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The Decisiveness of the Magi

Gospel Commentary for the Epiphany

By Father Raniero Cantalamessa, OFM Cap 

ROME, JAN. 6, 2008 ( We will closely follow the Gospel’s account of the coming of the three magi to Bethlehem to find in it some practical instruction for our life. In this account the historical element mixes with the theological and symbolic element. In other words, the Evangelist did not intend only to report the facts, but to inculcate the things to be done, indicate models for the readers to follow, or avoid. As the rest of the Bible, this page too was written “for our instruction.”

There are three different reactions to announcement of Jesus’ birth that clearly emerge in this account: that of the Magi, that of Herod and that of the priests. Let us start with the negative models, the ones to avoid.

First of all, Herod. He, just having heard the news, “was greatly troubled.” He convokes a meeting of the chief priests and scribes, not to know the truth but to plot deception. Herod represents the person who has already made his choice. Between God’s will and his will, he has clearly chosen his own will. He sees nothing but his own interests and he is determined to cut down any threat to the current state of things. He probably even thinks that he is doing his duty, defending his royalty, has caste, the good of the nation. Even ordering the killing of the innocents must have seemed to him, as with many dictators in history, a measure demanded by the public good, morally justified. From this point of view the world is full of many “Herods” even today.

Let us turn now to the attitude of the priests and scribes. Asked by Herod and the Magi where the Messiah is to be born, they do not hesitate to give the right answer. They know where the Messiah is born; they are even able to tell others; but they are not moved. They do not run to Bethlehem, as would be expected of people who await the coming of the Messiah, but remain comfortably in Jerusalem. They act like road signs: They indicate the way to follow but they remain immobile on the side of the road.

We see an attitude symbolized in them that is also found among us. We know well what is necessary to follow Jesus and, if the need arises, we know how to explain it to others, but we lack the courage and radicality to seriously put it into practice. If every baptized person is for this reason “a witness to Christ,” then the attitude of the chief priests and the scribes must bring us all to reflect. They knew that Jesus was in Bethlehem, “the least” of the cities of Judea; we know that Jesus is found today among the poor, the humble, the suffering.

We finally come to the protagonists of this feast, the Magi. They teach not with words but with deeds, not by what they say but by what they do. They have not tarried, they have set on the way; they have left the security of the environment familiar to them, where they are known and revered. They have acted decisively, they have not hesitated. If they had begun calculating, one by one, the dangers, the unknowns of the journey, they would have lost the original determination and would have been lost in vain and sterile considerations.

One last precious indication comes to us from the Magi. “Having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed for their country by another way.” Changing one’s life changes the way one takes. The encounter with Christ must bring about a turn, a change of habits.

[Translation by Joseph G. Trabbic]

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Father Raniero Cantalamessa is the Pontifical Household preacher. The readings for the solemnity of the Epiphany are Isaiah 60:1-6; Ephesians 3:2-3a, 5-6; Matthew 2:1-12.

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