The Magi Seen as Seekers of the Truth

By Father David O’Connor
The feast of the Epiphany, traditionally celebrated on January 6, is now observed on the second Sunday after Christmas, and this year it was observed on Sunday, January 2. The word Epiphany in its Greek roots meant the appearance or manifestation of a god among people. The feast, generally, marks the manifestation or appearance of Jesus, the Savior, to the world.

Scholars agree there are a number of events that can be understood as epiphanies or manifestations of the Messiah – His birth at Bethlehem, His baptism in the Jordan, His first miracle at Cana and the visit of the Magi.

In the Eastern Church, the baptism of Jesus is the focus of the Epiphany feast while in the Catholic and Anglican churches, the focus is on the visit of the Magi. The scripture story of the visit of the Magi is found in Matthew 2:1-12. The theological focus in the latter is on “the Messiah being revealed to the Gentiles,” while, in the former, the theological focus is on “the making known of God’s Son in human form.”

In different cultures the Epiphany feast is known by different names – the Feast of the Kings, Women’s Christmas, Little Christmas.

In European countries, the feast comes at the end of the twelve (12) days of Christmas and is the time for removing the Christmas decorations.

The Epiphany feast has a special appeal to me because of the admiration I have for the Magi – whether they were kings, students of the stars, or seekers of meaning and truth – who left their homes country and journeyed into the unknown to find the One they were seeking.
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The Three Magi: Balthasar, Melchior, and Gaspar
from a late 6th century mosaic at the Basilica of Sant'Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna, Italy

My reflection, with or without theological foundation, is that the Magi can be viewed as a model for all people who seek truth, meaning and/or God in life. I see myself as a seeker of the truth, and not as one with a monopoly on the truth. In my reflection on the Magi, I use the image of a journey and its different stages.

Take a few moments to reflect on your life at this moment. Are you completely happy with your life or are you restless and searching for meaning or fulfillment in your life? I happen to believe that the answer to all our emptiness or searching will lead us to God. Name for yourself what you are seeking, what questions you want answered, and what is it that will bring you happiness.

Stage 1. The group we call Magi seem to be people who were searching for meaning/purpose in their life. They were conscious that they were not happy with their lives or the direction of their lives. They became restless and had a thirst for more spiritually. They decided that their situation necessitated a search even if they were not sure where it would lead them.

Many people today, whether affluent, lonely or impoverished, find themselves searching for meaning and hope and/or God in their lives. The old ways are not working for them, what they have worked hard for is not giving an adequate reward; and even for individuals who pray, their efforts at praying are not bringing consolation.

Our world and society has much hunger, grief, division, hurt, disappointment and brokenness. The story of the Magi offers hope, and it might be expressed this way, “Don’t just stay where you are; begin your search now.”

Stage 2. The Magi began their search and set out on the journey. In their culture there must have existed a belief that a god would intervene in human history and show himself among humankind. There was a sign, a star in the east, by which they were guided for a while. We are not sure why they were attracted to the star, nor are we told if this led them in the correct direction from the beginning.

My assumption is that, as with any search or journey into the unknown, they may well have made mistakes, wasted some time, got confused by detours and lost their way many times.

As you begin your search, whatever the purpose or object of your search might be, gather as much information as possible. Talk with the people whose advice you respect, share your concerns, seek advice and guidance. There is much you can learn from the experience of others who seem to have found answers. They may offer you guidance or simply raise questions to assist you with your search. Read the published material available to you. Ask for God’s guidance in your prayer.

Stage 3. I can well imagine that the Magi experienced times when they wondered if their search was futile and if they should return to their home place. But they found people along the way and got hints that gave them encouragement and renewed their conviction that their search was worthwhile. They stayed on the journey.

Do not be surprised if you experience darkness and discouragement. How true this would be of people who struggle with illness, grief, addiction, disappointment and loss.

I believe the Magi had to struggle with doubt. Even in the midst of struggle, one must stay on the journey and cling to the belief that God is present even if not felt by the searcher. Words of encouragement and insight from others bring hope. Ask God in prayer for that hope.

Stage 4. They traveled to the center of knowledge, of ancient manuscripts, of political power and a center of seers and prophets – the city of Jerusalem. They visited with the king (Herod) whose advisors spoke of an ancient prophesy (Micah 5:1-3) that a king would be born in Bethlehem. They were grateful for the king’s help and promised to return to him.

In your effort to find meaning, seek guidance and wisdom from the church community. This will offer direction, hope and light. The inspired word in the Bible offers wisdom. The sacramental graces of the Church community, the exemplary lives of its faith heroes (saints) – named and unnamed – and the persons with pastoral insights in the community can aid those who are searching. Have confidence that you will find a light to guide your search as did the Magi.

Stage 5. After their stop with Herod in Jerusalem, they set out once more. To their surprise, the star reappeared and led them to the place where they found the newborn king in Bethlehem. They knew they had found the one for whom they were searching. They laid their gifts before the king and gave their homage. They had completed their journey and achieved their goal.

An authentic search will lead you to the realization of your vision – discovering your mission in life, experiencing meaning and purpose, overcoming obstacles, and/or discovering God. The journey will be different for everyone and may involve detours, dead ends and delays.

The ancient writer assures us that “our hearts are restless until they rest in God.” The search will be rewarded; God the source of life will be experienced; Jesus the bringer of hope will be found.

Stage 6. The initial thought of the Magi was to retrace their steps to Jerusalem and Herod’s court, but a vision or inspiration prompted them to take a different route homeward. We can assume that they were forever changed by their journey and their experience of finding the One for whom they were seeking.

Our discovery of our mission or our finding whatever we are seeking will result in our life being changed forever. One will not go back the same journey, one will leave old habits behind, and one will live as a “new creation” with the privilege of being a member of the family of God. The Magi did not return to Jerusalem, the center of power and knowledge, but went home by another way as a people forever changed.

My Epiphany wish for you, the reader, is that you will have the courage to search for God in your life, that you will not be deterred by setbacks and self doubts, and that your search will be rewarded by discovering Him and being forever changed by that experience.
Father David O’Connor, a native of Limerick, Ireland, is pastor of Assumption Catholic Church and of St. Mary Basilica. He came to Mississippi during the civil rights era and has ministered in this state since. He is secretary of the local Ministerial Alliance and is chairman of the program for Continuing Formation for Ministry in the Jackson Diocese. He can be reached by Email.