“When Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea,
in the days of King Herod,
behold, magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem, saying,
‘Where is the newborn king of the Jews?
We saw his star at its rising
and have come to do him homage.’
When King Herod heard this,
he was greatly troubled,
and all Jerusalem with him.”
Today, we celebrate the Epiphany. In this context, it is the revelation of who Jesus is by the magi following a star to find a king. Their search, which leads to the encounter with a baby in Bethlehem, reveals to all that this baby is indeed a king, worthy of the gifts given to him. There are many other moments of epiphany in the gospels (e.g., Jesus’s baptism, the transfiguration, and his death on the cross, itself) and, in fact, Jesus’s entire life can be considered an epiphany, a revelation of God the Father. Jesus is the bringer of the truth and is the Truth, himself.
Here’s the important dynamic in today’s gospel: those who seek the truth find it. The corollary is also true: those who think they know the truth miss it. Herod knows he is king, yet he has already missed the birth of the true king in his kingdom. Even after his encounter with the magi, Herod is not open to this new truth, but seeks to destroy it. In closing himself off from the truth, Herod is cunning, but not wise. In a sense, Herod sees himself as above the truth, not as a servant of truth. Truth, he thinks, is there to serve him. The magi show a different response. Knowledgeable about many things, they still seek the truth. No path or person is beyond their search. They go to great lengths to find the truth, and when the find him, they offer all of their gifts. Their knowledge leads them to understand that they have more to learn. In opening themselves up to the truth, the magi are wise, but not cunning. In a sense, they see themselves as servants of the truth, not its master. They are not concerned with how the truth will benefit them, but how they serve the truth.
It has been true in my life that the less I knew the less I thought I had to learn while the more I knew the more I thought I had to learn. As a child, I began to have a fascination with magic. It started with, “I know how you did that.” I got a small magic kit and then started to check out books from the library about magic. Thousands of tricks and illusions, nuanced physical and psychological skills, and historical developments of various magic traditions later, I realized that I had only scratched the magic surface and could dedicate a career to learning more. I really knew so little.
The search for knowledge and truth leads to the realization that there is so much more that we don’t know. In our relationship with God, this is also true. The less we know about God or know God, the more we think we have him all figured out. The more we know God or know about God, the less we think we truly understand him. We realize that God is beyond our capacity to fully understand. God is mystery, not as in a puzzle to solve, but as a hidden reality beyond the full comprehension of any created intellect. We can think our way to certain aspects of God, but we can’t think our way to a full grasp of love eternal and unlimited. In the end, we say with Job, “I place my hand over my mouth.” Or, after he had his own epiphany, we say with St. Thomas Aquinas, “I can write no more. All that I have written seems like straw.”
The mystery of the epiphany is that Jesus is the full revelation of God. He doesn’t just speak the truth, he is the truth. Those that seek him will find him.