Today’s feast – Epiphany – is often called “Three Kings” in Spanish-speaking cultures, and is a bigger celebration for them than Christmas. (“Epiphany” comes from a Greek word that means “showing” or “manifestation,” and it celebrates the revelation of Christ to non-Jewish peoples; so in that sense the Hispanic celebration is more accurate to our condition than our own tradition is…) But today I want to focus on these central characters – I can’t say “three” because the Gospel doesn’t give a number, and “kings” is a translators’ choice; the Greek says magoi, which is literally “Magi” in English, but often translated as “wise men” or “astrologers.” (Remember that astrology and astronomy weren’t split apart in those days, so any student of the heavens – for understanding or for trying to foretell the future – was an “astrologer.” And the Gospel story’s reference to their “seeing the star” and changing their lives because of it lends credence to the “astrologer” translation…)
So with that out of the way let’s think about the story and its meaning. The Magi were looking for something – they knew that they couldn’t be satisfied just sitting around doing the first-century equivalent of drinking beer and playing cards with the tv on in the background. They were aware that something was missing from their lives. (Even if they weren’t kings, the astounding generosity of their gifts shows that they could have had pretty much any sort of trinket or distraction that they craved.) We’re meant to learn something from their restlessness.
We all know that our lives are meant for more than going shopping, despite what our trivializing culture tries to tell us. Unfortunately, we don’t get much help in figuring out what that “more” is. The traditional Christian language of “vocation” is helpful to a point, but what do we do once that question – married, single, vowed religious, clergy – has been answered? What then? Here’s where a sense of personal mission can help.
When the Magi left their home country they were on a mission – to find out what the star’s appearance meant, and to respond appropriately. “Where is the newborn King of the Jews? We have come to do him homage.” That’s what they said to Herod. And when they had accomplished that – although the Gospels don’t tell us – presumably they “went home to their country by another route” with a sense not only that they had fulfilled one mission, but that they now had another – to figure out how to live now that the King of the Jews had come.
Our lives are meant to be lived like that: We’re meant to discover what the particular mission God is giving us is, year by year. It may be one that continues, but is reshaped by events: sustaining a family, and guiding the growth of children through the years. New missions may appear: to help a relative who falls ill, perhaps. And the vitality of old ones may pass, as we accomplish them or as events make them irrelevant.
In earlier columns I’ve said that our personal mission has three dimensions: first, to grow more aware and grateful each day for the gifts God is giving us; second, to grow more responsive each day to God’s generosity by learning how to care more effectively for those around us. These we share with every other person called by Christ. But the third aspect of our mission is unique to each of us, something that is vital to God’s work in the world that only we can accomplish. To discover, and give our energies, to that mission – even as it changes shape as we go through life – is the foundation for our deepest joy and sense of satisfaction.
So this week take the Magi as examples for your own life: What is God inviting you to do? What is the “star” that has appeared to you, that invites you to follow it to see what it means and how that will change you? And how has your following of that star led you into company with others? (After all, the Magi didn’t travel as individuals…)
A Catholic parish is a community of people who are called by Christ to do His work. Some of that work we can only do as individuals, with our particular gifts and opportunities. Other parts of the work we have to do together, because it’s too much for any one of us alone. So think of us as the Magi this week; here, two thousand years later, still following a star. Until next week, peace.