I was recently reminded of a bumper sticker that was popular among Christians about twenty years ago that read, “Wise men still seek Him.” It’s a lovely (if gendered!) sentiment, using the figures of the Magi, those Astrologer-Priests from the ‘East’ who visit the baby Jesus, as examples for us of what wisdom looks like. But, I think, especially on this feast of the Epiphany, when the Western Christian tradition commemorates the Magi, it’s important to reflect more deeply on their example: What exactly does it mean to ‘seek Him’ in a world that is as confusing, messy, and dreary now as it was two thousand years ago? What deeper lessons might the Magi have for us?
There are a few things in the story that jump out to me, but they can be grouped into two major categories: First, they pay attention; and second, they are willing to act on what they find at great cost. Let’s look at both of these more closely.
First, the Magi pay attention. They were observing the stars when they saw something that caught their attention. There’s a trope throughout the book of Genesis where an epiphany is introduced with the words, “And he looked up and saw.” (The most famous example is from the story of Abraham and Isaac when Abraham “looks up” and sees a ram caught in a thicket — It had presumably been there all along, but he hadn’t seen it because he wasn’t looking.) It’s so easy to get caught up in our own minds, in our presuppositions and cares, that we forget to look outside of us for what else might be happening. As astrologers, the Magi were accustomed to looking up, and in this instance they were mightily rewarded for it. We see this trait in action once they arrive in Judea too. When they find Jesus, he isn’t what they were expecting; this is no royal baby born into the comfort of the palace. But they trust what they had seen and treat him as a king nonetheless. Then, they again pay attention when a dream warns them against returning to King Herod. It would have been easy for them to ignore the dream and do what they had been told by the authorities. But they are well-attuned to what their subconscious is telling them, and thereby avoid colluding with the King against the infant they had been led to find.
Second, and just as importantly, the Magi are willing to act on what they see. They just don’t observe the star and shrug and go about their business; they have the curiosity and discipline to go and seek after what it means. When the baby isn’t where they expect him to be, they have the perseverance to ask around and find him. When they do find him, they worship him, and offer him gifts that are both costly and practical. And, when they are warned not to return to Herod, they undertake this civil disobedience — in a foreign land, no less — knowing full well the potential risks.
In these ways, the Magi really are wonderful examples for us.
The wise still seek Him.
The wise still look up.
The wise still pay attention to what they see.
The wise still persevere in doing the hard work.
The wise still are willing to be surprised and have their minds changed.
The wise still are open to joy and wonder.
The wise still offer their best gifts.
The wise still refuse to collude with the powerful against the powerless.
The wise still act.