Paul W. Galetto, O.S.A.
Saint Rita High School
Is 60: 1-6
Ps 72: 1-2, 7-8, 10-11. 12-13
Eph 3: 2-3a, 5-6
Mt 2: 1-12
When we see a Nativity set we can immediately identify the key players: Jesus, Mary, Joseph, the shepherds with their sheep as well as the obligatory cow oblivious to what is going on. We also encounter the three strangely over-dressed visitors who seem so out of place for such a humble spot. The song we sing calls them three kings yet that misses the mark. More appropriately they are called the Magi. Who are these strangers from a strange land and how did they get here? What do they have to tell us about this special day?
At the same time that the Roman Empire was dominant throughout Europe, there was another empire that was just as large and it extended through the Middle East and Asia – the Persian Empire. While the Romans had a multiplicity of gods and heroes that they worshiped, the Persian empire was dominated by one of the world’s first monotheistic religions - Zoroastrianism. Remnants of Zoroastrianism remain today throughout the Middle East and India and is commonly known as Parsis.
At the time of Jesus there was much trade between the Roman and Persian empires. One of the established trade routes ran right through Jerusalem which was a major resting point for the traders and their retinue. When the Persians came west to the Roman Empire it was no simple endeavor; putting together a caravan required many moving pieces.
Since this was a trade mission the main component was the merchants and their goods such as frankincense and myrrh - commodities that were rather common in Persia but rare and highly prized in the Roman world. Since these goods were valuable and the traders needed gold to conduct their trades, military protection was an essential part of every caravan. Politicians, ambassadors and emissaries were also involved as there were different political territories that had to be traversed and their potentates appeased. Lastly there were chaplains that traveled with this retinue, the people in the Roman empire called them “magi” - a Greek word from which we derive the word “magician” - because the people of the West did not understand what these men were about. Many of the magi were interested in astrology because they believed that the stars held secrets about our future.
The caravan took months to assemble and more months to travel and return. Caravans ranged in size depending on the mission but it is assumed that there were hundreds and hundreds of people involved. Not only were there military men, merchants and magi, there were many men and women who were going to be sold into slavery because they were criminals, political prisoners, soldiers from losing armies or debtors who could not pay what they owed. There are records that some caravans involved 1600 camels. It must be understood that this was no vacation, no joy ride. The members of the caravan were risking their lives. Those who traveled voluntarily on this trip were in the prime of their lives. This was no odyssey for boys or old men; it demanded too much of each to risk taking the vulnerable. Truly, only the strong would survive. The journey was not only harrowing because of the terrain and the weather but also because each caravan was a target of thieves and marauders. Camels were used instead of donkeys because of the length of the journey. Camels could travel days without needing to stop for water and their anatomy was suited for the heat and wind of desert storms. The average camel carried 350 pounds of goods on long journeys and nearly 1,000 pounds on shorter ones. The success of the endeavor was critical to the economy of each empire because of the taxes it generated and how it improved the lives of the citizens.
Depending on the destination the route was either along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers or through the Syrian Desert; both were risky but for different reasons. Along the river road the caravans were subjected to thieves who might steal bits at a time; each town had its bandits who would pilfer from the loads of the camels. Who would miss a few baubles? The desert drive was difficult because it left the caravan isolated from the resources it would need in case of a crisis.
A caravan averaged two to three miles per hour and would travel between eight to fifteen hours a day. Starting out the journey was always festive. Who didn’t love to see the massive number of these “ships of the desert” (as the camels are known) with their masters and handlers? The military men added to the pageantry and the rest of the retinue would fall in line. The areas around the departure points were well worn roads that all knew well. Soon would come the forests and mountains and each would contain their terrors. There was a heightened sense of trepidation as soon as they entered the unknown. The crossing of the desert was the greatest risk, however. The pattern would change from day travel to nighttime journeys. The desert was too hot to traverse when the sun was high in the sky. Traveling in the dark with only the stars and the moon to accompany the voyagers was as harrowing then as it is now. The journey of the dark night is something they all feared and something they always remembered. The attackers were not just human but also carnivorous animals who were on the hunt for food. Inevitably they would come to the caravansary which was a government-sponsored rest stop so they could refresh both themselves and their pack animals. Here news and gossip filled the air as those traveling East met those coming from the West. There were always harrowing tales and stories that were too good to be true.
Imagine how our magi must have felt when they finally see the walled city on a hill, Jerusalem, the destination they have been hoping for and asking about in their travels. They had talked to the travelers coming from the West and asked if they had heard any news of the birth of a great king. They explained what they had seen in the night sky and tried to put together what might have caused this great portent. As the caravan settles in place in Jerusalem, the magi ask to see King Herod; they want to congratulate him on the birth of an heir. They ask about the birth and are told that no such event has occurred. The advisors to Herod suggest that what the magi seek might actually be in Bethlehem of Judea. For some this is a step too far. The first of their retinue gave up when they heard that Herod had not been given an heir; they were willing to listen as long as the story matched their hopes and expectations. Certainly a king would be born in a royal city, not in some shanty town a few miles away. Besides the disappointed, there were the exhausted ones. The journey had been too terrifying, too hard, too long, and to be asked to go another few miles - well, that was just too much.
Nonetheless, there were those brave magi who would not be deterred; they believed, and belief can make men and women courageous and - possibly - foolish. So a group of the magi decided to travel those few extra miles to the dingy, dusty town of Bethlehem. The residents must have been afraid or in awe; no one of importance ever came this way; everyone in the town was poor. The magi told their tale and asked their questions. They were directed to a small hovel where a mother and child with their newly minted father were living. The magi were able to overcome their prejudices - kings must be born in palaces which are located in great cities. Three of them left gifts - things that were alien to a poor, migrant family - frankincense, myrrh and gold. These were not the things that a struggling family could use immediately, but it was what the magi had to offer. While these were certainly great gifts, food, clothing and shelter would be more immediately appreciated. The magi did the best they could with what they had because they believed they had found their journey’s goal in the most unexpected of places. This was a true epiphany.
If we want an epiphany in our own lives, our journey will have many of the characteristics of this most famous trip. It is not something we do alone; we have family and church to accompany us along the way. We must leave where we are; we must be willing to sacrifice what we are for what we can become. There will be dangerous moments; times when we question what we are about. We will be waylaid by the stories of other travelers as well as temptations. We will experience the dangers that come with journeying at night or going through the lonely, inhospitable desert of this world. Eventually we will come to a place that, at first, makes sense to us and seems to be the destination for which we have been searching. But if it is comfortable it is probably not the place we should be. Some will tell us we are crazy and that to go further makes no sense. But we must have the courage and faith of those ancient travelers and go those last miles. In doing so, we will find something unexpected. Our gifts may be a little out of place - fatigue, service, kindness - but these are the best we have; they are the currency of our lives. We honor our God by using our gifts and talents well and sharing them with others.
In the pilgrimage, along the way of the odyssey, in the life journey that lies before us we can learn much about ourselves and our relationship with God, but we must take the first step and then have the courage to take the one after that. This is the only way to fittingly celebrate the Epiphany.