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People, Look East: Christmas through the Magi’s Eyes

Last evening, Eastern Christians in the United States, Catholic and Orthodox, sang:

“Your birth, O Christ our God, has shed upon the world the light of knowledge; for through it, those who worshiped the stars have learned from a star to worship you, the Sun of Justice, and to know you, the Dawn from on High. Glory to you, O Lord!” (Christmas Troparion)

The reference to “those who worshiped the stars” and “learned from a star to worship you” is, of course, a reference to the Magi, who followed an unusually bright star to Bethlehem, where they found Jesus born in a manger and worshiped him in his divinity.

This short hymn about the Magi is not sung for the feast of the Epiphany, but for the feast of the Nativity, that is, for Christmas, which began with the Christmas Vigil liturgy last evening, 6 January, for Eastern Christians who follow the Julian calendar.

While the Magi are commemorated on a separate feast day in Western Christianity, most Eastern Christian calendars do not include a separate feast for them at all. Rather, in the Christian East, the Magi are incorporated as pivotal players in the celebration of the Nativity — indeed, as the lens through which we are all invited to welcome the coming of Christ.

What does the Christian East teach us in framing the Nativity through the eyes of the Magi? 

The Magi show us the universal appeal of Christ’s message. His birth sheds upon the whole world a light of knowledge. This fact is meant not just for a particular time, place or race, but for all of humanity. The multiplicity of nations and ethnicities does not pose a challenge to the good news of Christ.

Further, the Magi are profoundly changed by their encounter with Christ. They set aside their prior beliefs and allow themselves to be transformed by newness, to be taught a new way of seeing and understanding the world. Christ, the Sun of Justice, becomes the most important light they will ever come to know, and the order of the entire universe falls into place accordingly.

Today, the revelation and wonder experienced by the Magi at Jesus’ birth invite us to accept Jesus in the same way, allowing our whole understanding of life and of the created universe to be changed, seen anew, in light of Christ’s coming in the flesh.

Illumined by the coming of the Dawn from on High, we proclaim today with our Eastern Christian brothers and sisters who celebrate Christmas, “Christ is born! Glorify him!”

Laura Ieraci is assistant editor of ONE Magazine.

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