Who Were the Wise Men?


Who were the Wise Men? Where did they come from? Where did they go? We do not know. To make sense of the story, we must pay attention to its symbolism. Read in that way, we find that the story has five stages. The magi, whom we also call the wise men, saw; they searched; they found; they worshiped; and they returned home.

They saw.

A farmer kept a flock of tame geese that freely roamed the farmyard, always looking down for food. One day the farmer noticed that the geese were nervous and restless. They were looking up. In the sky, he saw the reason: It was autumn. Wild geese were flying south. The farmer’s geese flapped their wings and made a lot of noise, but they did not fly away.

People are often that way. Something unusual happens to raise their minds from life’s routine. They become aware of greater possibilities, a higher call. But they fail to respond. The opportunity passes, and the old routine resumes. But the Wise Men were different. They were not content with looking up.

They searched.

Doing so required courage. How their friends must have mocked them: “Following a star? What on earth for? Have you taken leave of your senses?” To set out in the face of ridicule, on what seemed like a fool’s errand, took courage. Sooner or later, it always takes courage to be a follower of Jesus Christ. His standards cannot always be made reasonable, or even intelligible, to unbelievers. ¬†At times, the follower of Jesus Christ must have courage to swim against the stream: to say “no” when everyone else is saying “yes,” or “yes” when all others are saying “no”; to appear to reasonable, prudent people reckless, even crazy. The Wise Men had such courage. They set out on their seemingly mad search, and persevered in it until . . .

They found.

For this, they are rightly called “wise men.” To the clever people who mocked them, they seemed mad. In reality, they possessed, along with courage, the truest wisdom there is: the spiritual insight to recognize the unique call of God, and to follow it regardless of the cost. As their search neared its end, Mathew tells us, “They rejoiced exceedingly with great joy” (2:10). They had reason for joy: They were successful. They were vindicated. It was they who had been proved wise; their critics were the fools. From the Wise Men’s point of view, the search had been all theirs. In reality, it was God who was seeking them.

That was crucial: for the Wise Men, but also for us — as we see in the story of a small child who came home in tears. When the child’s mother had dried the tears, she heard the reason for them: “We played hide-and-seek. I hid. No one looked for me.” When you are a child, that can be crushing. “No one looked for me.”

But someone is looking for you — right now. God is looking for you. He is drawing you to Himself, as He drew the Wise Men by the star. If only you will look up, and be bold, you will find Him. And then, like the Wise Men, you too will rejoice with great joy. To know that, even now, God is looking for you, drawing you to Himself, is already cause for joy.

The Wise Men’s joy is not the end of the story, however. When they finally arrived at the end of their journey . . .

They worshiped.

Their worship was not merely reciting prayers by memory or from a book. They offered the best and most costly gifts they had. Which of us would not like to do the same? And yet, when we look within, we see not wealth but poverty: broken resolutions, good that we might have done and yet failed to do, evil that we could have avoided and did not. We wanted to give Jesus so much; what we have given up to now is so little. We ask ourselves: What can I give?

More than a century ago, the English poet Christina Georgina Rossetti asked that question. Her answer is beautiful.

What can I give him, poor as I am?

If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb;

If I were a wise man, I would do my part;

Yet what I can I give him — give my heart.

The wise men’s gifts were symbols: gold for a king, incense for a priest, and myrrh for a burial. Jesus was different, however, from all other kings. He had no palace, not even a fixed abode (cf. Lk 9:58). He never lorded it over people. Jesus was a shepherd-king who came, He said, “not to be served, but to serve” (Mk 10:45), even to the extent of laying down His life for His sheep (cf. Jn 10:11).

Jesus was also a priest. A priest is a man for others; someone set apart to offer God prayer, praise, and sacrifice on behalf of others. From antiquity, the smoke of incense, curling heavenward, has symbolized this priestly activity. From a purely utilitarian point of view, judged by results, burning incense is a sheer waste. So is prayer, if we judge it by measurable, visible results. A skeptic, seeing a priest praying the Breviary, asked: “How do you know anyone is listening?” Without faith, that question is unanswerable. You cannot prove that anyone is listening. With faith, however, no proof is necessary.

Jesus exercised His priesthood in those nights of solitary prayer that we read about in the Gospels. He was no less a priest, however, when He healed the sick, consoled the sorrowing, and comforted people weighed down by suffering and sin. The supreme example of Jesus’ priesthood came, however, on the cross, where He offered His heavenly Father not merely the prayer of His lips and His heart, but His very life.

To anyone without faith, the cross is a scandalous waste and utter defeat. For those with faith, however, the cross is the place of ultimate victory. The most eloquent symbol of that victory is the empty tomb of Easter morning, which shows that the power of death and evil has been broken. Because of the sacrifice offered on Calvary by Jesus, our shepherd-king and priest, evil cannot control or master us, unless we consent.

And so, after the Wise Men had worshiped, by offering their gifts . . .

They returned home.

The Wise Men went back to the people who had mocked them when they set out. Matthew tells us, however, that they returned “by another way” (2:12). The ancient Church Fathers seized on that phrase and said: “But of course!” No one in Scripture ever encounters God and returns home by the same way. The Wise Men return home changed. They have been touched by their experience, touched by God. They have a message for those who thought themselves wise, but turned out to be foolish.

We return home from church each week (some of us daily), from our encounter with Jesus in the Eucharist. We too have been touched by God. We too have a message for others, and it is this: God is not far off. In all our sorrows, in all our temptations, sufferings, difficulties, and joys, God is with us. That is one of God’s names: Emmanuel, God-with-us. God is close to us always — even when we stray far from Him. We imagine that we must storm heaven with our prayers to get God’s attention, and all the time it is God who gives us the ability to pray. It is God who is searching for us, leading us onward, drawing us to Himself. That is the message we have to proclaim. That is the gospel, the good news.

And when we grasp this good news, the story with its five stages begins again: the seeing, the searching, the finding, the worshiping, the return home. That is the story of the Christian life: the royal road by which untold millions have walked, the road God wants us to walk for as many more weeks and months and years as our journey may last. Until it ends in Him, and the journeying and searching and struggle are over, because we are home — where there will be no more weariness, no more discouragement, no more loneliness or injustice, no more sickness or suffering, no more death. Where God Himself will wipe away all tears from our eyes. Where we shall experience ecstasy: for we shall see Him face to face.



Born in New York City in 1928, John Jay Hughes is a retired priest of the St. Louis archdiocese and a Church historian.

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