“The Virgin today brings into the world the Eternal / And the earth offers a cave to the Inaccessible. / The angels and shepherds praise him / And the magi advance with the star, / For you are born for us, Little Child, God eternal!” (CCC525)
The quote from the Catechism above references three key players I want to reflect upon at the beginning of this Advent season: Our Lady, the magi, and the shepherds. Today, as we think about the meaning of waiting and watching, upon preparing for Christmas and for the return of the Lord, we can look to these three examples to show us how to look up, set out, and give.
First: It’s important to start off with an understanding of Advent as a liturgical time of waiting and preparation.
I’ve often heard that God has three responses to our prayers: yes, no, or wait—wait being our least favorite of the three. “Wait” seems so indefinite. With a yes or no response, you know, for better or worse, one way or another, what your parameters are. But “wait” requires faith, trust, humility. It requires not knowing exactly when, exactly how, or exactly if.
And that’s one lesson this season can impart: waiting well, waiting in hope. During Advent, we recall the waiting of the world for the birth of the Messiah. The greatest gift from God the Father, the gift of his Son, is coming to us. And in this world which has experienced his coming, we also wait for him to come again.
Each of us awaits something. Perhaps we await a promotion. The completion of a degree. Maybe we long for a spouse or a child. Physical or emotional healing. The answer to our vocational discernment.
In this time of waiting, we are like the Israelites wandering in the desert in pursuit of the Promised Land. It’s there--the Promised Land is there. God is faithful and keeps his promises. But sometimes, we have to wait.
Waiting practically forces us to surrender control and hand everything over to God. It’s a daily practice in humility and faith. It acknowledges that we are not in control and challenges us to trust in the goodness of the One who is. Therefore, waiting has a purpose, an end: God Himself.
And, as with the Israelites in the desert sustained by the descent of manna from heaven, we are fed daily by God himself IF we allow ourselves to be. This means speaking and listening to God in prayer. It means collecting the manna from above, his grace, DAILY. And this brings us to our first point about the Advent season: we need to look up and see.
Mary knew what it meant to look up in prayer. She was so receptive to the word of God that she conceived it through the power of the Holy Spirit.
She was looking up in prayer when the Angel Gabriel announced the Good News of the Messiah.
“Let it be done unto me according to your word.”
These were the words of trust, surrender, and peace--followed by action—the second of our themes today. She looked up and set out in order to give. Immediately after the Annunciation, we read about her going out to help her cousin Elizabeth.
As someone who has experienced the first trimester of pregnancy twice now, I can tell you the last thing I’m thinking about during that time is helping or serving others. I’m usually passed out somewhere trying not to drool.
But Mary has looked up, set out, and given. She was so receptive to God’s word that she was able to fully encounter his message through the Angel Gabriel. Her reception of Christ caused her to set out in haste to see Elizabeth. And finally, to give and serve another by bringing Christ into that home and modeling sacrificial love.
Mary is the perfect example of waiting and being guided by God.
In Scripture, she is described as “pondering things in her heart”—waiting for God to reveal his will and meditating on his work throughout her life. But she is not one who sits on the sideline and fails to engage. She is a contemplative in action—one who treasures the word of God within her (even literally) and yet immediately goes out to Elizabeth in her time of need. Mary brings Jesus to others, from the moment of his conception, wherever she goes and instructs us to “do whatever he tells you,” as at the wedding feast in Cana.
We turn to Mary during this season of Advent because she is an expert at faithful waiting that leads to Christ. So I invite you as we continue our Advent journey to start by spending time with the Blessed Virgin Mary. Re-read the account of the Annunciation and Visitation in Scripture. Ask her help in waiting—faithfully, hopefully, humbly. And invite her to accompany, guide, and prepare you to receive Christ. She always leads others to her Son.
In addition to the example of Mary, the magi can also teach us what it means to wait in hopeful anticipation: to look up and see the star, To set out, To give freely.
The magi, though Gentiles, were not complacent, but so observant that they were able to recognize God’s sign: the star. As Pope Francis said, “The Magi were not content with just getting by, with keeping afloat. They understood that to truly live, we need a lofty goal and we need to keep looking up.”
What keeps us this Advent from looking up and seeing the star? Are we busy scrolling through our social media feeds, binging on the latest Netflix series, working late hours at the office, or anxious about the future? Are we paralyzed by grief, bitterness, anger or fear?
