 years ago, these Wise Men from the East sought Jesus and worshiped Him where He was found; today, some 2000 years later, wise men and women still do.