Every great adventure, every groundbreaking discovery, begins with a question. “Will you marry me?” marks the beginning of the journey of married life. “What if I mix this chemical with that chemical?” or “Hmmm, that’s funny, I wonder why…” kick off scientific explanation. “I wonder if this dish would taste better with bacon?” Well, that question never need be asked: the answer, invariably, is yes.
Now, compare the excitement of an inquisitive person with someone who is totally closed off to new things. Such people see no need to ask questions because they are comfortable with the way things are. They have made up their mind, they rest assured in their convictions, and they stand convinced that they see things as they really are. They are fine with the status quo and grow frustrated when people around them ask too many questions or make suggestions that would require them to change their lives in any way. My mind goes, immediately, to a figure like Archie Bunker.
Matthew’s account of the Magi’s journey should give us pause, because it forces us to question with whom we identify ourselves: the Magi or Herod? As Pope Francis observes, citing St John Chrysostom, “the Magi did not set out because they had seen the star, but they saw the star because they had already set out.” Night after night, the Magi gazed upon the stars and charted their movements. Their hearts and minds were so attentive to the movements of the heavens that, when they detected something different off in the distance, their curiosity was piqued and they set out. It’s not just that they saw something different that night, they saw differently: with eyes open to the new and unimagined. The eye of the human heart, trained through years of waiting and watching, saw what the rest of the world took for granted.
This is prayer, isn’t it? A patient waiting and watching that trains us to be mindful of God’s presence wherever, and whenever, it is to be encountered. The Magi saw the star and, moved by inquisitiveness, followed the star-lit path toward the One through whom all of history would be renewed. They left the security of home confident that the light they followed would direct them and, in their quest, they discovered a truth that continues to confound believers today: the true king of the universe dwells not in a palace but in a humble manger. The Magi discovered what we are called to celebrate in every era: God is encountered in the most unlikely of places.
Then again, perhaps we are more like Herod. The joyful question of the Magi pierces Herod’s heart. He does not want to change his way of doing things and hears the Good News of Christ’s birth as a threat to his power and prestige. Herod and Jerusalem were “greatly troubled” because if the true king has been born, it means they have to change their lives. If Christ is king, Herod takes second place. All of his building projects, all of the pomp and circumstance surrounding his person…all of this is for nothing if Christ is king. Thus he must be destroyed.
Likewise do the people of Jerusalem fret. If the king resides in a manger in Bethlehem and not a palace, perhaps Jerusalem is not the center of the world its residents think it is. The very city and palace walls meant to give security prove, with Christ’s Advent, stifling. Better to silence the claim, to ignore the Magi’s tidings of joy, than to risk having to change our self-understanding.
We are, each one of us, called on the Feast of the Epiphany to cast our lot with the Magi. We are called to open the gates of our hearts to the Good News and allow Christ to throw us off balance as we recognize his centrality in history. In this new year, how can our desire to know God, our longing to grow closer to Jesus, break us free from our dull routines and stir us onto a new adventure? Do we have the courage to open the eye of our hearts and allow our desire for God to lead us on a new road or to guide us to a destination we cannot yet see clearly?
Let us, then, be renewed this year by the Good news. Today, let us journey with the Magi and discover with them God’s presence in the most unlikely of places. For then as now, Christ our King is not to be found in glittering towers or gilded palaces. If we truly long to find Jesus, we must strike out to the frontiers and the margins and kneel alongside the Magi before the delicate beauty of a poor and vulnerable child, a perceived threat to the status quo, born amongst cow and sheep, destined to be Israel’s Shepherd.