About fifteen years ago I received some unexpected junk mail: a letter from a woman in California claiming to be a psychic, offering to provide me with valuable information in exchange for a mere $25 donation. She even provided a number of sample predictions to convince me to subscribe to her service, including some upcoming winning lottery numbers, a promise that I would find a missing diamond ring on a certain date, and a warning that a stranger would try to deceive and harm me on a certain date by faking car trouble—none of which came true. Some years before that I had for some reason received a newsletter called the Astrology and Psychic News, which contained some very interesting advertisements: for instance, “Celtic Love Knots” to help you capture the heart of the one you love; “The Krakow Spell,” in which a powerful warlock or male witch would apply his awesome powers on one’s behalf; “The Medicine Bone,” supposedly capable of dissolving away all one’s problems simply by carrying it around; the “Abyssinian Wish Box,” able to grant any wish written down and inserted inside it; and “Wanga Dolls,” dolls of the supernatural supposedly more powerful than voodoo.
Nonsense of this sort is more widespread than most people realize. For example, surveys show that one-third of all Americans believe in astrology, or the ability to predict one’s future by studying the position of the stars and planets. There are some 8000 professional astrologists; Americans spend well over $100 million a year on their services, and the words “astrology and horoscopes” are among the most-searched subjects on the Internet, with over 3 million web pages. Even though the Bible and the Church have always condemned the use of astrology and similar occult practices, many famous persons throughout history have made use of such things, including people like Julius Caesar and Indira Gandhi. First Lady Nancy Reagan was a believer in astrology, and it’s said she influenced her husband in this regard: state dinners, signings of treaties, and other important events were deliberately scheduled for the most astrologically-favorable days. Many Americans regard Ronald Reagan as a popular and successful president—but if so, astrology had nothing to do with his success. Adolph Hitler used an astrologer during World War II—which prompted his fierce enemy Winston Churchill, prime minister of Great Britain, to hire one himself in an effort to predict what Hitler was going to do (Virgil Hurley, Speaker’s Source Book of New Illustrations, p. 263). Of course, the use of astrology was the least of Hitler’s monstrous and innumerable sins.
Humanity has always desired ways of obtaining and using secret knowledge. The Babylonians, Romans, and other ancient peoples worshipped the stars, and the Greeks developed the signs of the Zodiac and assigned different temperaments or characteristics to groups of people, based on the month of their birth. These and other occult practices, including the entire New Age Movement, retain their hold on human imagination today. However, all these things are spiritual deceptions, intended to lead us astray. True wisdom lies in seeking to know and do God’s will—and only those who humbly obey Him can be certain of finding and possessing the truth that leads to eternal life.
Yes, the magi from the East—often identified as the Three Kings—were astrologers, using a practice forbidden by the Bible. However, as pagans they didn’t know any better, and were sincerely seeking to worship the newborn king. As St. Paul says in the Letter to the Ephesians (3:2-3, 5-6), this mystery of the incarnation—God becoming man for our salvation—was not made known to earlier generations, including the magi, but was revealed through the preaching of the Gospel. Moreover, the magi had good intentions, and their gifts were a form of humble and sincere worship of Christ, for they symbolized His unique mission: gold in honor of His universal kingship, frankincense in acknowledgement of His divinity, and myrrh—a spice used to anoint bodies before burial—as a recognition that He was truly human, and would thus one day experience death. God allowed the light of a star to guide three pagan astrologers to the true light of the world. The Book of Isaiah (60:1-6) speaks of the darkness of sin covering the earth and the thick clouds of ignorance covering the peoples—but at the proper time, the light of Christ appeared, showing the way of salvation to all who are willing to accept it.
The openness to the truth demonstrated by the magi is contrasted with the cunning and deceptiveness of King Herod, who sought to trick these foreigners into revealing the location of the newborn king, so that he might then eliminate this perceived threat to his rule. Darkness is always threatened by the light, and seeks to overcome it—but by its very nature, is doomed to fail. Ever since the serpent first tempted Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, the powers of this world—ultimately guided and used by Satan—have been at war with the forces of Heaven. This ongoing battle has eternal consequences, and is being played out not just in the world today, but in each of our own personal lives.
The beginning of a new year is a good time to ask ourselves whether we are influenced more by the values of this world, or those of the Kingdom of Heaven. Are we trying to arrange and control our destiny and our lives, or are we humbly surrendering them into God’s hands? Do any of our New Year’s resolutions or goals for the coming year involve the most important goal of all: namely, that of coming closer to God?
Whether through the desire for wealth, financial or political power, status or celebrity, self-indulgence, or hidden knowledge obtained through occult practices, this world tempts us with the same empty promise made by the serpent to Eve: “you shall become as gods.” If, like King Herod and all the worldly and sinful persons of history, we give into this temptation, we will end up losing our souls and being forever lost. If instead, like the magi, we humbly acknowledge the Lord, seek heavenly guidance, and search for the truth, we will be led along the proper path and find the way leading to eternal life. The word “Epiphany” means manifestation, or showing—and on this day the Lord showed or revealed Himself to the nations and made known His gift of salvation. You and I are called to let the light of His truth shine forth in our lives—and the more we strive to do this, the more we will be at peace in His sight.