Sunday Scriptures

Imitate the Wise Men: Embrace Change

By Father Robert M. Powers

WHEN I WAS 25, I was not happy when I learned that a second beloved dimension of Christmas was not true. I still loved the custom of Christmas gifts and appreciated what I thought was its obvious apologetic in Matthew’s account of the Magi’s visit.

A friend who was a graduate student in theology upset me with an interpretation of the gifts of the Magi that he had read. According to some biblical scholars, those well-known gifts of the Wise Men were not exquisite Tiffany-like gifts that inspired gift giving at Christmas. The gold, frankincense and myrrh were the tools of the trade of the pagan Magi, astrologers whose profession was a mix of sincere scientific inquiry and of sorcery.

When they laid these gifts before the Christ Child, these scholars argued, the Magi were leaving behind paraphernalia they no longer needed.

Over the years, I have grown to love this interpretation of the gifts of the Epiphany. The exchange of gifts at Christmas, such a thrilling experience in my childhood and youth, means little to me now. As a priest, far more exciting to me is the gift of conversion, both within myself and the people around me.

The depiction of the Magi’s gifts as real symbols of their conversion, initially jarring to me three decades ago, now strikes me as being at the heart of the Epiphany.

These mysterious men, who traveled far to follow the unique star over Bethlehem, represent well the human race without the enlightenment of the Gospel. They were good men, clearly made in the image and likeness of God, with a goodness that was not lost with entry of original sin into the human condition. They are sincere seekers of the truth long before they arrive in Bethlehem.

But the Magi are also an example of why baptism is essential to live a good, holy life that is dedicated exclusively to love. Their lives were a syncretism of respect for the truth as scientists and of a manipulation and control of that truth as practitioners of paganism.

They needed the presence of Jesus Christ in their lives to see that contradiction and to fully embrace the truth.

I picture the Magi as young men, book smart with impressive academic and professional credentials. But they were also naive and vulnerable, as many youth are. They were received with great warmth by Herod, the Roman’s quisling in Jerusalem. They thought he was sincere in his wish to visit the newborn king of the Jews at Bethlehem and couldn’t imagine him capable of the massacre of the Holy Innocents. They had not yet learned that not everyone is who he or she appears to be on the surface. They were men of intellect, not men of the heart as well as of the mind.

Protestant theologian Stanley Hauerwas, a longtime admirer of many Catholic beliefs and practices, once wrote that the reason many Catholics defended the unborn, the poor, the elderly and the sick was because of the omnipresent image of the Christ Child in the Catholic world.

The sight of that newborn King of the Jews under the star was not what the Magi expected. Their attachment to paganism melted at the manger. They consecrated themselves to Him as the sole source of truth.As a symbol of their gift of themselves to Him, they left the gold, frankincense and myrrh of their former way of life at His feet.

No longer cold men of science, they were now also men of the heart, like St. Joseph, who listened to God in their dreams. No longer naive, they could recognize the treachery of Herod.Transformed by the truth of the Gospel, Matthew reports, they went home by another route. Conversion means change, change that is liberating.

The Epiphany inspires us to imitate the Wise Men and leave behind whatever gets in the way of our relationship with the Word of God, the source of all truth.

Readings for the Epiphany Of the Lord

Isaiah 60: 1-6
Psalm 72: 1-2, 7-8, 10-11, 12-13
Ephesians 3: 2-3A, 5-6
Matthew 2: 1-12

Father Robert M. Powers is the pastor of St. Patrick’s Church, Long Island City, and director of campus ministry at LaGuardia Community College.

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