Isaiah 60:1–6; Ephesians 3:2–3, 5–6; Matthew 2:1–12
The greatest gift to the King of Kings is the gift of a life of faithful love and service.
There’s a story called “The Other Wise Man’’ by Henry van Dyke. It’s about a fourth person who is supposed to accompany the other three wise men on their journey to search for the newborn King. The name of the person is Artaban.
As Artaban prepares for the journey, he takes with him a bag of precious stones to give to the baby King.
On his way to join the other three wise men, Artaban stops to help a poor person. The delay is just enough to make him miss his rendezvous with the others.
Artaban never does catch up with them. He constantly runs into people who need help. And he always stops to help them.
Eventually, Artaban gives away all his precious stones.
As the story ends, Artaban is old and poor. He never realized his dream to meet the King of Kings and place at his feet his gift of precious stones.
The story of “The Other Wise Man’’ could end here. And if it did, it would be a sad story. It would be the story of a man who never realized his one big dream.
But the story doesn’t end here.
One day Artaban is in Jerusalem. The city is buzzing with excitement. Authorities are about to execute a criminal. When Artaban sees the criminal, his heart skips a beat.
Something tells him this is the King of Kings for whom he has been searching all his life. Artaban is heartbroken at what he sees.
He is even more heartbroken when he sees he can do nothing
to help the King.
Then something remarkable happens. Artaban hears the King’s voice say to him:
“Don’t be brokenhearted, Artaban.
You’ve been helping me all your life.
When I was hungry, you gave me food.
When I was thirsty, you gave me drink.
When I was naked, you clothed me.
When I was a stranger, you took me in.’’
The story of Artaban is the story of many people in our world.
Like Artaban, they begin life with the dream of doing something great. But as time passes, circumstances beyond their control interfere with their dream. Eventually it disappears.
Consider a talented young woman who dreams of a professional career in business or art. But before she can launch her career,she meets someone and marries him.
Soon they begin a family. As they do, the young woman’s dream gradually fades, as did Artaban’s. The woman ends up giving herself full-time to her young family.
The story of the woman could end here. And if it did, some people would consider it a sad story. It would be the story of a woman who never realized her one big dream.
But the story doesn’t end here. It won’t end until some day in the future when Jesus says to the woman what he said to Artaban:
“You’ve been helping me all your life. What you did for your family, you did for me.’’
Or consider the story of a talented young man who dreams of climbing the corporate ladder. He works hard and gives his all.But the breaks go against him. It’s not his fault; it’s just the way the ball bounces.
Through it all, however, the young man remains honest.
He works hard; he remains faithful.
The story could end here. And if it did,some people would consider it a sad story. It would be the story of a man who never realized his one big dream.
But the story doesn’t end here. It won’t end until Jesus says to the man what he said to Artaban:
“You’ve been helping me all your life. What you did honestly and faithfully, you did for me.’’
Or consider the true story of a young man named Tony.
He traveled all over the world, appearing widely on stage and on television as a drummer in a world-famous music group.
Then one day Tony felt called to the priesthood.
When he resigned from the music group to enter a seminary,
some people thought him to be a fool.
The story could end here. And if it did, some would consider it to be a sad story. It would be the story of a young man who let a dream slip through his fingers.
But the story doesn’t end here. Tony’s now a priest in the diocese of Dallas. And he’s tremendously happy. Jesus will someday say to him what he said to Artaban:
“You’ve been helping me all your life, Tony. What you did for your parishioners, you did for me.’’
The Feast of the Epiphany reminds us that we all have a gift we can give to the King of Kings.
And the story of “The Other Wise Man’’ reminds us that our gift is far more precious than those of the other three wise men.
Our gift is not a one-time gift of gold, frankincense, or myrrh.
It’s a full-time gift of love and service.
Some people may consider us foolish for giving this gift. But that’s only because they don’t know the end of the story. The story will end with Jesus saying to us what he said to Artaban:
“Come, you that are blessed by my Father! Come and possess the kingdom which has been prepared for you ever since the creation of the world.
“I was hungry and you fed me,thirsty and you gave me a drink;
I was a stranger and you received me in your homes . . .
“I tell you, whenever you did this for one of the least . . . of mine,
you did it for me!” Matthew 25:34–35, 40
Let’s close with the “Prayer for Generosity’’ by St. Ignatius of Loyola:
Lord, teach me to be generous. Teach me to serve you as you deserve; to give and not to count the cost; to fight and not to heed the wounds;to toil and not to seek for rest;to labor and not to ask for reward,except to know that I am doing your will.
