On the Adriatic coast of Italy is a town called Ravenna. When the Roman Empire was falling apart in the 5th and 6th centuries, Ravenna became, for a short while, the capital of the empire.
Today you would never guess it. It’s just a medium-sized industrial town, near the sea, with lots of pollution, they tell me. What remains, however, from those heady days of glory is a string of beautiful churches. And in one of them, the Church of St. Apollinare, there is a mosaic of three wise men.
Making a mosaic is a painstaking business. The artist uses thousands of little cubes of colored stone, like you and I might use the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. But the bricks in a mosaic are much smaller. An expert can produce themes of startling, miraculous beauty, simply by cementing these little cubes together.
In the mosaic in this one particular church, the artist manages to convey the impression of movement, of running. The wise men are running through a palm grove, with their gifts held out in front of them. The picture doesn’t tell us where they are running. You and I know, because we have heard St. Matthew’s Gospel today: “The sight of the star filled them with delight.” These elderly gentlemen are skipping like children as they come to the end of their journey. Their rich cloaks spread out in the wind. The wise men in the story represent the non-Hebrew world, which includes you and me. You and I are running through the palm trees. Matthew is telling us here that Jesus is born for all peoples, and that His birth, life, death and resurrection are common property.
The first to see the child, of course, were the shepherds, and they were Jewish. But hot on their heels, came these colorful characters from the east. Unlike the shepherds, they never had the advantage of the Old Testament scriptures, with the prophets forecasting the coming of Christ. So God communicated with them directly—God sent them a star.
On the Feast of the Epiphany, through the three wise men, the birth of Jesus becomes a public event. On Christmas night it was more or less private - only the shepherds knew about it. St. Luke tells us that the shepherds went back up the hill from the stable “glorifying and praising God,” but he doesn’t say that they told many in the neighborhood.The wise men, however, stand for the rest of the world, coming to do homage to the infant King, and it is throughout the non-Jewish world that the news is eventually destined to echo and to ring.
Coarsened by his contact with the cynical and brutal Roman world, he saw the birth of Christ in political terms, and sensed a threat to his own authority. Unfortunately, the wise men had asked for “the infant King of the Jews.” That word “king” was a warning light to Herod - just as, in thirty-three years’ time, it would be a warning light for Pontius Pilate.
Some people are like the shepherds, quiet people who keep their religion to themselves. Some people are like Herod, though thankfully in most cases without his criminal, cruel side. They wonder how Christmas can be turned to their advantage. And some people are like the wise men, inspired by God to inquire, to find out, and ready to adore.
The shepherds are like a lot of us today, who feel that broadcasting our faith might offend the neighbors. So, we miss the opportunity to share the Gospel.Many modern people make Christmas a time of profit, so that it’s as if the real religion of our country is shopping. The religious message becomes obscured by sleigh bells and Black Friday madness. I was recently watching a local Holiday Concert of grade school students. It wasn’t a Christmas concert and I did not hear one Christmas carol. So many of our children don’t know hymns such as Silent Night, Joy to the World, or O Little Town of Bethlehem.
It’s a time to celebrate…but celebrate what…if not the birth of our Savior? But then there are those who come to us like the three wise men, saying, “I want to learn more. I don’t know why or how, but God seems to be propelling me in your direction—will you teach me about Christ?” It’s often to such people that God gives the grace of conversion, and then a further call, to serve God as a deacon, consecrated religious or priest. We pray for the grace to be wise men and wise women, ourselves, always ready to share the Gospel.
This New Year may or may not find you or me running among the palm trees, but I hope and pray that it does find us with a renewed vigor and confident determination to celebrate our Catholic faith and share its message of hope and promise to a world, too often suspicious of the Good News.
Blessed New Year to you and your loved ones!