Rise up in splendor, Jerusalem! Your light has come, the glory of the Lord shines upon you. See, darkness covers the earth, and thick clouds cover the peoples; but upon you the LORD shines, and over you appears his glory. Nations shall walk by your light, and kings by your shining radiance.
The joy of Christmas continues today, dear friends, as we now celebrate God’s unexpected gift of Christ the Lord to the gentile nations, to all those peoples who dwelt so long in darkness in this world because they were not the chosen to be the favored people who would be first to receive the revelation of God. God in his mysterious wisdom first chose the people who would descend from Abraham to receive his word and promises. For this reason the angels announced the good news of the birth of the Messiah to the descendents of Abraham in the persons of the humble shepherds, the little ones so dear to God throughout the history of the Jewish people. They had first received the promise, and they would hear of its fulfillment before any other nation or people.
But today we celebrate the manifestation of Christ the Messiah and Lord to the gentile nations, represents this time in the persons of these three night visitors from the east. Through these chosen men, the gentile peoples will receive for the first time their call to enter into the New Israel, the New Jerusalem. For through Jesus Christ, all men and women are now called and can now become co-heirs with God’s first chosen people in Christ and share with them in the light of glory that shines upon the Heavenly City, the light already emanating from the child whom the three wise men have come to worship in his crib.
Yes, until today, the light of this new-born child and the joy He brings had most fittingly been focused only upon the nation that God first called to be his own special chosen people. Theirs, as Paul says, were the original covenant and promises that generated the faith of Israel, and it was from the loins of Abraham, and ultimately from the womb of Mary, herself an offspring of the great patriarch, that God would fulfill the great promise of a redeemer by bringing forth this most perfect offspring in whom all nations will be blessed.
Until today, we have seen only Joseph and Mary, a son and daughter of David and descendants of Abraham, and the simple shepherds who represent all the little ones of Israel who had patiently awaited the coming of this child for centuries, as the few privileged persons who surround the Christ child at his very birth. All of these have something in common, they are all the “little ones” whose faith was the core of their readiness to receive this great gift on behalf of God’s people. Indeed, their faith, itself a gift from God, was in turn the only gift they would bring to the child, the faith that stretched all the way back to Abraham. It was this faith that provided the womb in which this child was conceived, and it was this faith that brought the humble shepherds to the crib and would make them and all others who believed this child’s co-heirs in the Kingdom he has created for them.
From the very beginning of man’s history, long prior to God’s creation of a chosen people from the fertile faith and sterile loins of Abraham, God had promised to send a savior for all mankind. For God had promised to our first parents, when they were expelled from Paradise, that the serpent who had misled them into their tragic sin would strike one day at the heel of one of their offspring, and that this child of Adam would crush the head of the serpent. The Chosen One would one day destroy the power Satan wielded over the whole human family, and He would restore mankind to the destiny God had first established for us in the act of creation – that we should be his children for all eternity and would share in his nature and happiness forever.
This promise made to Adam and Eve is recorded faithfully in Genesis, but we can also find this ancient promise to mankind in one form or another in the collective memories of all peoples, and it was perhaps this very memory and hope that propelled and accompanied the pagan magi on their way as they followed the star which they trusted was leading them to the heavenly prodigy announced by the appearance of the star in the heavens. They travelled far not only in space but in history to at last worship this King of all Kings whom they would find in the humility of Bethlehem.
Likewise, it is surely this ancient promise and prophecy made in Eden that echoes in the words of Isaiah in today’s first reading as he foretells the rising of this great light which not only shines upon Israel, but which will shine upon and guide the ways of all the nations. All nations are now called to become parts of the new People of God, and this great light which originates in the Child Himself is only signified by the star that guides them into God’s holy city, bringing with them their riches, not only gold and frankincense, but their greatest riches, which is the people who make up these nations and now walk, no longer in darkness, but in the light.
And so today we recall and honor these three representatives of the gentile nations, our own representatives, who faithfully followed the star that was leading them to the child. Of course, the star was but a secondary light, a light of nature, but nonetheless God leads them mysteriously by this secondary light of the star, as well as the secondary light of their own God-given reason which enables them to study the heavens and the movements of the stars. What a marvel that the providence of God uses the light of stars, and this star above all the rest, to lead these pagans to that primary light, the “light from light” in Christ which is infinitely superior to all created lights, including human reason. Moreover, God is leading them by their own dim light of human reason toward the very source of all light, the light that has no beginning and no end, the light that is the pure emanation of the Godhead, the light that this child alone possesses together with the Father of lights and the Holy Spirit.
And so these three representatives of mankind and human reason itself first enter the ancient city of faith, Jerusalem, because the star cannot take them all the way by itself. Here they must inquire, at the end of their long journey, the assistance of the heavenly light that first appeared in the revelation made to the children of Abraham. Israel possesses the greater light of God’s revealed word, and the light of faith to comprehend that Word, and so their scribes must be consulted to pinpoint the place in which the heavenly light can be found, and only then can they once again plot the motion of the star and make their way to the city of David to worship the child and make their submission to His divine majesty. First, they had to pay their own tribute to what had preceded them in the sacred history of man.
At last, the three wise men can present their gifts to the child, gold, frankincense and Myrrh. However, once they have made their great submission of faith to the child by the homage they pay to Him, the light they receive from Him will now be the greatest treasure they will ever after possess. And they will make their first use of this gift of enlightenment by the prompt obedience they give to the word revealed to them in a dream to return to their country by another route. And, indeed, they will return to their country not only by a different route geographically, but they will return by another route spiritually, as they take with them the new light they have received from the child, the great light that will enable them to walk no longer in the darkness, but always in the light that in itself cannot be extinguished, for it is a light without beginning or end.
However, in the midst of all this joy, there must be noted the one hint of sadness in the account of the magi, the gift of the myrrh. This gift is most mysterious and was not mentioned in the prophecy of Isaiah which speaks only of gold and frankincense. myrrh, we know, is an eastern burial ointment, and it surely by God’s intention, if not that of the magi, first prophesies the destiny of this child who will die for the sins of mankind, for the sins of both the gentiles and the children of Abraham. It is fitting again that this sad note be struck only when all mankind is represented before the child. Nonetheless, the joy returns when we recall that myrrh is also used in the east as a medicine. That medicinal usage quickly suggests that this death and burial will in fact be the medicine for mankind’s salvation
So even the gift of myrrh would be a cause of pure joy if the fruit of this death would mean that no one would ever walk in darkness again in this world. And yet we see all around us the sad truth that not all in fact do discover this light, and that the nations continue to walk in darkness even 2000 years after the coming of the light into the world, and perhaps a deeper darkness than existed then. How sad to see the suffering and hatred and division that continues to exist because so many people, so many peoples, refuse to make their submission to the light of the nations who came precisely that all mankind could know the true way to peace and justice and be given the grace to walk in that truth.
Today, as we rejoice in the calling of the nations by God, the call to the nations to enter His Kingdom, the call that has enabled us to discover the light and walk in that same light of Christ, today, we must also pray intently for the conversion of the nations, including the conversion of our own nation that is sinking into pagan darkness. We must pray that all who walk in darkness will at last see the great light of Christ and come to know the truth of Jesus Christ and freely submit themselves to the gentle rule of the Prince of Peace. With Him alone can there be a true and lasting peace. So we pray today, may the experience of the magi be repeated throughout the world in our day and the light of Christ come to shine on all the peoples who still walk in the darkness of this world, for today also “the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” (Jn 1:5)