The magi were vigilant, ready to go when the time came. And their hearts were receptive, disposed to the signs of the times. Like Mary, they too set out on a journey which would lead them to Christ himself. This journey required effort, planning, and sacrifice. They looked up, set out, and finally, they gave: bearing costly gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. They met the generosity of God by reciprocating generosity. As Pope Francis has also noted, “To give freely, for the Lord’s sake, without expecting anything in return: this is the sure sign that we have found Jesus.”
Finally, we can also look to the example of the shepherds. Pope Francis says, “They were the first because they were among the last, the outcast. And they were the first because they were awake, keeping watch in the night, guarding their flocks.” The shepherds were looking up. After receiving the good news from the angel of the Lord, they go in haste to encounter Christ. And afterwards, they return glorifying and praising God.
In each of these examples, we encounter people who are looking up, setting out, and giving. Mary sets out and gives her time and energy to serve her cousin Elizabeth. The magi set out and give gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. The shepherds set out and give Christ their adoration and praise.
Will we keep watch in the night alongside the shepherds or are we asleep with the rest of crowded Bethlehem, too distracted by our daily lives and concerns to notice the light of the star beaming down on the light of the world? As we await God’s response in our lives, do we grumble in the desert like the Israelites? Do we take things into our own hands and craft a golden calf? Or do we say to the Lord, “Let it be done unto me according to your word?” This season, will we set out in haste to give our hearts to the Lord and our hands to serve those in need?
Perhaps what’s holding us back from entering into the Advent season is something more than distraction, ignorance, or noise. We may hesitate to meet this Christ-child because we feel as the shepherds most likely did, utterly unworthy. We wear the rags of sin, the stench of humanity. Maybe we feel like the little drummer boy in the popular song who says, “I have no gift to bring that’s fit to give a king.”
In his humility, the Lord entered into the most vulnerable of human states: infancy. He chose to become little in order to demonstrate that all are able and invited to approach him. As Pope Francis also reminds us, “Jesus allows himself to be found by those who seek him, but to find him we need to get up and go.”
So let’s get up and go. There is still time to look for the star, to set out, to give.
I invite you to draw close to Mary, look to the example of the magi, spend time with the shepherds. In looking for Christ, encountering him, and serving others, we find Christ born also in our hearts. Only then, as the Catechism says, “when Christ is formed in us will the mystery of Christmas be fulfilled” (CCC526).
Let us pray, “I want to come to Bethlehem, Lord, because there you await me. I want to realize that you, lying in a manger, are the bread of my life. I need the tender fragrance of your love so that I, in turn, can be bread broken for the world. Take me upon your shoulders, Good Shepherd; loved by you, I will be able to love my brothers and sisters and to take them by the hand. Then it will be Christmas, when I can say to you: “Lord you know everything; you know that I love you” (cf. Jn 21:17)." -Pope Francis
“Jesus allows himself to be found by those who seek him, but to find him we need to get up and go.” -Pope Francis
I remember getting up in the middle of the night years ago to try and glimpse a rare, hybrid, solar eclipse. My husband and I camped out at the Lincoln Memorial in the wee hours of the night with blankets and hot chocolate to wait for a rising sun that would be covered by the moon. Rich pink and orange hues danced across the sky, basking the surrounding monuments. Though there were clouds that day, we knew something mysterious and magical was happening above us. We were willing to sacrifice some sleep and wait in the cold just to catch a glimpse of that star.
What did the magi see when they looked up in the sky over two thousand years ago? It was enough not only to make them camp out in wonder, but to set out in haste. Their journey required provisions, logistics, time, and great effort. But something in the sky beckoned them. I imagine it was similar to what Peter, Andrew, James and John saw in the face of Christ calling them on the beach – something so extraordinary and captivating that it called them out of their day-to-day routines to begin a new journey. Both the journey of the magi and that of the first apostles had the same end: Jesus Christ. These journeys show that an encounter with Jesus is life-changing. It sets us in motion: the journey of the magi, the life of discipleship and evangelization.
This past Sunday, the Christmas season continued with the celebration of the Feast of the Epiphany. The Gospel reading recounted the journey and visitation of the magi to the Christ-child. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church states, “The Epiphany is the manifestation of Jesus as Messiah of Israel, Son of God and Savior of the world. the great feast of Epiphany celebrates the adoration of Jesus by the wise men (magi) from the East, together with his baptism in the Jordan and the wedding feast at Cana in Galilee.”
