IN THE GOSPEL of Matthew 2:1-12, the story of the
visit of the Magi has captured the hearts and souls
of spiritual seekers throughout the ages. These three
Wise Men from the East, though not specifically
named in the scriptural text, have come to be known
as Caspar, Balthasar and Melchior as they carry their
signature gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh to the newborn
How many of us remember the delight we took as children
in moving these royal travelers ever closer to the
manger in our home Nativity scenes in anticipation of the
Feast of the Epiphany! A wonderful family ritual for sure, yet
no less compelling for us to consider how these travelers
might continue to lead us ever closer to Christ throughout
In particular, the Magi display significant qualities for any
spiritual traveler to emulate, especially in the development
of their skills and gifts: 1) keen observation, 2) ability to follow
directions, 3) quality of presence, 4) active participation
and 5) discernment.
All five of these life skills for the spiritual journey can be
considered important. The Magi exhibit mastery of each, particularly
exemplified in the discernment they showed. Discernment
is the capacity to sift our everyday experiences and
trust when we are following the lead of God and when we
Given the number of "signs" in today's world that call for
our attention and commitment, we might rightfully wonder
how we can actually know when we are indeed following
God's lead. Even when we discern what we consider to
be the right path, how do we get there? Whom do we trust?
Or do we try to do it alone?
To help us come to some deepening clarity, we take a reflective
look at the story of the Magi's visit and see what these
wise companions might teach us about acquiring some of
the necessary traveling skills needed for our spiritual journey
in today's world.
"We saw his star at its rising and have come to do him
homage" (v. 2).
Jonathan sat expectantly in the darkened Church of St.
Peter the Apostle, as his oldest son, Mark, led the procession
of three royal travelers. Each was carrying carefully wrapped
gifts representing gold, frankincense and myrrh to the starlit
tableau waiting in serene stillness at the center of the sanctuary.
The suspended gold-plated star above the altar twinkled
as it cast its light directly on the manger scene below as the
three wise travelers in royal capes of velvet and velour
moved steadily toward the tableau.
Jonathan's wife, Amy, leaned over and whispered, "Mark
really looks like he enjoys what he's doing, doesn't he, as he
leads the procession with such dignity?" Jonathan whispered
back, "Yes. Maybe all we need to do is follow the light of the
star. If it were only that simple!"
Amy sat back and enjoyed the unfolding scene before her. She was remembering each step of the preparations that went
into getting Mark ready to be the leading king at this special
While following the star's light may indeed seem like a relatively
simple task, the Magi can teach us the traveler's
most basic skill of keen observation. Given the number of
"lights" that glisten and call for our attention, it would be
good for us to learn what we need to actually "see" before
we take the next step on our faith journey.
One of the most important observations may be to see that
we have been created by God with life and purpose. We need
to claim the idea that God desires a personal and loving relationship
with each of us. We are invited to see our lives as
a woven tapestry of faith that gives testimony to our unique
relationship with God.
For example, we may want to ponder: What are we really
seeking in life? What gives our life meaning and purpose?
It is evident that these three wise travelers of old had been
actively waiting for a significant period of time for a sign in
the heavens to guide them. They were prepared to see the
sign. There is a sense of activity and purpose in their seeking,
and so when the time was right, they took steps to follow
the light and to inquire further about where they might
find and worship Jesus as the newborn king of the Jews.
For 21st-century spiritual seekers, the challenge of finding
God in our lives may seem less dramatic than that of the
Magi, and yet no less daunting, in our quest to find God's
presence in our everyday experiences.
Could we consider that a sign and star might be as simple
as a phone call from a friend or colleague, a word of
advice from a parent, an employment opportunity that
seems to beckon even though it doesn't seem to be our
dream job at the moment?
The important thing to notice is where these signs and
stars lead us so that we can take the very next step in front
of us with the assurance that we are not alone when we are
following the lead of God whom we have come to trust.
"After their audience with the king they set out" (v. 9).
Mary Anne, an executive who makes countless daily decisions
on the corporate level, finds it more difficult than ever
to take the time to attend to her own personal choices. She
tends to sit on the fence for long periods of time before actually
setting out to follow a path. She admits that many of
life's opportunities on the personal level have passed her by
because she was often too reluctant to take the necessary next
steps with confidence. Often experiencing a certain paralysis
of spirit, Mary Anne also finds it difficult to trust others
in order to gain insight.
Perhaps our three wise travelers may offer Mary Anne just
the help she needs since they indeed stepped out and followed
the path to Bethlehem even as they looked for consultation
on their journey that included a visit with King
Herod. While we know that the Magi later realized they were
not to make a return trip to Herod, they clearly explored
every option at this early stage in their journey in order to
gain the best access route to the Christ Child.
Likewise, how difficult it can be for us when we are relying
on the guidance of others! Persons like Mary Anne often
find it safer to stay undecided since they are so fearful that
they might make a mistake, especially if those whom they
once trusted prove later to be unworthy of such trust.
And yet, do we have faith that God will lead us and show
us the way if we keep paying attention, as the Magi did, at
all stages of our journey? What we are called to do, flowing
from our growing skill of observation, is to notice each of
the signposts on the path and follow the directions that can
lead us to life and freedom by paying closer attention, pondering
our next steps, praying for God's help and putting one
foot in front of the other.
