On the first Sunday of Advent this year, we heard the prophet Isaiah promise a future time when “all nations” would join in a great procession up Mount Zion to worship the Lord in his Temple. For centuries, the Israelites held onto this hope that one day “the mountain of the Lord’s house” would be raised above all the others: Israel would become so glorious that all nations would stream toward it (2:2).
Now let’s see how the Christmas season comes to an end: on the twelfth and final day of Christmas, we will celebrate the feast of the Epiphany. And when we do, it’s to celebrate the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy. We recall the day that the Magi, representatives of the “nations,” did indeed make their way to the house of the Lord.
But the house is not a grand temple; it’s the house of a simple carpenter and his wife. And it’s not on Mount Zion; it’s in the small rural town of Bethlehem in Judea. And it’s only a few rather than a great number who come to honor the newborn king. Finally, it’s not a wealthy prince dressed in fine robes and attended to by servants that they see. Just a little boy with his parents.
It’s all so ordinary. But what the Magi see fills them with joy (Matthew 2:10). Their long Advent journey has come to a surprising yet glorious end. Their encounter with Jesus has changed their lives.
Why Make the Journey? What made the Magi travel all that way? It was commonly thought that a new star or some other sign in the heavens would accompany the birth of a new king—especially a particularly important king. So when the Magi saw a new star over the land of Israel, they saw it as a sign that a “newborn king of the Jews” had arrived and decided to go pay him homage (Matthew 2:2).
These wise men had likely concluded that Herod the Great, the ruling “king of the Jews,” had had another child and decided to make this child his official heir. Herod already had at least fifteen children. He was known to change his mind often as to who should succeed him, so this wouldn’t have been too much of a surprise. At any rate, in a gesture of courtesy, and maybe out of a little curiosity, they decided to make a diplomatic trip to welcome the child and present him with gifts befitting his rank.
Imagine how the Magi must have felt when they arrived in Jerusalem. Rather than a court rejoicing in Herod’s new heir, they found a king with no new child, who was “troubled” and perturbed by their presence. They saw that all of Herod’s court was just as upset as well (Matthew 2:3). Their arrival and news of a new king distressed Herod so much that he convened a special meeting of his religious advisers to find out who this child was.
Then came the final surprise: Herod asked the Magi to go out ahead of him, find the child, and report back to him, “that I too may go and do him homage” (Matthew 2:8). That was an unusual request to make. Herod could have dispatched his own delegation, especially since he now knew that the child was in Bethlehem (2:5). The Magi could sense that Herod was plotting something. Perhaps they suspected that this was another of his devious schemes. So they left, wary of Herod but eager to find this newborn ruler who was meant “to shepherd . . . Israel” (2:6). And their persistence paid off.
Encountering Jesus. Since Bethlehem lies just six miles south of Jerusalem, it probably took the Magi only a few hours to make the journey. So their strange encounter with Herod was still fresh in their memories when they came to Joseph and Mary’s front door. But all their wariness and weariness gave way to joy when Mary—probably puzzled herself—welcomed them in to see her son (Matthew 2:10).
Can you picture the scene? A young mother from a small town opens her door to find noblemen from far away asking about a king. There’s something both awkward and amazing about it.
Imagine too the conversation that likely followed. First, the Magi explain what they are doing there—their long journey from their home, Herod’s unsettling welcome, and his strange request that they spy for him. Then, Mary fills in the missing pieces by telling about the visit of the angel, the miracle of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, her own miraculous pregnancy, and the wondrous events surrounding Jesus’ birth. Maybe Joseph tells the story of how an angel appeared to him and convinced him to take Mary as his wife.
Seeing the child and hearing Mary’s story affected the Magi deeply. In fact, they were so moved that “they prostrated themselves and did him homage” (Matthew 2:11). And so these pagan wise men became the first to worship Jesus!
What they saw and heard in this home must have opened their eyes to the truth about who God is and, even more surprising, the unexpected way this God was going to come and save his people. Just as Zechariah and Mary were in awe that God would choose humble and lowly people such as themselves to bring redemption, the Magi were surprised to find Israel’s Savior in such humble surroundings. Even so, they prostrated themselves and worshipped Jesus. They had met the true newborn King of the Jews, and their lives would never be the same!
Come and See. In a very real sense, the Magi represent all of us. We are the “nations” that Isaiah prophesied would come streaming to the Lord. During the season of Advent, God is calling each of us to meet Jesus, to bow down and worship him, and to give him the treasures of our hearts. Jesus is inviting us to his humble home in Bethlehem, where we will see his humility and his glory. And there, like the Magi, we can adore him and give our lives to him willingly and in gratitude.
Let’s accept this invitation! If we do, we’ll see a child who is born of God. We’ll see a true King whose reign is founded on love and mercy, on humility and service. We will see that almighty God has come into this world to save the lost. He has come to save us.
And what will Mary tell us as we join the Magi in her home? She’ll tell us a story of divine love, a love that is so strong it is willing to go to the cross for us. She’ll tell us that this love is not just a theory or a doctrine; it’s a personal love that God wants each of us to experience. She’ll tell us that, like hers, our road of faith may be difficult but that it is worth every sacrifice we make, every challenge that we endure. And she’ll tell us that her Son is worthy of our worship and praise.
Come and Worship. Christmas should surprise us, just as it did the Magi. It should change us, just as Zechariah’s encounter changed him. And just as Mary rejoiced with Elizabeth, Christmas should fill us with joy.
Like all of them, you have been on an Advent journey these past few weeks. Christmas is quickly approaching. You might want to pause and reflect on how God has been present to you during Advent. Has he strengthened your faith as you sat before him in silence? Has he showed you his faithfulness as you have read the Advent Scriptures? Has he moved your heart to worship him more reverently in prayer and during Mass? If you’re not sure, don’t worry. It’s never too late to seek him anew.
So search for Jesus along with the Magi. He wants you to find him on your journey of faith. He waits for you at Mass and in Confession, in prayer and Scripture, and even in your mundane acts of cooking and cleaning and wrapping, just as he was present while Mary served Elizabeth.
Let every part of your journey move you to worship Jesus like the Magi. Use your imagination. Your treasures are not gold or frankincense or myrrh but your love and faith, your weakness and your trust. Place yourself there at the manger, and ask the Holy Spirit to help you see the God who came to save you.
As you do, you’ll feel gratitude, love, and praise rise up in you. And you will gladly offer these treasures to Jesus, your Savior.
That’s what worship looks like. So come, let us adore him.