The grace we are asking of God: a deeply felt awareness of how God draws us into the unfolding of the mystery of the Word made flesh and how in doing this we enter into a process of healing that we might love Jesus and follow him more intentionally, completely, and wholeheartedly.
Horizons of the Heart is inspired by the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius and my own notes from my thirty-day Ignatian retreat in 2022.
Offer your prayer to God, desiring that in every way it will give him glory. I pour myself out in worship. You could use a few lines from the following passage from the prophet Isaiah if this helps you enter into prayer:
Ask of God what you think you need. (It could be later that God will show what you truly need and what should be asking for, but begin now where you are.)
Imagining Yourself Present
Over several periods of prayer, linger imaginatively over the events narrated in Matthew 2:1-12.
These men who studied the stars came from the east in search of the newborn king of the Jews. They came because they saw in the sky a star that indicated to them that a new king had been born, and it went before them into the land of Judea. The wise men, as we popularly call them today, went first to Herod’s palace in Jerusalem, and after inquiring where the child would be born, they journeyed on to Bethlehem where the star stopped over the place where the child lay.
These visitors from the East were people of great wealth and power. They are called Magi in the Greek, which was a term that referred to a kind of subclass of Persian priests. Looking to a star was very much in keeping with the religious tradition of this place in which they looked to the heavens, the stars, and the planets for information about the gods’ wishes and doings. Interestingly, according to Time (December 13, 2004) “Secrets of the Nativity,” when the actual Persians came marauding Judea in 614, the only place of worship they didn’t touch was the Church of the Nativity in Palestine, whose golden entry mosaic featured the Magi dressed as Persians.
According to a calculation by German astronomer Johannes Kepler in the 16th century, an extremely rare conjunction between Jupiter and Saturn occurred three times in the constellation Pisces in 7 B.C., appearing to observers as a single luminous star. This would coincide with St. Matthew’s description of the celestial body appearing, disappearing and then reappearing to the Magi.
This theory gained more credibility in 1925, when German orientalist Paul Schnabel deciphered ancient cuneiform tablets from the astronomical school of the Babylonian city of Sippar, which described the exact same astronomical conjunction in 7 B.C.
The Magi from the East brought gifts of gold (a gift for a king), frankincense (an incense and symbol of deity), and myrrh (an embalming oil and symbol of death).
There are various calculations about how long this journey was and how many people would have been in the entourage that arrived in Jerusalem and Bethlehem. The length of their journey is estimated by the distance they travelled and the fact that Herod, who had heard the story of the star directly from the Magi, killed all baby boys in Bethlehem and the environs who were two years old and younger. We could say then that the Magi perhaps travelled 5 to 9 months to reach Bethlehem. They would have had to spend several months preparing for such a long journey and would have spent the same amount of time making their journey home. That’s quite a length of time, definitely a major commitment on their part.
In one Bible translation’s footnote regarding the passage in Matthew 2 that recounts the arrival of the Magi in Jerusalem, it is speculated that there may have been a hundred people in their entourage. Three persons arriving in Jerusalem would not have created such a stir as is recounted by Matthew. Whether it was a hundred people or not, the Magi would have needed to bring along servants, cooks (there weren’t restaurants in the desert), security, persons to put up tents and take care of animals for a journey that could potentially last almost two years.
We know that the Magi did not arrive in Bethlehem while Jesus was in the manger because Matthew reports that they found Jesus in a “house.” Additionally, Mary and Joseph offered the gifts of the poor when they brought Jesus to the temple. They would not have done so if they had gold, frankincense and myrrh stashed away in Bethlehem where they had been staying since the birth of Jesus.
This is a perfect time to imagine who you are on this journey. One of the Magi? A servant? The cook? Just someone tagging along? Or following them from a distance?
Imagine the length of time you would have had to commit to in order to follow the star with them. What you would have had to leave behind for potentially a year and a half or more of travel to an unknown destination? We know now where the Magi ended their journey, where they found what they were looking for, but they set out on a journey to follow a star wherever it went and however long it took.
Where are you in this story? Speak to the people that are with you along the way. Allow your affective imagination to lead you closer to them, to give you a sense of this felt-closeness that you so desire. You can imagine with your mind’s eye, with your sense of hearing or touch.
Imagining the Gospel events in the present
Over time, allow these stories in the gospel of Matthew to become current as if the Magi (and you along with their whole entourage) are travelling to some unknown destination in the world today. Somewhere out of your comfort zone. Perhaps into the territory of a government you would consider an enemy or a threat.
What keeps you going? What do you fear? Anticipate? Hope for? Expect?
Watch the Magi. What are their feelings associated with seeing the star?
“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 2:2 NIV). “We’ve come to bow before him in worship” (TPT).
“After their audience with the king they set out. And behold, the star that they had seen at its rising preceded them, until it came and stopped over the place where the child was. They were overjoyed at seeing the star” (Matthew 2:9-10 NABRE).
