‘Seek the Lord while He may be found’: A few cues we can take from the magi

The Adoration of the Magi is depicted in this 17th-century painting by French artist Claude Vignon. The feast of the Epiphany is celebrated on the second Sunday after Christmas, this year on Jan. 3. (Bridgeman Images | CNS photo)

When life’s tragedies strike, people’s hearts can ache with the question: “Where was God when we needed him?” Variations on this question, infused with a heavy dose of accusation, sometimes come from the lips of those who believe they already know the answer: that God does not exist, or that he does not care.

It is worthwhile to think about the problem contained in the phrase, “…when we needed him.” There might be times when a person needs a plumber, or a lawyer, or a heart surgeon, and other times when he or she does not need one. But there is never a time when a person does not need God. At every moment of life, in every circumstance, in every time and season, no matter what mood a person is in or how well or badly he or she thinks life is going, every person needs God now and always.

And when it comes to needing God, it does not matter who a person is: rich or poor, the greatest saint or the worst sinner, totally secure in oneself or wracked with anxiety, all of us need God all the time. We would not even exist if God ever stopped sustaining us.

Affirming that we need God all the time assists us as we consider the example of the three magi, so familiar to us from the Epiphany story, as well as Christmas carols such as “We Three Kings” and in our family Nativity sets.

The magi are very familiar to us, but we can’t let that familiarity keep us from appreciating the depth of their longing and the passion of their seeking after the newborn King. In the Old Testament Song of Songs (1:4), we read the beloved saying to her lover, “Draw me after you, let us make haste.” Of course, we don’t know enough about the magi to say with absolute certainty what, exactly, motivated their search for the newborn King, but we know that their hearts did burn with longing and expectation. They did “make haste” and follow the Star of Bethlehem with great ardor, perhaps not knowing exactly what they would find but knowing it was worth the trip.

“Seek his face always” (Ps 104:4), the Psalmist says of our search for God. Pope Benedict XVI once wrote a beautiful reflection on the importance of our earnest desiring to always move closer to the Lord. He recounts a rabbinical tale as recorded by Elie Wiesel:

“He tells of Jehel, a little boy, who comes running into the room of his grandfather, the famous Rabbi Baruch. Big tears are rolling down his cheeks. And he cries, ‘My friend has totally given up on me … We were playing hide and seek. I was hiding so well that he could not find me. But then he simply gave up and went home. Isn’t that mean?’ … The master caresses the boy’s face. He himself now has tears in his eyes and he says, ‘Yes, this is not nice. But look, it is the same way with God. He is in hiding and we do not seek him. Just imagine, God is hiding and we people do not even look for him.’”

Pope Benedict goes on to explain how even the most exciting game can lose its excitement if the other stops playing, and adds:

“That in this little story a Christian is able to find the key to the ancient mystery of Christmas. God is in hiding. He waits for his creation to set out toward him, he waits for a new and willing yes to come about, for love to arise as a new reality out of his creation. He waits for man.” (Benedictus, entry for December 15)

God is waiting for us, but do we seek him? Or do we treat God like a playmate of whom we have become rather tired? Or perhaps we treat him like some kind of spiritual first-aid kit, kept tucked away in some “closet” of our lives until we run into trouble and decide we need him?

God is waiting for us, but do we seek him? Or do we treat God like a playmate of whom we have become rather tired? Or perhaps we treat him like some kind of spiritual first-aid kit, kept tucked away in some “closet” of our lives until we run into trouble and decide we need him?  

The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches us that, “No one, whether shepherd or wise man, can approach God here below except by kneeling before the manger at Bethlehem and adoring him hidden in the weakness of a new-born child” (563). There can be lots of reasons our desire for God grows lukewarm, or even cold. We can forget the greatness of God’s humility, that he comes to us in the manger, in human flesh, on our altars, in our neighbor. Our sins can also cause us to become spiritually drowsy, or even to fall asleep. We can become listless, or frustrated, or even angry at God. Or we can just feel beaten-up by all of the atheism and immorality around us.

Whatever darkness obscures our spiritual vision, we know that Christ is always our light. St. John tells us, “Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (Jn 1:5). This light pierces the darkness of our lives, and calls us to pay attention, to wake up, and to set out in seeking God. The light of Christ shows us clearly where we stand with God, how we have been treating our relationship with Him, and helps us to see clearly what we need to do to make God the center of our lives once again.

And the light of Christ not only pierces through the darkness, but also enlightens us. Christ is the “true light, which enlightens everyone” (Jn 1:9). In the first reading for Holy Mass on the feast of the Epiphany (Is 60:1-6), Jerusalem is told to “rise up in splendor,” despite the fact that “darkness covers the earth, and thick clouds cover the peoples.” In the midst of this darkness, God’s people receive the assurance that “upon you the Lord shines, and over you appears his glory … you shall be radiant at what you see.” God’s light is not only a guiding light, but a light that shines both upon us and from within us. We have been enlightened in the sacrament of baptism, and in the Eucharist the light of Christ is both renewed and even made brighter within us. 

But in order to be enlightened in this way, we need to “Seek the Lord while he may be found” and “call upon him while he is near” (Is 55:6). We need to be faithful in worshipping the Lord at Mass, praying every day and night, performing acts of charity, asking God’s forgiveness in the sacrament of penance and forgiving those who have sinned against us. Finally, we need to share the light of Christ with others, in word and by our holy example. We share a mission to help those who seek the Lord to find him in and through us, poor representatives of Christ though we are. 

We work so hard for the goals that are important to us, in our work, in our families, even in fitness or other personal interests or hobbies. May God give us the grace to seek him with all our hearts, not some day but today, and to keep him at the center of our lives throughout this new year. 

Fr. Charles Fox is an assistant professor of theology at Sacred Heart Major Seminary, Detroit. He holds an S.T.D. in dogmatic theology from the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas (Angelicum), Rome.