Isaiah 60:1–6; Ephesians 3:2–3, 5–6; Matthew 2:1–12
Stars in the night
As the star pointed the way to Jesus for the Magi, so we must point the way for our world.
Carlo Carretto wrote a book called Letters from the Desert.
In the book he tells how, at the age of 44, he joined a religious congregation called the Little Brothers of Jesus. The Little Brothers live in the Sahara and pray for the conversion of Arab peoples.
What was it like to live in the desert? What did Carlo discover there?
One thing he discovered was how beautiful the sky is at night.
“[The beauty of the night sky] made me send off for books on astronomy and maps of the sky; and for months afterwards
I spent all my free time learning [about the stars shining above me]. . . .
“Kneeling on the sand I sank my eyes for hours and hours
in those wonders. . . How dear they were to me, those stars. . . .
I had come to know them by their names. . . . Now I could distinguish their color, their size, their position, their beauty.’’
Besides being incredibly beautiful, the stars also serve a practical purpose for desert dwellers. Carlo writes:
“Finding one’s way in the desert is much easier by night than by day. . . . Many times when searching [for an Arab camp] . . . I lost my way because the sun was too high in the sky. But I waited for the night and found the road again, guided by the stars.’’
Carlo’s book helps us to appreciate the story of the Magi in today’s gospel.
Historians tell us that the Magi were desert dwellers and star watchers. Like Carlo, they too studied the stars. Like Carlo, they too knew them by name and followed them when they were lost.
Historians also tell us that about the time of the Magi story
there was a mysterious worldwide expectancy concerning the coming of a great world leader or king.
Two famous Roman historians refer to this expectancy:
Tacitus in his Histories and Seutonius in his Life of a Vespasian.
It is against this background that we must read today’s gospel.
It describes the Magi seeing a new star in the sky a star that signaled the birth of a new king.They followed the star across the desert to Jerusalem and, eventually, to Bethlehem.
The gospel reading tells us more. It tells us that while the Magi went to honor the new king, Herod, the reigning king of Judea, plotted to kill him.
In the words of John’s Gospel, “[Jesus] came to his own country, but his own people did not receive him.” John 1:11
Then referring to people like the Magi, John says:
Some . . . did receive him and believed in him; so he gave them the right to become God’s children. John 1:12
Matthew’s story of the Magi serves as a preview of Jesus’ life.Jesus will be rejected by many Jews, symbolized by Herod.
But he will be received by many Gentiles, symbolized by the Magi.
Thus, the star in Matthew’s story of the Magi is a symbol of hope, not just for Jews, but for Gentiles as well.
The star in Matthew’s story of the Magi is a symbol of Jesus.
It tells us that God loves us so much that God’s only Son was sent into the darkness of our world to save us.
Years ago an artist painted a striking picture. It shows a single, solitary figure rowing a boat at night across an endless sea of water. Off in the distance is a single, solitary star, shining in the night sky.
The impression you get as you look at the picture is this:
“If that boatman ever loses that star, he’s lost.’’
What that painting says about that star, we too could say about Jesus: “If we ever lose that star, we are lost.’’
Without that star, the world is lost. Without that star, there is no hope. Without that star, the human race is doomed.
This brings us to a practical application that the Magi story has for our lives.
What the star is for the Magi in the story in Matthew’s Gospel,
and what the star is for the boatman in the artist’s painting a symbol of hope we must be for our world.
We must be stars shining in the darkness. For today Jesus is to be found not in Bethlehem but in the hearts and souls of his followers. We are the stars in the darkness of our world, pointing the way to Jesus.
Paul uses this very image as he exhorts the Christians of his time, saying, “You must shine. . . like stars lighting up the sky.” Philippians 2:15
And Jesus himself uses a similar image in the Sermon on the Mount, saying to his followers, “You are like light for the whole world. . . . [Y]our light must shine before people,
so that they will see the good things you do and praise your Father in heaven.” Matthew 5:14, 16
Every time we forgive someone who has treated us unjustly, a light shines in the darkness of our world and points the way to Jesus.
Every time we open the door of our hearts to the lonely or the homeless, a light shines in the darkness of our world and points the way to Jesus.
Every time we reach out a hand to feed the hungry, a star lights up the darkness of our world and points the way to Jesus.
The feast of the Epiphany invites us to ask ourselves to what extent we are turning on lights in the darkness of our world and lighting the way to Jesus. This is what the feast of the Epiphany is all about.
