Magi-ical Discernment

Homily for the Solemnity of the Epiphany.

There are of course far greater tragedies in the modern world, but in my opinion, one of the small but still significant tragedies of modern life is the prevalence of light pollution and our consequent inability to see the stars and other heavenly bodies. If you’ve ever seen the stars, I mean really seen them—then you know the feelings of wonder and awe they can provoke. They can give us a sense of the transcendent. I actually think there would be fewer atheists these days if we had a better view of the heavens. For “[t]he heavens declare the glory of God;” as Scripture says, and “the firmament proclaims the works of his hands” (Psalm 19:2). Our experience of the modern night sky also impacts our interpretation of Scripture. God promised Abraham that his decedents would be as numerous as the stars in the sky. “Look up at the sky and count the stars, if you can,” God said to Abraham. “Just so…will your descendants be” (Genesis 15:5). Imagine Abraham’s reaction if, instead of showing him the night sky in the ancient world, God showed him the night sky near a modern city: “Count the stars, if I can? God, there’s like five stars. I may be a nomad, but I can still count to five. And that doesn’t seem like many decedents, God. That’s not a very impressive promise. Can you ask me to count something else?”

Stars—or, more precisely, planets—were also in the news this past month. The great conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn, the so-called “Christmas Star,” was a topic of conversation. Perhaps your family, like mine, talked about it over the holidays. And if your experience was anything like mine, you’d know that some people were not even aware that this was happening. But even among those who were aware, there were varying levels of understanding. Some could only name the planets which were involved. Some also knew the date their conjunction was taking place. Some also knew that this hadn’t happened in a very long time. But even among those who understood what was happening, there were varying levels of action in response to it. Some made noeffort to see the star at all. Some went outside, saw that it was cloudy, and went promptly back in. Some, on the other hand, made every effort to overcome the obstacles to seeing the star. They may have even traveled to a different place with darker and clearer skies.

Awareness, understanding, and action: These are the three stages of what we call “discernment” in our Catholic spiritual tradition. And even as we saw people engage in this process of discernment with regard to the “Christmas Star,” we can see, or at least imagine, the magi in our gospel going through a similar process of discernment.

Stargazing was an established practice in the countries east of the Holy Land. So it’s safe to assume that there were more than three magi who saw the star. Perhaps there were a hundred or more who marked its rising. Many were aware of it, but fewer understood it. Not every stargazer knew the prophesies contained in Scripture and so understood that this star announced the birth of the Christ, the newborn King of the Jews. But even among those who understood this, there were probably varying levels of action in response to it. Perhaps more than three magi set out to follow the star. No doubt they encountered obstacles along the way. Traveling in the ancient world, after all, was a difficult and dangerous business. Perhaps some got discouraged and turned back; perhaps some got distracted and turned aside. Not all the magi navigated successfully through the three stages of discernment: only three did. Only three magi were aware, understood, and took action to the fullest possible extent. Only three did not turn back or turn aside when they encountered obstacles along the way. Only three made it to see the Christ-child and were able to present their gifts to Him.

Like the magi, each of us is invited to go on a journey in life. Our journey is not to an earthly city, but a heavenly one. But we too seek the Christ. We want to see His face, and to offer our gifts, the gifts of our very lives to Him. We are not given a physical star to follow, but God provides us with countless points of light to guide our way. He places specific people in our lives, gives us moments of insight, allows certain things to happen to us, and offers us the Scriptures, the Sacraments, and the Church. We don’t just have one star, but a thousand stars—a veritable constellation which lights our way to Christ. In this sense, our journey is in some ways easier than that of the magi. But like the magi, if we want to make it to our destination, we need to practice good discernment. We need to be aware, to understand, and to take action.

How can we become more aware? To become more aware, we need to become better stargazers. A good stargazer is attentive and focused. They don’t just take a quick glance at the night sky, they gaze at it, contemplate it, spend quality time looking at it. Are we aware of all the stars God has provided for us? Do we pay attention to what we experience every day? Do we listen to the people God has placed in our lives? Do we know about the spiritual masters and guides of our Catholic tradition, the great saints and doctors of the Church? Do we spend quality time at the end of the day reflecting on all that’s taken place?

How can we grow in our understanding? Perhaps we’re aware of the richness of our Catholic tradition. But do we take advantage of it? Do we read Scripture? Do we reflect on the lives and teachings of the saints and doctors of the Church? Do we listen to Catholic podcasts, watch Catholic videos, and utilize other Catholic media available to us? Do we spend quality time educating ourselves in what we believe as Catholics? I spent four semesters in college studying calculus. But as much as I loved it, I will not be spending eternity taking derivatives, doing integrals, or finding a practical application for linear algebra. But I will be spending eternity contemplating Christ. And my capacity for doing that in eternity will be affected by the capacity I gain for doing that here on earth. We can be aware of the stars in our lives, but if we do not understand them, we will not be able to practice good discernment.

Finally, how can we become better at taking action? This is the third stage of discernment. It’s not enough to be aware and understand—we have to act. We have to choose to accept or reject the thoughts, feelings, and desires that arise in our hearts and influence our decisions. Some of these come from God, and some do not. The magi chose to follow the star. They chose to travel to Jerusalem and then to Bethlehem. They chose to listen to the angel and not to Herod. They chose to depart for their country by a different way. They accepted the things that came from God, and they rejected the things that did not. They also did not give into the discouragement and distraction which undoubtedly came to them on their difficult and dangerous journey. They didn’t turn back and they didn’t turn aide. They had the courage to act and make the right decisions. Do we have the courage to act? Do we make small sacrifices each day to help us grow in courage? Do we ask for God’s help, for His grace, in making the right decisions?  Do we stay close to the Sacraments, especially the Eucharist and Confession, so that we can have the strength to do God’s will, especially when it’s hard?

We need God’s grace to grow in awareness, understanding, and action. But we can also work on these things as well. Good discernment is impossible without the Holy Spirit. But it also a virtue which can be acquired. Let us strive during this new year to practice good discernment. If we do so, then like the magi, we will have the hope of seeing Christ at the end of our journey. And we will have the hope and the great joy of giving Him the greatest gift we can: The gift of a holy life, a life of virtue, a life of deep and intimate communion with Him. Amen.