Over and over again, the gospels show us the richness of encounter with Jesus. In those encounters, people learn, are healed, are strengthened and affirmed, are given new vision, and are changed. Because of that encounter they become bearers of light and love. In today’s gospel we see how much some of the wisest people were willing to give up in order to be faithful to this life-changing encounter with Jesus. If we today were to learn from the wise leaders, what three gifts might they give us? I would suggest that they teach us the wisdom of vigilance, receptivity, and the joy of journeying together.
The first gift of the magi is that they show us how to be courageous and dedicated in our vigilance. We see how they looked around their world with expectation, watching carefully the signs of the times. They kept themselves ready to do seek and engage encounter with God in their own human circumstances. They left behind their business affairs and responsibilities in order to seek the light and wisdom of Jesus, they travelled to distant lands, faithful to a long and difficult journey, and they kept their hearts open to allow both the journey and the encounter with the incarnate God to give them new direction. From this we can learn to be vigilantly on the lookout for encounter with God. This means being open to the wisdom that will help us truly find Jesus, for Jesus comes to us in many subtle ways. Sometimes we don’t even see Jesus. Or we look away. Or we are unable to recognize the Christ in the ordinariness of our lives. We will need that kind of dedication and vigilance if we are going to see, recognize, and attune ourselves to the God who, in Christ, has become part of the human family and is here in our world today.
But an encounter with God in our midst is only the first step in a series of spiritual practices. What do we do when we find God? Or when God finds us, in the midst of our circumstances? The magi show us that encounter is about more than searching and finding. It is also about receiving and being changed. It is about being with, about lingering, about taking the time to be present to encounters so that the God who is with us in those encounters can truly take hold of us and change us. That is the receptivity that the Magi model. Despite the fact that they go bearing gifts to give, the more important part of the exchange is that they receive the light of Christ that gives them wisdom and greater knowledge of what needs to be done in a hard and sometimes treacherous world. Without receiving that light, we cannot really know how best to order our lives and live toward what God wants for us.
But when we receive that light, we receive a third gift: the gift of joy. And this is a joy that, at some level, no one can take from us, because it is a joy that comes from constancy and fidelity. It is not always a flashy joy, full of emotion. But it is the kind of joy that gives us peace in our hearts, balance in our lives, and a radiant countenance that is ready to share and willing to work with others toward the common good. Pope Francis calls this joy one that is “constantly born anew within us” through our contact with Christ; it is a quiet, strengthening joy that gives us the desire to do good and helps us to move outside ourselves. The knowledge that we are fruitfully journeying together toward a better world is the light that moves us forward. That knowledge is the source of our joy, as Pope Francis says in Joy of the Gospel, par 24: when we know that God has loved us first and has so loved us as to share life with us, we know that we too can get involved, can go out to others, seek those who have been trampled down, stand at the crossroads and welcome the outcast. As we greet the new year together, let us try a little harder to take the first step and to become involved; like the wise rulers of today’s gospel, let us bridge distances, live into our encounters, and go forth changed.