These steps may be helpful in moving us forward if we feel
called by God to make some kind of significant life change
that might involve varying degrees of struggle, confusion and
uncertainty. Or perhaps it is necessary to restore trust and
fidelity to a relationship that has been hurting due to betrayal
or misunderstanding. Or we might be called to a conversion
of heart that needs concrete steps to follow our
Whatever the situation may be, we may be feeling invited
to trust the reliable signposts on our path. That way we can
take the necessary next steps that will give some momentum
to our choices.
"And behold, the star that they had seen at its rising preceded
them, until it came and stopped over the place where
the child was" (v. 9).
Day after day, Margaret looks into the eyes of her 75-year-old
husband, Zach, and wonders if he even knows that she
is there anymore. His dementia seems to be getting worse,
and it is increasingly difficult for her to find any tangible
comfort in their 53 years of marriage. Sustained by deep love,
however, she continues to care for Zach by feeding him,
bathing him, dressing him and holding him with the hope
that somehow he will know of her love even as she wonders
how much he is really "there."
Margaret somehow recognizes in the seeming absence of
Zach's responsiveness that she is exactly where she is called
to be as she stays by her husband's side with great tenderness
and affection. These are the signature qualities of her
presence to him. What greater gift could she give him?
When Margaret finds herself growing impatient and restless,
given her lagging day-to-day stamina and demanding
attentiveness to her husband, she says that she continues to
trust that she is indeed in the stable of her home as she lovingly
cares for Zach.
Likewise, the wise travelers found the Christ Child in
humble surroundings in the manger, and it is precisely
there that they opened and shared their gifts in deep reverence
since they had been so "overjoyed at seeing the star"
(v. 10). This star had led them to the house where "they saw
the child with Mary his mother" (v. 11).
This gift of quality of presence can, at first glance, seem
to be so simple for us to understand. Yet how often might
we wish that we were somewhere else? When we compare
our lives with the seemingly better and more desirable situations
of others, we can experience a restlessness of spirit.
This can cause discontent and unhappiness since we are
under the illusion that our true happiness is yet to come in
some other and better place.
Perhaps what God most longs for us to know is that,
when we discern that we are following God's lead in our life
situation and vocation, we are exactly where God wants us
to find our true happiness and abundant peace.
"Then they opened their treasures and offered him gifts of
gold, frankincense and myrrh" (v. 11).
Dennis, a recent college graduate, asked, "What can I
possibly give to God in my life? Who am I, after all, that God
would want me to do anything special in my life? Often I
feel as though I have nothing to give."
The three wise travelers might encourage Dennis to consider
questions such as the following: How might I identify
the specific gifts that God has given me to share with others?
How generously might I "open my treasures" and freely
give of my time and talents? What gifts do I allow others to
share with me? How willingly do I receive these gifts freely
shared? Where do I struggle to see my giftedness and the giftedness
Dennis feels drawn to a more active participation in the
lives of others as he seeks ways to open his coffers as the Magi
did when they presented their treasures to Jesus.
So often spiritual seekers of all ages and ways of life think
that God must want something spectacular and beyond
their reach in order to prove that they have some kind of
worthwhile gift to share. Can we dare to believe that God
wants us to be happy in our giving from the depths of who
While Dennis may not have gifts of gold, frankincense or
myrrh to offer, he has gifts of generosity, intelligence and
compassion that have continually nurtured his desire to
major and graduate with a degree in the study of human
resources. How might Dennis trust these gifts as an invitation
to seek to broaden his horizons in the urban community
where he is seeking employment at this time?
How are we called to share our unique gifts with others?
"And having been warned in a dream not to return to
Herod, they departed for their country by another way"
Frank, a 30-year-old sportswriter and self-proclaimed
workaholic, admits that he needs to trust his instincts with
deeper integrity when making decisions, especially since he
can tend to be a people-pleaser. He often second-guesses himself
even after coming to a decision. This pattern can lead
him to doubt his own discernment and then follow the lead
of others, even when his mind and heart are telling him
Simply put, Frank has a hard time saying no, and he
takes on too many commitments while working under the
illusion that he can successfully juggle all of the balls in
Perhaps Frank would benefit from the advice of the Magi who can encourage him to act in truth, discernment and
integrity rather than allowing his motive of pleasing others
to dominate his decision-making.
Clearly, the Magi had heard and intended to follow King
Herod's earlier request: "Go and search diligently for the
child. When you have found him, bring me word, that I too
may go and do him homage" (v. 8). And yet, the three wise
travelers later heeded their dream exhorting them to do
Since the Magi deemed the message in the dream to be
of God, they subsequently allowed their next steps to follow
this dream, even if it meant causing displeasure to King
Herod. This kind of fluidity of spirit seems essential to good
discernment, especially when there are contrasting voices
clamoring for our attention and choices.
In order to attain this level of discernment, it might be
worthwhile to ask: How do we "return home" after our
encounters with Christ, and yet allow ourselves to be forever
changed by these encounters? How do we keep growing in
our spiritual journeys? How do we keep learning about ourselves
in ways that hold the potential to deepen God's call
to holiness as we find our way each day of our lives?
As the Magi can well testify, our return trip home indeed
finds us transformed beyond our imagining, since our journey
to draw ever closer to Christ Jesus renders us changed
for a lifetime.
Now we need to consider how we are called to be a "sign"
and a "star" for others as they seek their way to find Christ.
May these wise companions continue to inspire the journeys
of spiritual seekers of all time so the blueprint of their
story of loving search can be claimed for generations to