Ampleforth Abbey

14 December 2017

Dear Brothers and Sisters, today we celebrate and reflect upon a second manifestation of the incarnation of God. The Gospel of the Mass of Christmas night highlights the manifestation of Christ to the shepherds, the lowly outcasts among the Jewish people; this Mass of the Epiphany brings another group of people to our attention: those who seek God among the Gentile nations. From such a perspective this is very much our feast for we are the descendents of the Magi in two different ways: we are drawn from the Gentile peoples and we are, each one of us in our different ways, seekers after God.

As you will have heard so very many times in the past, we cannot say a great deal about the Magi. By using the title Magi Matthew tells us that these men are not Jews. Elsewhere in ancient times the word Magi seems to indicate pagan fire worshippers, possibly the ancestors of the Zoroastrians of later centuries, but in fact the precise nature of these men is not of overwhelming importance in the Gospel narrative ; what we do need to understand is that these were pagans, Gentiles, who sought God – and that God welcomed their search. The arrival of the Magi fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah which we heard recounted in the first reading: the light from Jerusalem shone out upon the nations and drew nations, kings, to her dawning brightness. In fact, it is probably the enrichment of the Gospel account by the prophecy of Isaiah which leads to the Magi being named as kings. This combination of the prophecy of Isaiah with the Gospel brings a deep pain to our souls when we contemplate the persecution of the Jews by Christians, for the light of Christ was the culmination of Jewish history; they truly are our forebears in faith, older brothers and sisters who worship the one true God according to the forms of an older Covenant with humankind.

Today I want to emphasise the importance for us of the search in the life and example of the Magi. These men searched for truth, for God, in the darkness of their times. They were prepared to leave their homeland – the place of comfort and a certain predictability of life; they were prepared to allow life to become difficult and risky for them, provided only that they might encounter the one true God in this life. In this way they are an important example to us: if we would be true followers of Christ we must seek his Father with all the strength of our hearts and minds and souls.

The Magi searched for and found a child. I think it is curious that they seem always to have known that they were seeking for a child, the infant king of the Jews. That is how they describe their search to Herod. When when they arrive in Bethlehem they make their way into the house, and see the child and his mother, and recognise immediately that this child is the object of their search. They present him with gifts: gold, frankincense and myrrh. The significance of these gifts has fascinated careful readers of the Scriptures. Following the in the Jewish tradition of exegesis where each and every word has its significance, the ancient commentators have ascribed a meaning to each of the gifts: gold bespeaks earthly kingship, incense is a token of divinity and myrrh tells of mortality and the grave. These three remind us of some of the important implications of the incarnation. God is not confined to some other world, a world from which we are excluded whilst we pass through this life. Christ is Master and Lord of all created things and to this day he continues to work within human history. This means, of course, that our own lives – humble as they are – have a significance which it is difficult for us to fathom. Christ does not simply appear to be God, he is one part of the Trinity, one part of the uncreated and everlasting God but now present in a distinct and bodily form in a particular moment in human history. Finally the myrrh reminds us that Christ is truly human: he does not simply appear to be human but really is human: He shares in two of the essential characteristics of true humanity – he is born from a particular woman at a particular time and in a specific place; and he dies at another time and in a specific place. It is noteworthy that the Magi are able to believe that the little child is the incarnate son of God for it encourages us to hold on to the same belief.

Lastly this morning I want to point out that their encounter with the incarnate God changed the life of the Magi. Our encounter with the living God ought to have the same effect. We seek, we find, we are or should be changed. You will have noted that the Magi were not deceived by Herod’s attitude towards them. The Gospel speaks of their being warned in a dream; in our lives we not infrequently have an intuition about people or events, or we use our reason and experience as we try to understand what is going on around us: but the end result of dream or intuition or reason is that we, like the Magi before us, should turn away evil and learn to do what is good and leads to goodness.

Dear Brothers and Sisters the example of the Magi encourages us to persevere in our search for God. It reminds us that we are called to encounter God in this present life. At the same time the Magi remind us that we will not notice this encounter unless we, like them, undertake a life of study of the world around us, of reflection on the events of our lives, of prayer to the one true God. As our minds are purified by the discipline of our search, as our horizons are expanded by God at work in our hearts and minds, then it may be that in his good time He gives us the gift of seeing Him in this world – and it is most probable that we, like the Magi, will see him in human form, among the least of our brothers and sisters. With thoughts such as these let us encourage one another today and every day.