As Christians around the world observe the feast of the Epiphany, we recall the day that the Magi, following a star by faith, arrived in Bethlehem to honor the newborn Savior. This year, however, I find myself reflecting more on their return journey, specifically the wisdom that lead them to go back a different way after being warned to do so in a dream. Because the truth is that we have ventured down a dangerous path in our relationship to Creation and to rectify this, we need a new way forward.
Seeking to honor one much greater than themselves, the Magi were present and reverent to the newborn king, sharing spiritual gifts, as well as the more obvious and tangible offerings of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Likewise, each of us has also been entrusted with gifts by God. The gifts of our time, talent, treasure, and testimony are things that can inform our vocations and allow us to provide for the needs of others. The material gifts the Magi brought were fitting for a worldly king. Jesus, however, makes it clear to us in the New Testament that we are not called to prize power or material possessions, but rather to serve the “least of these.” In Laudato Si, Pope Francis reminds us that the “gravest effects of all attacks on the environment are suffered by the poorest,” and that humans are called to steward and love not just human “others,” but animals, plants, and all of Creation. We are called to use our gifts to protect God’s Creation.
The magi exemplify this mentality, paying great attention to nature. Looking to the rhythms of the stars as they journeyed, they were guided to the savior by a deep relationship with God’s Creation. Referred to as the “Book of Nature” by medieval Catholic theologians, God’s Creation was not only intended to sustain us, but also to reflect the love of our Creator and teach us about Him. As we deal with increasing climate chaos and what Pope Francis refers to as the “ethical, cultural, and spiritual crisis” at its root, how many of us can point to native edible plants in our neighborhoods and give thanks for them? Or notice if migratory birds are returning earlier in the spring? If we don’t marvel at the sparrows, we risk losing sight of God’s promised provision for them and for us, even as our sinful overconsumption of resources alters the composition of the atmosphere and our climate. Called to be witnesses to and stewards of Creation, we cannot protect that which we do not know and love.
The Magi’s choice to depart and travel home by “another way” infuriated Herod. Their act of civil disobedience against a violent and oppressive ruler was not without great risk but it allowed the Holy Family to escape to safety in Egypt. As the realities of disease, poverty, famine, and violent conflict become evermore common and severe due to climate change, it is clear that we must depart from our sinful ways, returning to a healthy relationship with our common home.
To do so, we must not ignore the testimony of God’s own Creation any longer, allowing the observed changes in carbon concentrations, temperature, rainfall, and sea level to guide us to respond courageously, just as the star guided the Magi. With climate change deniers coming into the White House, industrial polluters resisting the call to ecological stewardship, and the widespread materialism that impacts our spiritual lives and our planet, we seem to need, like the Magi, to go by a different way. To do so will require an ecological conversion, for which a great deal of wisdom and a deepening of faith will be necessary.
The Magi were called by God to protect Christ and the Holy Family. Scripture and tradition make it clear that all of us are called to care for Creation, taking steps to live more responsibly as individuals and working in community to protect it from those that would do it harm. As daunting as it may seem, Pope Francis offers encouragement:
All is not lost. Human beings, while capable of the worst, are also capable of rising above themselves, choosing again what is good, and making a new start, despite their mental and social conditioning. We are able to take an honest look at ourselves, to acknowledge our deep dissatisfaction, and to embark on new paths to authentic freedom. No system can completely suppress our openness to what is good, true and beautiful, or our God-given ability to respond to his grace at work deep in our hearts. I appeal to everyone throughout the world not to forget this dignity which is ours. No one has the right to take it from us.
This year, I pray that the example of the wise men will motivate us to pursue wisdom in our own lives. As we deepen our relationships with God, others, and our common home, may we root ourselves in a faith that inspires action; in relationships that give life; and in holy service and sacred stewardship. May we grow in wonder and gratitude as we reflect on the mysteries of the incarnation of the true king, our Creator, and all of Creation.
Catherine Goggins is a faith-based climate organizer with Interfaith Power & Light who lives in Washington D.C.