Bishop's Column

The witness of the Magi

By Bishop James Conley  

In the celebration of the Epiphany, we recall the travel of the Magi, who, led by a star, wished to do homage to the newborn King of the Jews.

Much of what we know about the Magi is known through extra-Biblical sources, or books outside of the Bible. The Magi are believed to be a part of a priestly caste from Persia, following the Zoroastrian religion. The word “magi” can mean “magician” or “astrologer,” which may indicate expertise in the interpretation of stars.

Sacred Scripture does not indicate the number of magi who pay homage to Jesus. Some early traditions posited that there were as many as 12 Magi. The belief that there were three Magi may stem from the fact that three gifts were offered to Jesus.

St. Matthew recorded that the Magi brought these three gifts, each having a prophetic meaning: gold, the gift for a king; frankincense, the gift for a priest (used as a sign of prayers rising up to heaven); and myrrh — a burial ointment, a gift for one who would die. These gifts were a kind of prophecy, describing who the King of the Jews would be: priest, prophet and king.

What prompted the Magi to travel this distance from Persia, modern day Iran, in the first place? 

If they were of the priestly class and expert astrologers, then they would have had a comfortable life. But, they left all of that to adore this newborn king. As good as their lives probably were, it was not enough—they were longing for more.

But there’s another side to this story, and that, of course, is the one whom they meet. The Magi encounter the Savior, but it’s really he who sought after them.

We accurately say in the famous Epiphany hymn, they “traverse a far.” However, it’s really the child Jesus who traveled the farthest distance—an immeasurable distance.

He broke into creation, the finite world, to die so that we might receive gifts—the gift of freedom from sin, the gift of peace, the gift of eternal life, and the gift of himself.

According to tradition, the Magi became Christians, having been baptized by St. Thomas the Apostle who traveled to the East, and became great evangelists of Christ. The Cathedral of Cologne, Germany contains what are believed to be the relics of Magi.

Pope Benedict XVI, in speaking about the Magi said, “They had to change their ideas about power, about God and about man, and in so doing, they also had to change themselves... God’s ways are not as we imagine them or as we might wish them to be.”

The wise men, following the star, were prompted by wonder, the natural desire within all human beings to know the truth. Then, they encountered truth itself, Jesus Christ, and at some point they had to make the decision to live in accordance with that truth.

For all that tradition tells us, the Magi accepted Jesus without reservation or holding on to their understanding of God—which wasn’t even the understanding of the Hebrew people; it wasn’t biblical. They had to come to a vastly new understanding of God.

The witness of the Magi reminds us that there is a real freedom in following the truth, even if that means completely changing one’s life, even if that means persecution, even if that means martyrdom. The martyrs of old would often be smiling and singing at their deaths because they were living in the truth.

There are a lot of good, secondary reasons to be Catholic. It allows us to be a part of a great community. It allows us comfort in times of sorrow. It gives us an identity, and therefore a purpose in life.

But, all of these secondary things happen because we believe the faith to be true. When the Magi went back home, they, undoubtedly, had all of those secondary things back in Persia, but they were changed because they now knew what was true. Their previous vision of God was shattered. 

The story of the Magi is not just the story of three, four or 12 astrologers who stumbled upon a star. It’s the story of all of us. All of us seek truth, deep down. Some avoid it or reject it, filling life with secondary things.

Every day we have the opportunity to encounter the same Jesus, the same truth.  We, too, are called to meet Jesus, who changes everything in our lives.

I will not be writing a column during the next two weeks because I will be on retreat over these days. First, Jan. 2-8, I will join my brother bishops of the United States for a retreat at Mundelein Seminary outside of Chicago, which was recently requested by Pope Francis. The following week, Jan. 12-20, I will be making my previously scheduled personal retreat, as all priests make annually as required by canon law.

Please pray for me and for all the bishops, that we will seek the guidance and wisdom of the Holy Spirit. Please continue to pray for all victims of clerical sexual abuse that they may experience God’s healing love.

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