The Magi, in Search of the Truth

Bishop Thomas J. Tobin - Without a Doubt

The story of Christmas wouldn’t be complete without the appearance of the Magi, the Three Kings. Their journey, described only in the Gospel of Matthew, adds a sense of wonder and mystery to Christmas. The Biblical account leaves more questions than answers, however.

For example, who were the Magi? Where did they come from? How many were there? (Tradition says three, because there were three gifts, and even names them – Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar – but that’s not found in the Bible.) What motivated these men (or women?) to make their long and arduous journey? And what about that mysterious star? Was it really a miraculous, heavenly sign or just a confluence of astronomical events that intrigued the astrologers?

In any event, besides being a colorful and mysterious story, the account of the Magi reveals a great theological truth: Jesus Christ is the Lord and Savior of all nations! If, in the Christmas narrative, the shepherds represented the Jewish People, the Magi represented the Gentiles, the nations of the world. In their journey and act of faith they represented you and me coming to adore the Christ Child. As the Preface of the Epiphany Mass says, “Father, today you revealed in Christ your eternal plan of salvation and showed Him as the light of all peoples.”

Whether the Magi were mystics, philosophers or scientists, it’s clear that they traveled to Bethlehem for one reason – to seek fulfillment, to seek the ultimate truth of their lives. They realized, perhaps even unconsciously, that there was more to life than the riches, power and fame they already had. In Jesus they found that which they were lacking and seeking. That explains why they were “overjoyed’ at finding the child, why they prostrated themselves, did Him homage and offered their finest gifts.

That search for truth and fulfillment is a natural instinct of every human being. St. Augustine famously said, “Our hearts are restless O God, and they will not rest until they rest in thee.” And in his Encyclical, Veritatis Splendor, Pope John Paul wrote of man’s search for meaning: “In the depths of his heart there always remains a yearning for absolute truth and a thirst to attain full knowledge of it.” (#1) And he points to the same answer the Magi found long ago: “People today need to turn to Christ once again in order to receive from Him the answer to their questions about what is good and what is evil.” (#8)

Once in awhile we need a pointed reminder of the ultimate source of truth and meaning because we’re still very confused, aren’t we? Remember the popular song, “Looking for love in all the wrong places?” Well, we might paraphrase the song and say that we’re looking for truth or meaning in all the wrong places!

Some people think they’ll find ultimate truth in material possession and riches. The recent downturn in the economy should dispel that myth. Some believe they’ll find it in power and fame. But think of the politicians, rock stars and athletes who seemingly “had it all” only to watch hopelessly as their fortunes later crumbled around them. Others hope they’ll find it in unbridled personal freedom and sexual pleasure. There are scores of examples of how that shameful road leads to ruin. And still others turn to science or technology seeking fulfillment. Noble as it is, though, human learning isn’t enough. As author George Weigel points out in a recent column, “knowledge must be complemented by wisdom – moral wisdom.”

The fact is, the truth we are seeking, the meaning and fulfillment of our lives, is found only in Jesus Christ our Savior, our Lord and King. Jesus Himself made that crystal clear when He said to His disciples of every age, “I am the way and the truth and the life.” (Jn 14:6)

St. Matthew tells us that the Magi presented the Christ Child with some very special gifts: gold, frankincense and myrrh. And scholars explain that, viewed with the eyes of faith, those gifts have particular meaning. Gold represented the Kingship of Christ; Incense signified the divinity of Christ; and myrrh prefigured the redemptive suffering and death of Christ. The gifts themselves point to the meaning of Christ for the world.

I sometimes wonder what happened to the Magi after their journey to Bethlehem – what they did, what they were like, if they were changed – when they returned to their own country. The Bible is silent on that point, as is tradition as far as I know. But I imagine that they remembered their remarkable pilgrimage for the rest of their lives. And I have to believe that the discovery of the Christ Child made a real and lasting impression on them.

So, as another Christmas Season is about to end, and we prepare to leave the manger in Bethlehem to return to the regular routine of daily lives, you might want to reflect upon a few relevant questions. Like the Magi, do you recognize in Christ the ultimate truth, the fulfillment of your life? How do you express this truth? In place of gold, frankincense and myrrh, what are the gifts you present to the Lord? How do you maintain your relationship with the Lord throughout the year? And is your faith the “star” that leads others to the Lord?

A blessed, peaceful and prosperous New Year to you and your loved ones!