The prominent virtues of the Magi are piety and wisdom (in recognizing Christ as universal king and the light of the world), faith, fortitude, hope and humility.
Matthew’s Gospel highlights Christ’s kingship through the magi when he writes, “[a]fter Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him” (Matthew 2:1-2). Nativities rightly or wrongly depict the magi as kings; their kingship points to the fact that Christ is to be the king of kings. Though “born king of the Jews,” his kingdom is to be even wider than Israel. Yet the world—Herod included—has no idea of what has happened; it remains unaware of its new king. Today, the world remains just as unaware, which is yet another reason to celebrate the magi who, though relying on a star themselves, can act as beckons of light to others seeking the new king.
The magic of the magi lies not in their spells but in the message that all of us can be born into Christ’s kingdom. The prologue to John’s Gospel describes Christ’s followers as children of God but “children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God” (John 1:13).
Faith in Christ makes us children of God. Our nationality no longer matters. By worshipping the new king and offering gifts, the magi show the proper response to the new king. Our lives too must be an offering for the king as difficult as that can sometimes be.
The Virtue of Faith
The faith of the magi can be our model as we follow Christ. St. Josemaria Escriva compares us to the magi, for like them “we have discovered a star: a light and a guide in the sky of our soul and growing increasingly brighter. It is a desire to live a fully Christian life, a keenness to take God seriously,” (Christ Is Passing By, p72). The star of faith never fails as a guide through life. Behind what seems to be the chaos of life, the call of Christ remains deep in the heart as something real, onto which to hold.
The Virtue of Fortitude
A related virtue that the magi show us is fortitude. Escriva tells us that “faith like that of the Magi, a conviction that neither the desert, nor the storms, nor the quiet of the oases will keep us from reaching our destination in the eternal Bethlehem” (p73). Looking at the magi around a nativity, we notice their camels. To get to Christ, the magi exercised needed faith and fortitude; they would never have decided to leave the comfort of their homes and follow a star on a long journey without faith and fortitude. This desire to see the king keeps us alive in the midst of temptation or draught.
The Virtue of Hope
I have talked about the faith of the magi, but their hope strikes me as their dominant virtue. The Catechism describes hope as “the theological virtue by which we desire the kingdom of heaven and eternal life as our happiness, placing our trust in Christ’s promises and relying not on our own strength, but on the help of the grace of the Holy Spirit” (CCC 1817). Surely, the magi hungered for the kingdom to seek it so ardently. They hoped, seeing it in the figure of a humble child even when few else would have.
Writing of the childless Abraham, St Paul says “[a]gainst all hope, Abraham in hope believed” (Romans 4:18). The same could be said of the magi as they entered a humble manger looking for the king of the Jews.
The Virtue of Humility
Humility is required if we are going to continue with the magi to worship a king whose crown seems hidden. Escriva reflects “[t]he Magi are not received by a king on a high throne, but by a child in the arms of his mother” (p 89). Yet the eyes of faith see that the child is on a throne. Christ sits on the lap of the queen of the universe. Mary exults a God “who has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts” (Luke 1:51). To become great, Mary tells us we have to become nothing. Christ is found in the places most forgotten and in the people who have emptied themselves most completely of self-importance.
Becoming the Light of the World
Christ came to bring light and this light is found in his followers to whom he chose to give the light. Christ is the star that we must follow if we wish to have true light in our lives. Jesus says “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (John 8:12). We also know that it is not enough to follow the light. We have to become it.
Often historians present history as a vast movement towards some kind of light. Scientists often appear as the light bearers by illuminating the darkness of suspicion and myth with their scientific breakthroughs. Pseudo-science pushes aside belief in God as part of the darkness that yet exists, while Christianity claims to already possess the true light and burns to spread it to every nation and people.
For Benedict XVI, “[the magi] represent the dynamism of religions and human reason toward [Christ]” (Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives, p 97). Benedict’s analysis turns the promethean idea of our age on its head. In the story of Prometheus, the rebel steals light from the gods to bring it to earth. Our world still believes in a narrative in which humans strive against some unspoken authority to capture fragments of divine light. In our story, God becomes the rebel himself who brings the light down from heaven.