Today’s feast is one of the most important in the Church’s calendar, for all sorts of reasons. In the past, and in some places still today, it is actually considered more important than Christmas, since the birth of Jesus was something hidden and private, whereas the Epiphany which we celebrate today represents the public demonstration that God has come among us, as his glory is revealed to the Wise Men from the East.
But there is something more personal, which touches each one of us, that makes this feast so special, and in a way it is connected with the very mysterious nature of the event it commemorates. The Bible doesn’t even tell us how many Wise Men there were: traditionally we speak of three, but only because of the three different gifts mentioned of gold, myrrh and frankincense. Were they kings as well as wise men? Again the Bible does not tell us. Where exactly did they come from? Perhaps from modern Iran or Iraq, or regions further east or south? And most bafflingly of all, why did they interpret the star they saw as portending the birth of a king, and why did it seem so important to them that they left their homelands to set out on what must have been an arduous journey? What did they think when they found this king, not in a palace, but in the humblest of circumstances imaginable, and what gave them the insight to see beyond this unpromising beginning to the glory of the infant Jesus?
So many questions, and we may well wonder why the Holy Spirit, who inspired Scripture, chose to leave so much unsaid. But the stories of the Bible, like many other great stories, are not just an interesting slice of history, they are stories that are meant to draw us in, to make us see ourselves in the story and question not just the details we have mentioned, but ourselves. And so perhaps the very mysterious nature of the story, so full of powerful symbols, makes it easier for us to do that.
And the central symbol of the story, wise men seeing a star and deciding to follow it, is indeed a challenging one for us at the beginning of the new year. What hopes and dreams, what experiences of something beyond our everyday world, are present on the horizon of our own lives and what do we do about them? C.S Lewis tells the story of a man he met after the Second World War who related a powerful experience of God he had had in the Egyptian desert while fighting the German army there. “And what effect did it have on you?” Lewis eagerly asked, only to be let down with a bump when the man said, “Oh, I forgot all about it when I came home.”
That star could represent any kind of hunger that at some time has stirred us in the depths of our hearts, a sense that there is something calling us from beyond, some discovery awaiting us if only we would dedicate ourselves wholeheartedly to the search. This was what the Advent season was meant to awaken in us, an alertness for God who does not usually shout at us but whispers quietly in the depths of our hearts. Someone once compared prayer to birdwatching, where a dedicated person will shut out every other distraction until they spot some slight movement or hear some barely audible sound that shows the presence of what they are looking for.
We have to realise that the world we live in is extremely hostile to this kind of spiritual search. It does its very best to drown out the sound of God’s voice by creating a sense of perpetual noise and agitation, to light so many lights in the sky that we would never spot the star as it rose, let alone decide to follow it. We need people like those saints of the first centuries, men like St.Anthony or St. Benedict, who came to realise that in order to find God and hear his voice, we need silence and time apart, not continual gratification of our restlessness and our sensual desires.
As the New Year begins we do well to find time to ask ourselves these basic questions. What are we looking for in our life? Where will we find in our hearts a desire, a yearning so strong that we will not be deterred, as the wise men were not, by all the hardships, the ridicule others must have heaped on them, the ups and downs of the journey, and indeed its very unexpected conclusion?
People who allow themselves to see and follow the star are indeed kings, people of royal dignity, the royal character given us by Christ at our baptism. The desire for God is there in our hearts, as in the heart of every person: as St. Augustine famously said, you have made us for yourself and our hearts are restless till they rest in you. The only question is, will we smother that desire by a host of lesser desires that give momentary satisfaction but always leave us empty, or will we set out on the great journey of faith with the wise men and saints of all ages until we find what we are looking for in the simplicity of the stable where Christ is born anew every year?