A number of years ago a friend of mine told me about a humorous interchange she had with one of her small children while traveling. Apparently the family was traveling across the country by plane, and had to stop in another city part way through the trip to catch their connecting flight. When it was time to board the second flight, the child sighed and said something like this: "I sure hope the pilot knows where he is going this time." Clearly the child did not understand that the first flight had only gotten them part way. In the child's mind, they had flown around in circles: since both airports looked similar, she thought the pilot did not know where he was going and that they had not actually gone anywhere on that first flight, when in fact, they had already traveled far.
How much like that our lives can be! There are times when we are trying to get something accomplished and we feel like we are going around and around in circles. We have the perception that we are not moving anywhere at all, when in reality we are learning and growing. It may not feel like we are accomplishing anything, though there are virtues being acquired or lessons being learned along the way. Life is a journey, but often it can feel like we are on a road to "God only knows" where.
Ah, but that is the point: God does know where we are and where we are going. And better still, He does provide a map. The map is the Bible, aided by our relationship with Him through prayer, which helps us to better understand who He is and where we are going. The important piece that some of us miss is that we need to learn to rely on Him rather than trying to muddle through on our own. We often have the mentality that we should pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps, thinking that we are showing weakness if we ask for help. When we do that, we are indeed ‘flying around in circles.’
The story of the Magi on the Feast of the Epiphany is a favorite of mine. I have always loved the idea that these exotic wise astrologers from far off lands went on a grand adventure to find a newborn king, though they really had no idea where they were going or who they were really looking for at the outset of the trip. They remind me of Abraham who was told by God to go, and simply went, without much else to go on except his love for God and a huge amount of trust. However, the Magi are even more appealing to me, if I can be honest, because they had no previous relationship with God. They were Zoroastrians, who believed in one god, but not necessarily the God of the Jews. These men saw the star as an omen, and in their understanding the star would lead them to a king.
The Magi must have been very open to whatever possibilities lay before them as to who this baby king would be. They must have had strong faith in the goodness of this king whom they had yet to meet. Maybe it was not religious faith on the surface of their consciousness, but they were open to the deep stirrings in their hearts; open enough to follow those stirrings into the unknown desert and beyond, all for someone they had not yet met. I have always believed it was the stirring of the Holy Spirit deep within them to which they responded, willing to risk the elements and the dangers of such a trip. This was a lot more difficult than hopping an airplane and flying in circles, so to speak, until one reached a pre-arranged destination. They had no idea exactly where they were going until they got there.
Also appealing in the story of the Magi is that they followed a star until they were certain that they were at the destination. Who knows how often they felt they were going in circles! When they finally arrived in Judea, King Herod did point them in the right direction, but they still had to find the exact spot where the baby was born. The story does not say the star turned red like a stop sign or that it pointed a great big arrow to the exact spot indicating that the stable in Bethlehem was the correct destination. They trusted in what their hearts knew. I am reminded of another story in the Scriptures: they seem like the disciples on the road to Emmaus who said their hearts burned within them when they were with the initially unrecognized, risen Lord Jesus. This leads me to think that maybe it was indeed the work of the Holy Spirit moving the hearts of the Magi to burn within them when the star stopped there. When they alit from their camels and went into the stable, seeing the babe for the first time, they knew this was the King for whom they had come.
The Magi were indeed wise men. They knew that this child was more than just a king. They somehow knew to worship and to present him with the great treasures they could give. But they also knew, because of trust they had in a dream, not to do what Herod had asked of them. They knew not to reveal the location of the family with the newborn baby king and so they left by another route, warning the family to flee as soon as they could as well. They trusted because they were learning to listen to the movements of the Spirit deep within their hearts.
We do not know what became of them, but there is no doubt that they returned home with more than they left with. They returned home having seen the Son of God. They learned whatever lessons the journey taught them, the greatest of which was to trust in the stirrings of their hearts which come from God. They learned to discern what was from God, (the star, the dream, the Baby), and what was not from God, (the promises of Herod that he wanted to worship the child). This is one of the most important lessons of the spiritual life. They did have the big epiphany of seeing the child and realizing He was the Son of God, the most incredible revelation of all for anyone to have. But they also learned to discern the series of epiphanies along the way of the journey. That is the true gift of the Feast of Epiphany.
This gift is for us, too. We do not have only one "aha!" of new-found faith or belief; we do not have a single miraculous moment that carries us through the rest of our lives with certainty of everything we encounter. We might have the one event that may jump-start our faith, but along the road we have many epiphanies as things grow brighter with each experience of God. Being human, we need constant guidance. Sometimes on the journey things seem to become darker, not brighter, and it does feel like we are going in circles. Then the task is to trust that He is still with us, never leaving our sides for a moment. Just as Blessed Teresa of Calcutta lived many years in darkness surviving simply on her trust in Jesus, so too, do we have to learn to trust when the road gets dark.
We need help to truly realize we have had a message of love from the Lord. Without it, we would miss many of the little epiphanies that we need to recognize His presence or a bit of wisdom He is trying to impart to us. Like the Magi, we become wiser, following not a star, but following the Light of the World, the Lord Jesus Christ. We become wiser every time we rely on God and every time we trust in His Word. We become wiser every time we imitate Him; with every act of selflessness, every act of forgiveness, every act of humility, and every act of love. We become wiser every time we say yes to what God may be asking of us and every time we accept a gift of grace from Him. When we do this we truly begin to see Him everywhere, and like the Magi we know when we are seeing Jesus in the face of the poor, the lonely, the outcast, our brothers and sisters, our co-workers, friends, and neighbors. When we see Jesus face to face in others it is the best epiphany of all.
May we ask for the grace to recognize the signs that guide us on our journey through life! May we trust in the epiphanies which are given to us daily! May we learn how to discern which movements are from God and which are not, so that we may always move closer to the Lord! May we trust that the Lord is with us on the journey and that He is also the destination! And may we become wise like the Magi in knowing that when the road is long and dark, there will soon be the light of love to guide us! Let us continue to meet in the Heart of the newborn King, Jesus the Lord! Alleluia! Peace!
©Michele L. Catanese
The first picture is from a greeting card depicting the Magi greeting the Holy Family and Child. The photos are mine. The first was taken in the desert of New Mexico near Santa Fe. The second is clearly not a star, but it is the moon over Baveno, in northern Italy. It was the closest photo I had of a heavenly body illuminating a town. The third photo was taken on the trail in Lost Maples Park in Texas.
Heart Speaks to Heart