Journey of the Magi and the search for truth

Journey of the Magi and the search for truth

Cardinal George Pell

The words of the three wise men from the East to King Herod - "Where is he born, the King of the Jews? We have seen his star in the East and come to worship him" (Mt 2:1-12) - provided not only the theme for World Youth Day but an interesting example of the development of tradition; of how a kernel of truth comes to be enriched over the years.

Tradition tells us that the pilgrims from the East were Magi - a Persian word for astrologers. In the early sources it is nowhere said that they were three in number, or that they were Gentiles, although that is the probable implication of their coming from the East.

The Magi fell down and worshipped when they found the infant Jesus. There is an epiphany of the Saviour for every type of person: shepherds, magi, men, women, the righteous (Simeon and Anna). They were clearly on a spiritual quest. If they had been looking for an earthly king they would have been disappointed by the circumstances in the stable and would not have offered gifts.


There are many moments of discovery, some radically different. For some, discovery comes through tragedy or disappointment. St Ignatius of Loyola discovered the Lord while reading about the saints as he lay wounded from battle in hospital.

For others, discovery comes when the vanity of worldly success is recognised, especially by people who are successful, but empty and unsettled. Michel Tournier's novel The Four Wise Men is about a fourth king who failed to complete the pilgrimage. It focuses on the rich and powerful who are looking for something deeper, those who are prosperous, can afford to travel, and are game to follow a star.

Discovery can also come through the realisation that we are imprisoned by bad habits. Sex, alcohol, drugs, money or power can all enslave us. St Augustine knew about discovering the Lord despite the fog of lust, asking the Lord, "make me pure, but not yet". As Augustine said, our hearts are always restless until they rest in God.

The intellectual search is another way of discovery. Edith Stein was Jewish, then atheist before becoming a Catholic, then a Carmelite and finally a martyr. She wrote beautifully on the role of women 75 years ago and was influential on John Paul II. She said "whoever is searching for the truth is searching for God even if he does not know it".

Cardinal Newman is another example, an English convert, originally an Evangelical Anglican, who then joined the Oxford Movement. He became a Catholic through the study of Church history.

Pilate asked Jesus: "What is truth?" This it the question today behind our searching. The search might be conducted through philosophy for a set of abstract principles, like the search in physics for the principle of everything (Hawking). Or the search can be for a person and teacher whom we can follow, on whose teaching we can base our life.

We are obliged to search, and this applies to the youngest adult and to the oldest Cardinal. Whether in darkness or light we cannot stand still. We can only go forward or backwards.

The most important search is to find God and know Him better. A church architect once said a church building is for those searching for God. This is not so. A Catholic church is for those who have found God in Jesus Christ.

We seek a God, who hears our prayers, who forgives our sins, is lovable, predictable, just and merciful. God is not the blind forces of nature, which are unforgiving. God always forgives, humans sometimes forgive, nature never forgives.

God and the Son of God are the ends of our most important searching. This is the pearl of great price, the treasure in the field. Good men and philosophers have longed for centuries to know this truth and never knew it before Christ was born in Bethlehem. To know the one true God who loves us and that Jesus Christ is the son of God is the most precious gift.

Dead ends

In our searching there are certain dead ends or false routes. One is to believe that all religions are much the same and as good as one another. But religions are very different and bad religion, corrupt religion, produces very bad fruits indeed.

Another dead end or false start is to accept that each person defines for himself what is true. In religion this often means the primacy of conscience. Truth then becomes simply a question of feeling, choice or preference. But this ignores the fact that there are important moral and religious truths, which remain true whether we accept or reject or ignore them.

Some claim that religion can be bought at a cut price - or no price at all. In fact if nothing is required from us in a religion we can be sure the offering is spurious, counterfeit, and probably dangerous. There is no substitute for the person of Jesus. He makes God accessible to us, and to the extent we understand Jesus we understand God.

This article is the shortened text of a talk given by Cardinal George Pell at a World Youth Day, Cologne, Catechesis at St Matthais' Parish, Leverkusen, on 17 August 2005.

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