The birth of Christ is the first outward manifestation of the Messiah. Jesus, whose name means “God saves,” is the revelation of God’s plan of redemption. After years of prophecy and expectation, longing and promise, God comes in the midst of his people in the most intimate way possible: as one of them.
This Incarnation is awe-inspiring. So awe-inspiring, in fact, that it even draws strangers. The Messiah foretold was long-awaited by the Chosen People of God—the Israelites. And yet, how many do we see at the birth of our Lord? The Visitation of the Magi foretells the inclusion of the entire world in God’s plan of salvation. He has come not only to redeem Jews, but Gentiles—peoples of every land and nation. As Paul wrote in Sunday’s second reading, “the Gentiles are coheirs, members of the same body, and copartners in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.”
What can we learn from the magi? In his homily on the Feast of the Epiphany last year, Pope Francis boiled it down to 3 things:
Let us imitate the magi in our lives of discipleship. They were not complacent, but so observant that they were able to recognize God’s sign: the star. “The Magi were not content with just getting by, with keeping afloat,” Pope Francis said last year. “They understood that to truly live, we need a lofty goal and we need to keep looking up.” They were vigilant, ready to go when the time came. And their hearts were receptive, disposed to the signs of the times. From there, they set out on a journey which would lead them to Christ himself. This journey required effort, planning, and sacrifice. And finally, they came bearing costly gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. They met the generosity of God by reciprocating generosity. Pope Francis continued, “To give freely, for the Lord’s sake, without expecting anything in return: this is the sure sign that we have found Jesus.”
As we reflect on the significance of the Feast of the Epiphany, let us look to the example of the magi in our lives of discipleship. Let us look up beyond the distractions of the world in order to see God’s star. Let us take the risk of setting out on our journey closer to Christ with joy. And let us give generously to a world which needs the generous love and mercy of the Christ-child.
Question for Reflection: What are some things in our life that might distract us from seeing God in the everyday?
We have all had those moments – those moments where we feel stuck, whether it be not being able to beat a certain Candy Crush level (guilty!) or feeling like a certain situation we are in has brought us far from God. It is in these moments that we often plea for some sort of guidance and feel a wave of relief when whatever it is is resolved. The clarity that we receive is something being revealed to us – a type of epiphany.
It is common to hear the word “epiphany” thrown around – it can be used to describe anything from someone declaring that they have some great insight about their future to something as simple as discovering a quicker route home. As with anything, the word can lose its meaning when constantly used in such a variety of circumstances. In any instance, we use the word to acknowledge that we have received some sort of newfound clarity.
In the case of The Epiphany, which the Church celebrates on January 6th, the three Magi received a sign that they were to go and worship the newborn Jesus. In that moment, God revealed Himself to the Magi in a very real way and they were never the same. This event that transpired some 2000 years ago means one very important thing for us: God is continually revealing Himself to us.
The reality of Epiphany gives us the privilege of seeking God, just as the Magi sought (and found!) Him so many years ago. Although most of us will never receive a bright star in the sky, we all have a Savior who not only came to us as a baby, but from the beginning of His life chose to reveal Himself to all who choose to seek Him.
For us, this means having the courage to seek God in these everyday epiphanies. The reality of the Gospel is that God is constantly revealing Himself to us – in our relationship with our friends & family, our work, and the world around us. We are called to do what the Magi did – to take in our experiences, look up and see how God could be using it to change our hearts.
Part of the beauty in the story of the Magi is that they were forever changed because they chose to not only follow the path that had been set out for them, but they were willing to let the presence of God change them. This us something that we can learn from – no matter what state we are in life, the promptings we receive from God will always be clearer when brought to God in prayer.
Everyday epiphanies are meant to remind us that God is working in a real way not only in our lives, but in our world. And just as the Magi travelled in a pack of three, we will find these everyday epiphanies with the companionship of others. God uses whatever He can to show us His will for our life, and this great feast of the Church is proof that the Christian life is often clearer when walked with other people.
The challenge for us is to go forward as the Magi did – not following a star, but choosing to seek and find God in every part of our lives. By actively searching out these everyday epiphanies, we will receive that clarity we so desire, as well as accomplishing one of the most important tasks of the Christian life: putting ourselves in the presence of God.
Lauren Scharmer is a senior at The Catholic University of America and is active in retreat and youth ministry in both the Archdiocese of Washington and the Diocese of Arlington.