It’s not just the story about a star that lit up the darkness of the ancient world and pointed the way to Jesus. It’s also a story about you and me becoming stars in the darkness of our world and leading other magi to Jesus.
This is what the feast of the Epiphany is all about.This is what we celebrate today.
Isaiah 60:1–6; Ephesians 3:2–3a, 5–6; Matthew 2:1–12
We are called to light up the darkness of our world and point the way to Jesus.
And so they left, and on their way they saw the same star
they had seen in the East. . . . [I]t stopped over the place where the child was. Matthew 2:9–10
Carlo Carreto was a youth minister in Italy for 20 years.
His life was a whirlwind of activity: attending meetings, organizing programs, and speaking at conferences.
Then one day he surprised his friends by joining a relatively new religious congregation called the Little Brothers of Jesus.
Within months, Carlo was on his way to the congregation’s novitiate in a remote oasis in the Sahara desert in north Africa.
There he began a life of contemplation, praying for the conversion of Arab peoples.
From the start, he kept a spiritual journal. Eventually it was published under the title of Letters from the Desert.
One of the first things that struck Carlo in this remote setting
was the night sky in the Sahara.
In the pitch-black darkness of the desert, the stars stood out in the sky like huge sparkling diamonds.
During the first few months, Carlo spent all of his free time
learning everything he could about the stars. He writes:
Kneeling on the sand I sank my eyes for hours and hours
in those wonders. How dear they were to me, those stars. . . .
I came to know them by their names . . . their color, their size,
their position, and their beauty. . . .
Many times when searching [for an Arab camp] . . .
I lost my way because the sun was too high in the sky.
But I waited for the night and found the road again guided by the stars.
Reading Carlo’s account gives us a deeper appreciation
of the story of the magi in today’s Gospel. Like Carlo, the magi were desert dwellers. Like Carlo, they studied the stars,
knew them by name, and charted their courses.
Like Carlo, they often traveled at night, using the stars to guide them on their journeys.
This brings us to a second historical fact that relates to the story of the magi. It is reported by the ancient Roman historian Seutonius.
In Life of Vespasian he reports that around the time of Jesus’ birth there developed among the masses a mood of expectancy.
It concerned the coming of a great world leader or king.
The story of the magi fits in with this mood of expectancy.
This brings us to our own time and the important message
that the story of the magi holds for us.
The star that guided the magi to Bethlehem no longer shines in the night sky. Nor does Jesus dwell any longer on earth
in human form, as he once did in Bethlehem.
His presence on earth in human form ended with his ascension to heaven in his glorified human body.
Nevertheless, in a mystery of love, he continues to dwell
among us and in us in his Mystical Body, the Church.
This means that the followers of Jesus must become the new stars, shining in the darkness of our world, pointing the way to Jesus.
Thus we find Saint Paul, writing in his letter to the Christians in Philippi:
You must shine . . . like stars lighting up the sky. Philippians 2:15
And before ascending to his Father, Jesus said to his followers
in the Sermon on the Mount:
“You are the light of the world. . . .[Y]our light must shine before others,that they may seeyour good deeds and glorify
your heavenly Father.” Matthew 5:14, 16 (NAB)
That brings up a question: How do our good deeds glorify our heavenly Father?
Or to put the same question in the imagery of the magi story,
how can the modern followers of Jesus serve as stars pointing to Jesus?
Think of it this way. Each time we forgive someone who has wronged us, a star lights up the darkness of our world and points the way to Jesus.
For this is what Jesus taught us to do, and graces us to do,
if we open our hearts to him.
Each time we take a stand for what we believe is true and good even if it makes us unpopular a star lights up the darkness of our world and points the way to Jesus.
Each time we reach out a hand to someone who needs a hand
to help them or to hold them, a star lights up the darkness and points the way to Jesus.
Each time we choose the vision and values of Jesus over the vision and values of the world, a star lights up the darkness
and points the way to Jesus.
This is the good news of the feast of the Epiphany and the magi. It reminds us that each of us is called to serve as stars pointing the way to Jesus.
Some of us are called to a special ministry, as Carlo Carreto was. But all of us without exception are called to be stars lighting up the darkness and pointing the way to Jesus.
Let us close with this familiar meditation by Howard Thurman. It sums up our calling. He writes:
When the song of the angels is stilled,
when the star in the sky is gone,
when the kings and princes are home,
when the shepherds are back with the flocks,
then the work of Christmas begins:
to feed the hungry,
to release the prisoners,
to rebuild the nations,
to bring peace among brothers,
to make music with the heart—
and so become stars, lighting up the darkness of our world,
pointing the way to Jesus.