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In the Caravan of the Magi: Sermon for Epiphany, 2024


Wise men or kings did not travel alone. Travelling in those days was extremely dangerous. Lone travelers were subject to harassment, mugging, theft, and worse. The journey was also very long. The Greek word used for the wise men refers to a member of the Zoroastrian priestly caste of ancient Persia, in modern-day Iran. Walking non-stop from the ancient Persian capital to Bethlehem would take 21 days on today’s modern roads, according to Google Maps. Two thousand years ago, the journey was certainly longer and more arduous.

          So it would not have just been the three wise men walking to Bethlehem, but a whole caravan of servants, guards, cooks for the entourage, etc. This tells you something about the level of the commitment of these men making this journey. Not only do they bring precious gifts to the Christchild, but the journey alone would have cost literally a fortune, a life’s savings. Even a very rich man could have been bankrupted by such an expedition.

          We refer to them as “magi,” from the Latin word magus, meaning a magician, but these are not some conjurers of cheap tricks. Their magic is not in incantations and spells but in seeking the ancient things of the world, searching the past. They search the stars for signs and portents, and see the rising of a new star. But the stars reveal not the future, but the past. The average star visible by the naked human eye is over a thousand light years away from the earth, meaning that by the time the light that we are actually seeing reaches us, we are seeing something that, at its point of origin, is really the distant past.

          Coming to Bethlehem, the wise men seeks something, or rather, someONE, who is more ancient than the wisdom treasured in their homelands, but also something more new. They seek for Wisdom: the wisdom of the ancients, the wisdom of the stars. But what they find is Wisdom incarnate.

          Picking up on this theme, the liturgy identifies divine Wisdom with Christ in several places. In the late days of Advent, “Wisdom” is one of the titles given to the awaited Savior by the O Antiphons: “O Wisdom, coming forth from the mouth of the Most High, reaching from one end to the other mightily, and sweetly ordering all things: Come and teach us the way of prudence.”

          In the week after Christmas, the Liturgy returns to the Book of Wisdom in the entrance antiphon: “When a profound stillness compassed everything and the night in its swift course was half spent, Your all-powerful Word, O Lord, bounded from heaven’s royal throne,” connecting Christ as the Word with Christ as Wisdom.

          The three wise men, then, sought a new king, sought an ancient wisdom to help them grow in knowledge and stature, but what did the rest of the multitude in that caravan seek? Certainly not all of them shared the great devotion to truth of the Wise. We can imagine, “camels galled, sore-footed, refractory, Lying down in the melting snow … the camel men cursing and grumbling / And running away, and wanting their liquor and women, / And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters, / And the cities dirty and the towns unfriendly,” as one 20th Century poet wrote.

          What were they seeking? Did they even know? Interestingly, the Christchild, thirty years later will ask two new disciples whom he sees following him precisely that question: “What are you looking for?” They seem unsure and respond only, “Rabbi, where are you staying?” Not knowing what we are seeking, but seeking it all the same, turns out to be more common than we would think.

          The Epiphany of the Lord is about the search for truth and wisdom, and even more importantly, about the act of homage, the worship that these men and likewise all of their entourage made to the newborn King. Thinking of this journey of such a mixed crew of persons, some ambitious and focused, some enthusiastic, some lukewarm, some feeling dragged along through the misery of the journey, should put us in the mind of the Church, the successor to the Magi in seeking the truth and wisdom of Christ and in bowing down and doing Him homage.

          Just as in the caravan of the wise men we find a lot of different people with a lot of different motivations and reactions to what is happening, so likewise in the Church we find every conceivable variety of individual. But all of us are being led to the Christchild to worship.

          Maybe you have felt a bit like a member of that caravan at times. Why do we have to do this? Why do I have to go to Mass? Why do we who live in such an informal world have to adhere to such a formal ritual? Why do we have to sing unfamiliar words and tunes? What was wrong with the way we used to do things? Why can’t we be like everyone else?

          What the wise men found in Bethlehem was not only the adorable scene of the Holy Family, but the upending of everything they knew. They were not mere emissaries from one royal house to another, welcoming another sovereign to the world, but beheld God made man. After the encounter with the Christchild, they have to leave behind the pagan religions in which they were experts, as their long years of study yield to the ever ancient and ever new God before them.

