International Men of Mystery: a Homily for Epiphany

Today’s readings can be found here.

NB:  I really went off the page with today’s homily, to my detriment at 7:30 and to my benefit at the 9:00.  Or so I think, anyway.  Regardless, these are the prepared remarks I had in my binder…

Bond.  James Bond.

That’s who I want to be when I grow up, if I ever get around to doing that.  Bond is cool.  He dresses sharp.  He drinks martinis.  (Weak ones, but it’s the look that counts.)  He has a seemingly unlimited budget.  All the cool technology.  And the Aston Martin Vanquish, with the big V12 that can go zero to sixty in three point five and has a top speed of just over 200 mph and may or may not have the optional rocket launchers…yeah, I want to be James Bond or some other type of International Man of Mystery.

I’ve been thinking about that because in today’s celebration we encounter the original International Men of Mystery – the Magi.  Everybody knows about them, but at the same time, we know so little about them.  So, let’s explore the mystery of the Magi this morning.

First, let’s figure out where they came from.  The Gospel says they came “from the east,” which doesn’t exactly narrow it down.  But the Gospel also calls them Magi, which is a term used to describe priests in Persia – modern day Iran.  However, they followed a star to get to Bethlehem.  So, they knew something about astronomy and the movements of the heavenly bodies.  That kind of science wasn’t done so much in Persia, but it was done in Babylon.  So now we’re looking more at modern-day Iraq.  We’re also told that they brought gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.  Well, that brings into play the high desert of Syria as a possibility.  Also, the Arabian Peninsula.  And here’s where it gets tricky – today we sang psalm 72 as our responsorial psalm.  That also talks about kings bringing gifts to the Lord.  It references Arabia as well, but it also mentions Seba.  No one really knows where Seba was located –  it could have been at the south end of the Arabian Peninsula, in present day Yemen or Oman, but it might have been on the other side of the Red Sea, in Egypt, or the Sudan, or even Ethiopia.  And finally, the king of Tarshish was mentioned, and that gets confusing, because Tarshish would have been in what is now modern-day Spain, and that’s not east at all, that’s west.  So where in the world did these kings come from?  Claysville?  But seriously, where are they from?

The answer, of course, is that it doesn’t matter where they came from.  What matters is that they went on the journey.  The same is true for us.  It’s not the starting point that matters, it’s where we end up.

On that note, how many magi where there, anyway?  I know, I know, the song says three…but what do the Scriptures say?  It never actually does, does it?  So where did the number three come from?  Because at the time of Jesus, the known world only consisted of three continents – Asia, Africa, and Europe.  And to symbolize that it doesn’t matter where you’re from, only what you’re going to, we have three magi.  This is why, especially in older artwork depicting the magi, you see three very diverse appearances amongst the magi.  There where isn’t important.

Here’s something else you’ll see in art.  One of the magi is old; another, middle-aged, and the third, fairly young.  Why?  Because age, in this case, is irrelevant.  The necessity to go to Jesus is always there; there’s no minimum age requirement or any such nonsense.


So, that’s a little about who the Magi were; we should talk, at least very briefly, about what they were, because Magi is a very vague term. Some translations call them astrologers or astronomers; the latter is bad, the former is worse, because they were neither of those things in the modern sense.  Some call them kings, but that’s seemingly not accurate, either.  Some call them wise men, which is just way too generic of a term to use; Magi seems to be the best word we have.  But even that word gives us trouble.  Magi has a wide range of meanings; some very good, some very bad.  To greatly oversimplify the situation, a magus was one sought wisdom, one who wanted knowledge.  But what would they do with this knowledge?  There’s a story in Acts 13 about a magus named Bar-Jesus who used – tried to use – his knowledge to lead people away from following Christ.  It ends poorly for him; Saint Paul makes sure of that.  The magi we meet today, though…they get it.  When they reach the place where the child was, they realize they are encountering true knowledge, Wisdom Incarnate, the Truth Itself.  And, in the face of that, they do the only thing they really can do – they fall down in worship.

If you’re looking for wisdom, for truth, for meaning – if your life has more questions than answers – then start, today, on your journey for Jesus.  Seek Him out.  Do not be deterred by those who would discourage you or mislead you.  And when you find Him – and you will, because He has never stopped looking for you all this time – fall down and worship Him.  Offer Him your gifts – not just of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, but of your very self, warts and all (especially the warts), and then do whatever He tells you.

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