“And on their way to Bethlehem, the same star they had seen in the East suddenly reappeared! Amazed, they watched as it went ahead of them and stopped directly over the place where the child was. And when they saw the star, they were so ecstatic that they shouted and celebrated with unrestrained joy (TPT).
The footnote in The Passion Translation states that “the Greek here is hard to translate since it contains so many redundant words for joy in this one verse. It is literally, ‘They rejoiced with a great joy exceedingly.’ They were ecstatic!”
“When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy” (Matthew 2:10 AMP).
Observe how the Magi express these feelings. Usually we picture them kneeling in the stable as we see at Christmas. We aren’t as reflective about what it meant for them to be led by a star to the one who had just been born before whom they would bow down in worship. Listen to their conversations among themselves. Ask them why they are so happy.
In Gospel Contemplation, Ignatius takes advantage of the way in which spiritual growth, like so many other aspects of maturing that we experience, takes place primarily when our affectivity is engaged. It is the shift in one’s deeper emotions and feelings that leads to a change in one’s behavior. We reach these deeper levels through metaphor, image, and symbol—the work of the imagination.
Observing attractions and resistance
Notice any interior reactions that you experience: comfort, discomfort, being lifted up, struggle, joy, sadness….
Observe the actions, words, emotions, sensitivities, attitudes of the Magi, Herod, the people in Jerusalem. To which of them do you feel more attracted? Which of them arouse more negative feelings or resistance? Return to aspects of these meditations that seem more personally meaningful.
Entering the Mystery of the story
As you begin to enter the mystery of the story more deeply, you will begin to see or hear or touch. As you see the glory of the star, you may be drawn to “see” the faith of the Magi. As you walk in the “dark” and shudder in the “cold,” you may realize that what is truly dark and cold is the lack of faith, the refusal of faith, the way the others did not go along to worship. After all we are talking about a six-mile journey from Jerusalem to Bethlehem.
You will enter into the event and interact more deeply. Little by little you will become more present to the mystery and the mystery will be present to you.
As you become more and more involved in the event of Jesus’ mystery that you are contemplating, your life and your choices are affected.
Watching the Magi’s exceeding joy may open your heart to the Holy Spirit as your life and heart are lifted up along with these men who travelled so far and so long to bow in worship.
You may also sense the tension in the story as one group devotes themselves to following the “star” that leads them to Jesus (at great cost to themselves) and another group doesn’t seem to notice or care, or rejects him all together. After all, it was clear to the chief priests and scribes that they knew that from Bethlehem a “ruler” would come “who will shepherd my people Israel” (v. 6). They told Herod so when he requested anxiously to know where the Messiah was to be born. But they did not go themselves to Bethlehem. They did not bother to even be curious about whether this was the Messiah. And Herod tried to kill him in a move of political expediency.
As you continue playing out your part in the story of the Magi, you find yourself changing and desiring to change.
Conversing as with a friend
Read the following verses from Psalm 72 and the prophet Isaiah (62:11-12) in relation to the visit of the Magi. Both of these passages are read in the liturgy on the feast of the Epiphany. Read this slowly, several times, allowing some moments of rest between your reading.
“May the kings of Tarshish and the islands bring tribute,
the kings of Sheba and Seba offer gifts.
May all kings bow before him,
all nations serve him” (Psalm 72:10-11).
“Arise! Shine, for your light has come,
the glory of the Lord has dawned upon you
. . . Nations shall walk by your light,
kings by the radiance of your dawning
Raise your eyes and look about;
they all gather and come to you —
Your sons from afar
. . . Then you shall see and be radiant
. . . For the riches of the sea shall be poured out before you,
the wealth of nations shall come to you.
Caravans of camels shall cover you,
dromedaries of Midian and Ephah;
All from Sheba shall come
bearing gold and frankincense
and heralding the praises of the Lord” (Isaiah 60:1-6).
Is there some new awareness coming forward as you consider these words? Do they shed some unexpected or new light on your own following of Jesus?
Continue in quiet—or even silent—intimate conversation with the Magi and with Jesus. Ask them what is the grace that you should be praying for. Beg this grace of the Father. Then beg this grace of the Son, your Savior and Shepherd. Finally, beg for this grace from the Holy Spirit who is the source of all holiness.
If you wholly lived this grace that you are begging for, what would your life look like? Your relationships? Your prayer? The way you work? The way you love? The way you serve? What about you would make you the most happy?
Ask the Magi and Jesus to show you one specific gift they wish to give you. Receive it and remain in stillness and quietly relaxed presence under the influence of the Holy Spirit.
Reviewing the graces of prayer
When you finish praying, write down the main gifts and discoveries from this time of intimate contemplation. What is one concrete thing you can do to solidify these gifts in your life.
Image Credit: Edward Burne-Jones, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons