What The Magi Saw That Night
Published: January 5, 2012
“Oh, it’s the feast of the Epiphany, right? That’s about the three guys in fancy clothes, who show up in Bethlehem with gifts, correct? Yeah, I’ve heard about that one before.”
Maybe because we commemorate this day every year, it’s in danger of losing its sparkle, especially for those who have grown somewhat cynical over time.
We know “epiphany” means an awakening, a sudden changed way of seeing the world. And we can imagine that when the Magi gazed into the eyes of the Child, they saw something there that transformed them forever.
What would it be like to look into the eyes of God? We can only guess.
As St. Peter Chrysologus wrote in the fifth century, the three kings saw “heaven on earth, earth in heaven, man in God (and) God in man …”
And, he adds, the men didn’t question what they saw.
But many people today certainly do question the whole notion of the Incarnation. They shake their heads sadly at Christmas, thinking it absurd that anyone would believe such a tale!
God coming to earth as a baby and being born in a stable among animals! That same God growing up to suffer an excruciating death on the cross!
“Impossible!” the cynics shout. “Insane and ridiculous!” the atheists chime in.
Having faith—as the Magi did—means refusing to subject everything to the rigid dictates of reason. It means being willing to believe as children do, with a certain degree of trusting innocence.
Because let’s face it: The whole story of God in a manger, and three grown men prostrating themselves before an infant only makes sense if you change your frame of reference.
But how do we do this? One way is to recall that this same baby grew into a man who made a very startling proclamation:
“Unless you be converted, and become as little children, you shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.”
The deep message of this passage is nicely shown in a scene from the British novel, “Brideshead Revisited,” by Evelyn Waugh.
In the story, a cynical man accuses his friend Sebastian of talking nonsense because Sebastian believes in “Christmas and the star and the three kings and the ox and the ass.”
The friend, perplexed, asks Sebastian how he could believe such a thing—and Sebastian replies, quite simply, “Oh yes, I believe that. It’s a lovely idea.”
The friend objects, “But you can’t believe things because they’re a lovely idea.” And Sebastian says, “But I do. That’s how I believe.”
And this is the heart of the matter, of course.
Being a Christian means accepting the idea of God becoming a tiny child as something quite beautiful and lovely—and quite true.
There are many scriptural ways to prove the tale is true, but cynics, alas, reject Scripture, so that doesn’t help at all.
However, I would point out to the cynic that God showing up as a baby in the manger is a story no human being could have invented.
It is a completely mind-boggling notion—and one that only God could have come up with.
On the feast of the Epiphany, we celebrate the fact that the three men who glimpsed this baby’s face were changed forever.
One obvious proof of their transformation is their decision to break the deal they had made with Herod, who wanted them to divulge the baby’s whereabouts.
They reneged on that promise because they heeded a message that came to them in a dream.
“But, come on,” I imagine the cynic saying, “who believes messages in dreams? That’s ridiculous.”
And if you were to claim that an angel had appeared to you—as Mary and Joseph both did—the cynic would conclude that you were suffering from a delusion.
But what if you told a little child about an angel appearing in a dream? And what if you told a little child the story about God coming to earth as a baby?
The child would accept these stories as lovely and quite true because children are born with the essential ingredient Christ said would get us to heaven.
It is an open and trusting heart, something that can dwindle with the passage of time.
On the feast of the Epiphany, we can begin reclaiming our childlike heart by imitating the Magi, by kneeling down before the Christ Child and humbling ourselves in the face of impossible odds—and following him to the cross.
Artwork is by Jef Murray. The Murrays are parishioners at St. Thomas More Church in Decatur. Readers may contact them at email@example.com.