Few figures in the Bible capture our imagination as much as the Magi. We don’t know who they were or where they came from, so they remain shrouded in mystery. We know only what the Bible tells us: they left the security of their home to follow a star. Unsure of where they were going or what they would find, and refusing to take refuge in the conventional wisdom of the day, they journeyed toward an unknown horizon.
What made them do it?
In his book The Adventure of Living, Paul Tournier suggests that life is a one-way street on which we must be continually moving forward. “The spiritual life,” he writes, “consists only in a series of new births. There must be new flowerings, new prophets, new adventures-always new adventures-if the heart…is to go on beating.”
The Magi moved in the only direction they could move-forward. They were spiritual seekers who moved beyond the conventional religion of their day into a new way of being. They understood that there is always more to learn than we know, more to be discovered than we experience. In following a star, they found God where they least expected to find him-in a feed box for animals.
God was discovered not in the palaces of kings or in the temples of gods or in the academies of philosophers, but in a child born of Jewish peasants in a third-rate province of the Roman Empire.
God is where we least expect to find him.
The Magi are commonly called “wise men.” What made them “wise” was not their possession of truth but their pursuit of it. Because they sensed there was “something less” in their own selves, they searched for that “something more” in life.
Here lies the difference between the Magi and the religious leaders Herod consulted. For these priests and scribes, the scriptures were a self-contained, closed system of knowledge. The scriptures interpreted the world, but the world was of little value in interpreting the scriptures. There was never a need to engage in dialogue with the world. Whatever could not be fitted into a rigid religious system was simply dismissed as untrue or irrelevant. And that’s the problem.
If truth is self-contained, then there is no more truth to be found. There is nothing more we can learn. There are no more questions we can ask. If truth is only to be possessed and never pursued, then our knowledge becomes a dead weight rather than a breath of life. When we claim to have all truth, we stop acting human and start acting like God. When that happens, we may, like the religious leaders, find ourselves dismissing the God whom we ought to worship.
That’s the paradox in Matthew’s gospel story The Visit of the Wise Men (chapter 2, verses 1 to 12): the religious leaders who knew their Bible did not worship the God who came among them, but the Magi who knew no such Bible did him homage. Those who have the Bible and are steeped in deep roots of tradition are not always the ones to give God honour.
The Magi, who took truth seriously, knew they did not have all the truth, so they journeyed and searched for the truth wherever it was to be found. Because they journeyed, they discovered more than they could ever have imagined. Because they searched, they found a baby lying in a feed box for animals.
God is where we least expect to find him.
Commentators today classify many in our culture as “spiritual but not religious.” Many are people who have left organized religion, but they still feel that spiritual instinct deep within them. They are seekers in search of “something more” in life-not something cold and abstract and dogmatic and legalistic, but warm and welcoming, life-giving and inviting. They don’t want a religion of rules and regulations, but they do seek a relationship with God, however they understand God. Theirs is a quest for divinity because, whether we are aware of it or not, the search to find our true selves in relationship to someone or something greater than us is a quest for God.
Western culture is a bundle of contradictions. We have everything we need to be happy, but many of us are unhappy. We are filled with things but unfulfilled as persons. We have our possessions but feel as if we are living in a vacuum. Despite our prosperity, we feel poor in spirit. There are the aches of the human heart, the sighs and curses of living, the loneliness of so many.
The 19th-century German philosopher Schopenhauer was walking down the street one day wondering why he had been born. He accidentally bumped into a pedestrian, who indignantly remarked, “Who do you think you are?” To which Schopenhauer replied, “I wish I knew.”
How many of us are like Schopenhauer: we don’t know who we are or where we are going in life? We have the resources for authentic living but no purpose to living. We have the best of intentions but no direction. We have career goals but no life goals. We want love, but we look in all the wrong places. We settle for Plan B when we could have Plan A. The truth is: many of us are running on empty, and we don’t even know it.
But life doesn’t have to be that way-not for any of us. We can view our living-from life to death-as a journey in our relationship with God. Each of us is called, like the Magi, to leave our securities behind and follow a star. Like most journeys, it is filled with adventure and moments that will stretch us to become more than we ever thought possible. Embarking on the journey will challenge us to explore the tough questions that make life meaningful.
Asking questions is part of being human. Rather than fear questions, we are to welcome them-because through questions God may be giving us some new insight into himself or his universe. Admittedly, asking questions can increase our anxiety, disturb our complacency and challenge our certainties. We may even find ourselves at a point in our journey where we must decide whether to pull back in fear or move forward in faith.
But if we are to be more like the Magi than the religious leaders, if we are to follow the star and not remain in our self-contained enclosed world, then the only way to move is forward.
To follow a star takes courage-to move into a future that is God’s, not ours. It means stepping out from where we are to where God leads. It means pursuing truth openly without possessing truth defensively. It means having the faith to overcome fear, knowing that our faith ultimately rests neither on an inerrant Bible nor an infallible church but in a faithful, loving God.
The Magi began by following a star and they ended by worshipping a baby. May God give us the courage to follow the star in our own lives, and so come to worship where we least expect to find him.
The Rev. Dr. Gary Nicolosi is the rector at St. James Westminster Anglican Church in London, Ont.