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The wisdom of the Magi

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I WANT to share with you five lessons that I hope you take to heart if you want to be counted among the MAGI, who sought and found the newborn king whom they had been looking for. 1) Be ready to go the distance, 2) Dare to ask questions, 3) Look up to the stars for guidance, 4) Lay down your gifts, and 5) Dare to create new pathways.

Let’s start with the first: BE READY TO GO THE DISTANCE. That will not happen if we get too attached to our familiar grounds and are no longer able to step out of our comfort zones. We are all pilgrims in this world; that is one thing we must never forget. Would Abraham have fulfilled his vocation to become the “Father of Many Nations” if he had not dared to heed God’s call to go forth and leave his native Haran and set out for unfamiliar Canaan? Sometimes, I know, you will not feel enthusiastic about leaving, about going forth and setting out, like Jonah, who ran away from God and went to the opposite direction. Sometimes, like the reluctant prophet, we have yet to spend three nights in the belly of a whale to be able to hear God’s call and go where we are being sent. Or we can be like those two disciples who had slipped out of the upper room, who had to be accompanied on the way by the Risen Lord who appeared to them as a fellow traveler who made it possible for them to regain their senses and retrace their steps—back to Jerusalem.

And now for the second: DARE TO ASK QUESTIONS. My late father taught me this when I was in grade three. One day, I came home in tears and was too ashamed to show him my quiz paper that got a zero grade because I did not understand the instruction. He consoled me and said, “If you want to learn, you have to be humble enough to ask questions when you don’t understand.” Knowledge is not possible for people who cannot admit their ignorance. You see, the problem is that the common caricature about wise people is that they are the ones who have the answer to questions, not those who ask them. And we all know that is false. Only people who do not pretend to know when they really do not know, will discover not just knowledge, but wisdom. Never forget that we can only speak sensibly if we take time to listen attentively, yes—even to the “dull and ignorant” who, as was once said by that famous DESIDERATA—also “have their stories to tell.”

And that brings us to the third lesson: LOOK UP TO THE STARS FOR GUIDANCE. Even in the middle of the darkest night, you will be able to find your way if you can look up to the stars and allow yourself to be led by them. I am sure you have reached this stage in your life because you have been mentored by many teachers and role models. They are the stars who deserve a spot in your life’s Christmas trees, the ones who reflect the brilliance of the One Star who has shone and continues to shine during the darkest moments of human history. Never succumb to the temptation to develop a star complex like King Herod did. No wonder he regarded the news about a newborn king as a threat to his power. I tell, you, people with star complex tend to behave pathetically. They tend to lose the way and not reach their destination.

Fourth lesson: LAY DOWN YOUR GIFTS however precious they are. They remain worthless until they are offered. There is no big deal about being blessed; it is what life itself is all about anyway. What is big deal is when, having been blessed, you become a blessing to the world. Remember, you are gifted only to give. The one Spirit, the gift of all gifts, whom we received at baptism has poured out his manifold charisms. They are not his personal gifts to you; they are his gifts to the world through the Church, Christ’s Body, which you belong to. Herod himself was a very gifted man, a master builder, an astute politician. But he was also very insecure. His gifts had made him narcissistic. He held on too tightly to them and never learned that by giving, he would receive even more. All he had to do was to lay down his gifts and not treat them as idols, to worship only the unassuming God, wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.

And fifth and last lesson: DARE TO CREATE NEW PATHWAYS. Do not succumb to the temptation to stick always to the same itinerary in your life’s journey. You’re making it too easy for the Herods of this world to ambush you on the way. It is what happens when we keep the Church on maintenance mode and lose our missionary spirit to bring good news. I have known many missionaries who have quickly turned into mercenaries. They remind me of Robert Frost who wrote that poem about travelers who are too quickly seduced by “the woods that are lovely, dark and deep”, forgetting that they “have promises to keep and miles to go before they sleep… “

Another poet, Antonio Machado, once wrote a song about a traveler. He said, “Caminante no hay camino, se hace camino al andar.” (Traveler, there is no way, you make a way as you walk along.) Dare, therefore, to create new pathways; know how to navigate your way around the deceitful and murderous Herods of our times.

There you have them—the five lessons I want you to remember: Go the distance, ask questions, look up to the stars, lay down your gifts, and find new pathways. May the Star of Bethlehem, the Star of Wonder Star of Night guide you and your fellow Magi to the Perfect Light!

(Homily for the Feast of the Epiphany, 6 January 2024, Mt 2:1-12)

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