Monday, January 6, 2014

What are we looking at?

The Solemnity of the Epiphany which we just celebrated over the weekend has often been inadvertently seen as the feast of the three wise men or magoi.  Scripture does not even mention the fact that there were three such men, only that there were three gifts that were presented to the infant King of the Jews.  Of course, there is tradition which attributes one gift to each magi, and there has even been names given to each of them – Melchior, Kaspar and Balthazaar.  But at its heart, this feast has never really been a feast about these wise men or magoi.  Instead it is a celebration of what God did through and to these magoi and what truly makes them wise. 

The world has its own standards of intelligence and smartness.  It is often measureable in the ways that are empirical, and some of them entail the taking of intelligence tests, while others measure intelligence by the kind of job one does.  Careers that require a professional degree or qualification are a rather common indicator that the person is of a certain intelligence and capable of some degree of high-level thinking and evaluation.  But this is not always a good indicator, as there are people who are just good a memory work, and may find it a challenge to handle problems and issues in the real working world and in life.

This celebration of the Epiphany is a reminder to all of us that wisdom is something that is far deeper, more valued and in many ways, more important than mere intelligence.  Celebrated well, and contemplated in its deeper essence, this annual reminder of the manifestation of Christ to the world causes us to stop for a meaningful while to do what many of the people in the scripture were doing.  They were looking, but at different things and with different eyes.

In Luke’s infancy narrative (not read out in this Liturgical year), we are told that Emperor Augustus ordered for a census to be taken.  Whittled down to its basic purpose, a census of the Roman Empire was meant to give the emperor a more or less accurate overview of how powerful he was, how much land he amassed and how important he made himself out to be.  The emperor, and in subsequently, in Matthew’s infancy narrative, King Herod, were in effect looking intently at themselves, at the land that they ruled over, and were inflated in their egos. 

Juxtapose this with the wise men or magoi.  These men of wisdom who looked intently not at the land, what they owned, or what they possessed, but into the night skies.  They were outward looking and were not so much obsessed with being leaders but instead were keen on being led.  It is significant that they were led by a star.  How does one follow a star?  It does not really give one a very clear indication of where one ought to turn or how one should move.  It’s not a specific GPS, to use a modern-day comparison, but it gives one a general direction to follow, and as the men of wisdom showed, they had to stop to ask for directions. 

Don’t mix wisdom for intelligence.  Wise men stop to ask when they are unsure.  There are many with inflated intelligence who think it beneath them to ask questions unless the questions are intelligent questions that also show how intelligent they are.  Yet, we know that the real wise person is one who knows what he doesn’t know, and takes the humble effort to ask, risking the outcome of people wondering why they don’t know seemingly simple things.  The real wise person doesn’t get affected by what others say, but keep looking afar, into what really leads them in life.

The third group of people who did a fair share looking were the simple shepherds.  We are told in Luke’s gospel that these earthy men were ‘watching their flock by night’.  That was their task at hand, and they were intent on being true to their vocation.  Focused, alert and mindful, they kept watch, looking at their charges for the night. 

Why is this a timely reminder for us?  Only because each of us are constantly looking at so many different things in the course of a day.  There are things that fascinate us, that mesmerize us, that beguile and bewitch us, and take our breath away.  Yet not all that dazzles us moves us towards lives of wholeness and holiness.  Some pull us in all sorts of directions that give us more than a little moral challenge.  How we have been grounded in our walk with God in our spiritual trainings give us a certain general direction at which we should cast our gaze, much like the way a star thousands of light years away could give wise magois in their journey’s search for the Messiah.  The more we are in touch with God and his ways, the more we become sensitized to the ways that he divinely nudges our hearts to move toward him in love, humility, charity and compassion.  But if we, like Augustus and Herod are constantly looking down, at ourselves, at what we are materially worth, wanting more and more, we may be looking at the things that cause us to lose sight of what really should be leading and guiding us in life. 

In the final scene that should give us real reason to celebrate and imitate, we see the wise ones coming before Wisdom itself, where they arrived at the manger (or house in Matthew’s gospel) and knelt down and paid Jesus homage.  True wisdom is to know God and willingness to humble oneself before divinity and worship.  True wisdom knows where true greatness lies.  True wisdom is when we know who we should be adoring with our entire being.  Intelligence may give one the idea that God exists, but mere intelligence does not often lead one to the humble act of sincere worship.  Only with the grace of God can this take place.  We only need to respond to this grace.  Even the asking for this grace can be seen as an incipient act of openness to God and his love.

When we acknowledge God’s presence in our lives in the way that the magoi did, we can then empty ourselves of what we consider our treasures.  That’s when we order our lives rightly, and dare to surrender what we have been bringing along with us all our lives, and place them before God. True, the three gifts the magoi presented were heavily symbolic of the ways in which Jesus was to live out his being our Messiah, but for us, the gifts that we can lay before God may well be the ways that we have falsely lived self-secured lives, where our plans and agendas have spoken louder than God’s, determined by how we had been seeing with a certain MY-opia.

Today’s celebration asks that we readjust our seeking and fine-tune our seeing.  Has it changed our focal point in life? 

Post Script - Not being able to preach to a Sunday congregation, I thought I'd pen what I would have been preaching yesterday if I were not following doctor's orders to convalesce at home.  


  1. So true frLuke your paragraph on mixing wisdom for intelligence. And as FJ Sheen said, if a blind does not admit he is blind, he will never see.

    What caught my attention was "falling to their knees they did him homage. ....were warned in a dream not to go back to Herod and returned to their own country by a different way." Having acknowledged Jesus, i must endeavor not to return to my old life, Herod representing the sins in me.


  2. When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceedingly great joy."
    - Matthew 2:10

    They were already in immense joy even before encountering the Christ Child…
    They knew they only had to follow the light.


  3. Dear Fr. Luke. Speaking of intelligence… On the intelligence scale (of one to ten) I guess I would rate myself as (hopefully) a 5. Ok……. so maybe a 4.5. Sometimes though, I wish I were really smart - like some people I know. But then, I wonder; what if that were to make me puffed up with pride and consider myself god-like. No, no. That wouldn’t be good. So I think I’ll just be thankful to God for the way I’ve been made and continue as I am, giving thanks that I’m just as loved (by God) as everyone else, intelligent or otherwise. God bless