A couple of weeks ago, we were blessed to witness the great conjunction of the planets, Saturn and Jupiter. From our perspective, their orbits aligned and they seemed to merge with one another in the sky, making them appear to be a single brighter entity.
Apparently, it has been about 800 years since such a sight was visible for the majority of the world. Some descriptions of this event have named it the "Christmas star," which seems to suggest that something similar may have happened around the time of Christ’s birth.
That’s a beautiful image to consider. Imagine three planets, though, followed by three different astrologers. As those bright lights in the sky merge, so do the journeys of three kings. Strangers become companions as their caravans converge. They continue their journey together as fellow pilgrims, all following a single brighter “star,” which illumines the path before them to Bethlehem.
In our gospel passage today, we’re presented with these three kings—or magi as they’re described in today’s account. Some traditions even give us their names: Balthasar, Melchior, and Gaspar.
As kings, they were men of wealth and influence. They each had kingdoms of their own, and had authority over the people in their lands. As magi, they were the scientists of the day. They were well-educated. They could see in the stars the Advent of the great prodigy who was to be born.
But they weren’t content with mere knowledge of the newborn king. The wanted to meet him. That desire overcame the natural preference for one’s own kingdom. They left behind their wealth and entered into the poverty of the desert. They abandoned the security of their palaces, opting for the unknown.
They left behind their influence as rulers, choosing to be pilgrims in a foreign land. They humbly subjected themselves to the laws of others; simply so that they could further humble themselves, by paying homage to the King of Kings.
They were willing to enter into a distant, and perhaps hostile territory, solely with the hope of gazing upon the face of the newborn King. Hope inspired them to leave everything behind, and begin a journey of faith. That's the power of a star that invites one to look above; to see beyond one's own kingdom.
How very different from the example we see from Herod. Herod was a king himself. Herod ruled Israel at the time of Christ’s birth. He had an army to enforce his will, with the endorsement of the Roman Empire. He had great wealth, power, and many possessions. But none of that brought him peace; because he was afraid of losing them. He didn’t know when his reign would come to an end.
Ironically, even though he was a king, he was still a slave to paranoia. That eventually ruined him and his family. He had murdered his relatives, feeling they threatened his rule. He ordered the massacre of every boy child at Bethlehem less than two years old, for fear of the Christ child, and the unknown future he represented.
Herod and his entourage knew where Christ was to be born. But how many of them bothered to go to seek out the Christ-child? For all of their knowledge, there was not one priest or scribe of Israel who made that journey to Bethlehem.
This contrast between kings gives us an example of hope which leads to liberation, and an example of fear which leads to isolation. We know which example we’re called to follow.
But ultimately, it’s the example of Christ we’re called to follow. Unwittingly, the kings were already becoming like the Lord whom they would adore.
Jesus, before them, emptied himself, and descended from the kingdom of heaven, in order to seek each one of us out, in his great mercy. He left behind him his wealth, power, and prestige. He entered into the unknown, trusting in the will of the Father. He entered into the exile of death for our salvation.
Today, we celebrate the Solemnity of the Epiphany of the Lord. We celebrate the Christ Child’s first appearance to the gentiles, represented by the three magi. That event required both God and king to leave behind their kingdoms. Today, we’re called to the same.
We’re invited into a new pilgrimage of faith as we begin this new year. That may require us leaving behind whatever wealth or influence we think we might have. We’re called to leave behind our possessions, if they hold us back from seeking Christ. We must be willing to abandon our palaces, if Jesus Christ is waiting for us in a stable. We’re called to lay aside our authority if it stops us from being obedient to Jesus.
May God give us, through the grace of the Mass, that inspiration to hope for something more than what we currently have; and courage to see beyond our own kingdoms, and journey towards a future that assures us the face of God.