Guides for Complicated Journeys

Guides for Complicated Journeys

Epiphany. Fr Robert Ombres contrasts the simplicity of the angel’s message to the shepherds in Luke’s Gospel with the complexity of the pilgrimage of the Magi in Matthew’s.

The differences between the Gospels are part of their message, and they should not go unnoticed. Only St Matthew tells us about the magi. By contrast, and it is an instructive contrast, St Luke tells us about the shepherds. A revelation, a manifestation, has to be to someone.

The shepherds were unlikely to be educated folk, they were at work in the normal way close to where the new-born Jesus lay in a manger; angels announce at some length a very religious message to them, and the story ends with the shepherds going back glorifying God for all that they had heard and seen.

Not so with the magi. With them almost nothing is straightforward or clear. Whatever the word magi (magoi) meant, it is likely to point to education and sophistication. The magi were not near Bethlehem but had to come on a journey, made more tortuous by the sinister intervention of Herod; they came looking for the infant king of the Jews, they brought lavish gifts, they did homage, and warned in a dream they returned to their own country saying nothing.

While St Luke pays attention to the poor and powerless, St Matthew was drawn to how the educated and significant might be led to Christ. The uneducated shepherds were given a manifestation, an epiphany, that was emphatically religious, and they immediately became heralds to others of what the angels had told them. The shepherds were told that ‘today a Saviour has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord’.

Not so with the magi. They come to Jerusalem, asking ‘Where is the infant king of the Jews?’, because they had seen his star rise. They were subsequently warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, and they returned to their own country. This is a very different kind of religious tone and content. It is much more muted, and the homage is more oblique than the response of the shepherds. Neither God nor angels spoke to the magi. We do not know how the lives of the magi were changed, although they rejoiced at finding the child and paid homage. We cannot say for certain what the title ‘The King of the Jews’ meant for them.

The magi were led to a manifestation, an epiphany, of Jesus Christ in a more complicated and oblique way than the shepherds. The magi do not speak of the full religious content of what the birth of that child means, and we are not told that the full identity of the child was disclosed to them or by them. We can only speculate on how finding the child Jesus changed the expectations they had on setting off. But they too were led to him, and led by what at the time they could understand and respond to.

The gifts they brought have long been seen as signifying more than they were in themselves: gold for the royalty, incense for the divinity, and myrrh for the passion of Christ. Not that the magi say this or that St Matthew explained it. This too is cryptic.

Whatever we are told about the magi seems to multiply unanswered questions — why did the birth of the king of the Jews matter to them? What kind of people were ‘magi’? Which was their country? The only thing the magi are reported as saying was to ask a question.

The ways of God are always reliable but can be surprising. The uneducated shepherds were given by angels an elaborate understanding of Jesus Christ: the sophisticated magi were led to more than they reckoned. The gospel story of the magi is taken up largely with their journey, unlike that of the shepherds which concentrates on what was manifested to them and how they communicated it.

Many people may well see their own response to Christ, saviour of the world and Son of God incarnate, as similar to that of the magi as recounted by St Matthew: a puzzling and prolonged journey with a so-far muted outcome. Yet epiphany there was, and the magi could be helpful guides on complicated journeys to Christ.

Readings: Isa 60:1-6 | Eph 3:2-3,5-6 | Matt 2:1-12

fr. Robert Ombres, former Procurator General of the Order of Preachers, lives and teaches at Blackfriars, Oxford and at the Pontifical University of St Thomas Aquinas (Angelicum) in Rome.