This Sunday: Westward Leading, Still Proceeding …

Certain stories in the Gospel take us by surprise. The three temptations of Christ, with the devil whisking Jesus around like a magician. The beheading of John the Baptist as a response to a dance at a birthday party. They are wild, unexpected incidents that don’t follow the rules of the rest of the Gospel.

The Epiphany is one of those. It’s an exotic adventure story that feels almost incidental to the main event. But the Church finds it important enough to give it its own feast, so we should look for what it means for our own life. The answer: Quite a bit. Here are four ways the Magi are relevant to our lives.

1: We are on a quest.

The Epiphany story is a classic quest story, with mysterious signs leading a band of brothers on a journey to find the Source of Power. Ben Hur expands on this theme to show one of the Magi on a lifelong quest to find that same source of power.

That the story is in the Bible gives us permission to see our life as a quest for the Christ Child too. Yes, we have certainly already found him. But we can still search for the manifestations of God in the world. What we know from the Wise Men’s quest: The journey is sometimes long, and when we find Christ, he won’t always be what we expect.

2: Beware the evil king.

In the Epiphany story, the king tries to trick the Wise Men. He wants to use their earnestness and purity for his own evil purposes. But the Wise Men don’t fall for it.

In our own search for Christ, there is no reason for naiveté. There are many counterfeits of the Gospel: false faith that is really a refusal to ask hard questions; false hope that is really wishful thinking; false charity that is really cowardice, afraid to offend.

As St. Paul says, “Test everything and hold fast to what is true.” If our quest is for faith like the Magi, it should be earnest and pure — and it should be fed by worship, study and discussion.

3: Follow the star.

The star in the story is not merely an astronomical special-effects element in a story (though, how cool is that?). It’s also a reminder that not only is the natural world capable of leading us to God by inference, but God intentionally set it up as a homing beacon to him.

In his odd song “Rocky Mountain High” John Denver was right about one thing: In a place of great natural beauty, it is very possible to “speak to God and listen to his casual reply.” To hear God speak to us in this way, we first have to give him the opportunity by climbing a mountain, hiking a trail — or following a star.

But the star wasn’t the only thing Wise Men followed: They also had to listen to the warning voice of the angel. The order and beauty of nature is just one way God communicates to us. The most direct ways are the words of Scripture and the Church.

4: Welcome the camels.

Lastly, this story is a reminder of the universality of the Church, which embraces people from all parts of the world.

“Nations shall walk by your light and kings by your shining radiance,” says the first reading. “Caravans of camels shall fill you, dromedaries from Midian and Ephah; all from Sheba shall come.” The Psalm says, “The kings of Tarshish and the Isles shall offer gifts; the kings of Arabia and Seba shall bring tribute.”

Our Church is the Church of many cultures. It’s an exotic Church in addition to a down-home Church, but we are one in our adoration of the Lord.

We should go in expecting Jesus Christ, and accepting whatever else — or whoever else — we find by his side.

Photo: The wise men heading West to St. Benedict’s Abbey.

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Tom Hoopes

Tom Hoopes

Tom Hoopes, author of The Rosary of Saint John Paul II and The Fatima Family Handbook, is writer in residence at Benedictine College in Kansas and hosts The Extraordinary Story podcast about the life of Christ. A former reporter in the Washington, D.C., area, he served as press secretary of the U.S. House Ways & Means Committee Chairman and spent 10 years as executive editor of the National Catholic Register newspaper and Faith & Family magazine. His work frequently appears in Catholic publications such as Aleteia.org and the Register. He and his wife, April, have nine children and live in Atchison, Kansas.