          The past few years have seen a transformation in the worship culture of this parish, in an effort that has been focused on centering our life on the worship of Christ in the Eucharist in the beauty of holiness – the renewal of the sacred. Just like in the caravan of the Magi, we have reacted to that invitation in different ways, at times with the doubts, hesitations, or fears to be expected in human nature.

          The wise men who are leading this caravan to the encounter with the newborn King are not primarily a priest or a Director of Sacred Music, but Christ Himself, the divine Wisdom incarnate, who speaks with the loving voice of Holy Mother Church, teaching the faithful how He desires to be worshiped.

          To some, or even to most, it might seem like our parish is very different than others. We travel, or just stop in for Mass somewhere else, and encounter what we used to find normal – but maybe now with a different perspective, as people share with me regularly upon coming home.

          The sense of isolation is a tool of the evil one. He uses it to intimidate us to cave to the culture around us: “We’re the only ones who do this!” The people on the journey with the wise men probably said similar things: “Why couldn’t we have stayed back in Persia with everyone else?” And it becomes a tool of mediocrity in the life of a parish: “Why can’t we just do the things that everyone else does, the things we used to do?”          Christian tradition identifies the three wise men as three kings coming from three different races and three different continents, an image of the universality of the Church to be born from the particularity of the Jewish people. Each member of that caravan was a part of something bigger than he could imagine.

          For most of us, all that we really see of the Church is our own parish, but the beautiful part about being Catholic is that we are a part of something so much bigger. The movement for the restoration of the sacred is no different. The very fact that we can do the things that we are doing in our parish is evidence of this. The talent pool of graduates from classically-oriented sacred music programs has increased enormously. There is an incredible amount of resources being published to make it possible for “ordinary” parishes like ours to sing the proper texts of the Mass instead of just devotional hymns. Publishers would not sink their money into resources that only St. John’s would buy. The market for traditional, sacred Catholic music is growing. Even locally, a majority of Catholic parishes who have hired a full time, professional musician in the past five years have a graduate of a classically-oriented music program and are pursuing similar goals as St. John’s. Some have been inspired by specific changes we have made, and others are simply following, like us, the vision of the Church.

          Like the wise men, we are called by the Lord to seek for the Truth, and to worship Him. Like the in journey of the wise men, it will not be an easy path. In addition to the dangers of the journey, the wise men also faced the obstacles of the lies of Herod, telling them that he too wanted to worship the Christchild, when he only wanted to kill Him. In our path towards the Lord, we face the lies of the evil one, the father of lies and the prince of darkness, whose lies about God and about ourselves fill us with doubts and despair.

          As we’ve said before, if the great question of former ages was, “Who is God?”, the great question of our age is, “Who are we? Who are men and women?” Here too, we are beset by many lies. Lies about our identities as men and women, lies about the most foundational of human communities (marriage), lies about what we are made for like materialism and consumerism, lies about how the human person is supposed to live (individualism).

          Overcoming these lies in the pursuit of truth, in the pursuit of Christ, takes not only a re-orienting of our minds, but even more importantly, a re-orienting of our hearts. And this is why the way we worship is so important, because the way we worship is an education of desire, an education of the heart. If our worship is worldly, if it beats with the rhythms of the world, then it will form us to desire things that are worldly. But if our worship is heavenly, if it is filled with beautiful but unfamiliar things completely outside our day to day experience, it will re-train our hearts to desire not this world, but the next life for which we ought to long.

          Worshiping this way is not easy, but neither was the wise men’s road to Bethlehem. Receiving the traditional worship of the Church reminds us that not everything is our choice. Giving up the freedom to be the authors of our worship teaches us that we should not desire the freedom to write our own destiny or re-define our nature or the most foundational relationships of marriage or parenthood. The otherworldly nature of the traditional worship of the Roman Catholic Church inoculates our hearts against the love of material things, and the race to always have what is valued by the world.

          We are in this caravan together, at times bewildered and overwhelmed, at times overjoyed and in transport of delight. May the Holy Wise Men, Casper, Melchior, and Balthasar intercede for us in Heaven where they now adore the same Christ they adored in the manger, so that our hearts might be radically re-oriented like theirs to desire nothing more than to worship Him.


The Rev. Royce V. Gregerson

Parish Church of St. John the Evangelist, Goshen

Solemnity of the Epiphany of the Lord, A.D. MMXXIV


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