The Wise Men weren't simple old men offering a Child pious gifts. They stand for the great strivings and achievements of the human mind.
About three months ago, I was hauling the garbage out to the curb when a bright light in the nighttime sky caught my eye. It had a reddish tint to it. Was it Mars? For some reason—its brightness or location, the time of day, my mood at the time—I was intrigued and decided to find out. The search led me to an augmented reality app called SkyView, which mapped out, through the camera lens, the whole 360-degree span of constellations and planets surrounding the earth. I then knew that the light was, indeed, Mars—but suddenly there was a whole lot more to know.
In the weeks ahead, I found myself returning to the front lawn, night after night, to look up at the treasures hidden in plain sight: the red-and-green flickering of a star low in the sky—the Capella star, I learned, which refracted more light that time of year; at the Aries, Taurus, Gemini, Orion, and Seven Sisters constellations; at Jupiter and Saturn earlier in the evening. I read about the unfathomable distance between our star, the sun, and even its closest neighbor, and how little even the experts know about them. (My neighbors, meanwhile, probably suspected 2020 finally broke me. Maybe it did.)
My newfound fascination led to my wife buying me a telescope for Christmas, which has opened up even greater horizons, including a stunning view of the moon’s surface. I had glanced at and thought about the night sky many times, but out of some combination of boredom, anxiety, and intimidation, had never seriously tried to gaze at it and learn it. But suddenly, I found myself doing just that—and all it took was one flicker of Mars.
The comforts of electricity and the knowledge of astronomy are both happy developments of history. But it’s strange to think how much time ancient people must have spent observing these baffling and beautiful objects above, while we hardly bat an eye at them (even though, in their great distance, they are more mysterious than ever).
In fact, this week we remember three such stargazers of the ancient world—the Magi, or Wise Men, who traveled from the East to find the newborn King of the Jews and pay him homage (Matt. 2:1-12). In a curious turn of events, this year’s celebration of the feast follows a great “conjunction” of Jupiter and Saturn in the sky, a phenomenon that has not happened since 1226. (And it won’t happen again until 2080—so if, like me, you missed it because of pesky clouds, we are out of luck.) And some have suggested that this conjunction is correlated to the “Star of Bethlehem” that guided the Magi 2,000 years ago.
What do these Magi, these master stargazers, signify? G.K. Chesterton in The Everlasting Man offers a compelling explanation:
The Magi, who stand for mysticism and philosophy, are truly conceived as seeking something new and even as finding something unexpected. That tense sense of crisis which still tingles in the Christmas story and even in every Christmas celebration, accentuates the idea of a search and a discovery. The discovery is, in this case, truly a scientific discovery. For the other mystical figures in the miracle play; for the angel and the mother, the shepherds and the soldiers of Herod, there may be aspects both simpler and more supernatural, more elemental or more emotional. But the Wise Men must be seeking wisdom, and for them there must be a light also in the intellect. . . . Philosophy also, like mythology, had very much the air of a search. It is the realization of this truth that gives its traditional majesty and mystery to the figures of the Three Kings; the discovery that religion is broader than philosophy and that this is the broadest of religions, contained within this narrow space. The Magicians were gazing at the strange pentacle with the human triangle reversed; and they have never come to the end of their calculations about it. For it is the paradox of that group in the cave, that while our emotions about it are of childish simplicity, our thoughts about it can branch with a never-ending complexity.
The Magi were not simple, sweet old men offering the Christ child pious gifts: they were scientists, philosophers, mystics—men of insight on a quest for truth. They stand for the great strivings and achievements of the human mind, which find their ultimate ground and never-ending expansion in the Logos, the Word of God incarnate in Christ.
Many today identify as seekers; in fact, today there are more religious “nones” than Catholics in the US. Will these men and women live to look upon the revelation of Christ? In a secular age whose science has surpassed the stargazing and sign-reading of the ancients, will they find what their mind is looking for, what their heart is longing for?
We have cause for hope. The stars are vast and beautiful and mysterious, yet easily visible to all of us; one glimpse of them at the right time can open up a whole new adventure. So how much more vast and beautiful and mysterious must their Creator be? And how much more “charged” must the whole world be with his grandeur, as Hopkins wrote? The cry of a newborn infant, a subtle look, the shock of death, the beauty of a song, the order of science, the brilliance of an argument, the depths of anguish, an ordinary walk, and yes, even the night sky itself—all things at all times might harbor that flash that, in a moment, sets a soul journeying to the eternal Light.
On this feast of the Epiphany, Christians should not despair over the religious seekers in their lives, the agnostics who are longing to know the truth of their own being. Rather, we should remember the Magi and the bright star that led them to kneel before the cradle in Bethlehem. We should pray not that seekers abandon their search, but rather that they find its fulfillment; that they eventually discover the light that sets them on the journey to God; and, audaciously, that we might be a light for any modern Magi who crosses our path (Matt. 5:14, 16).
All it takes is one flicker.
There are weary travelersSearching everywhere you goStrangers, who are searchingLonging deeply to be knownMay you find a lightMay you find a lightMay you find a light to guide you home—The Brilliance,