On the Epiphany

In the so-called “Bible Belt” of the southern United States (wherein I currently reside), FM radio stations will often eschew normal musical programming on Sunday mornings in favor of live broadcasts of Christian (read: Protestant) services. As I was driving to Mass this past Sunday (the transferred Feast of the Epiphany in the Novus Ordo calendar for most American dioceses), on the radio was a Methodist pastor delivering a sermon on the exact same reading I would later hear at Mass– the story of the Magi from Matthew’s Gospel. The sermon was good for the most part, and it could have even been a decent homily for a Catholic Mass, until the pastor said something that struck me: “It is one the great tragedies of the Gospel that, after following the star all the way to Jerusalem, the wise men had to stop and ask for directions, when the star would have taken them straight to the manger”. After all, the preacher noted, as soon as the wise men left Herod’s court, they found the star again, which “stopped over the place where the child lay”. The implication is that the Magi momentarily doubted the guidance which had thus far brought them to Jerusalem.

The pastor completely missed the point of that detail. We Catholics have at our disposal two profound reflections from two Pontiffs: Benedict XVI’s 2012 Easter Vigil homily and Francis’ 2013 Epiphany homily. In the latter reflection, Francis says that “the Magi, when they arrived in Jerusalem, lost sight of the star for a time. They no longer saw it.”  The light of the star “was particularly absent from the palace of Herod: his dwelling was gloomy, filled with darkness, suspicion, fear, envy”. In the same vein and in his classically eloquent style, Benedict said during his last Easter Vigil, “Today we can illuminate our cities so brightly that the stars of the sky are no longer visible. Is this not an image of the problems caused by our version of enlightenment?” The “enlightened” court of Herod, located in the midst of an ancient metropolis caught up in the hustle and bustle of Caesar’s census, could not see what these wise men from the east could see. Herod and his men focused only on their own power and remained blinded by sin. The lights of Jerusalem, fueled by the profane desires of Herod and his Roman masters, washed out the light of Christ’s star. The Magi did not momentarily doubt or ignore the star; the star itself was obscured, unable to radiate in a place brooding with evil.

What the preacher superficially called a “tragedy” in fact veils a more profound lesson: the journey of the Magi is an allegory of the ascent of the mind to God. The wise men, sincere searchers of the truth, discerned that truth in the structure of the cosmos and of the natural world. This represents the capacity of natural reason to perceive truth, and ultimately, God. Christian philosophy professes that the existence of God can be ascertained, without recourse to grace and supernatural faith, through the methods of natural reason. By “natural reason” we mean the process of reasoning based on given, self-evident principles. Such principles, among others, include:

the principle of non-contradiction (if A is not B, then A cannot be A and B at the same time)
the transitive property (if A=B and B=C, then A=C)
every effect must have a cause
the impossibility of an infinite regress of contingent conditions

These principles form the basis of logic and arithmetic which are the very condition for our everyday existence. It is on the basis of such principles that the famous syllogistic “proofs for the existence of God” by various Christian theologians (Anselm’s ontological proof; Aquinas’ proofs from contingency, from motion, from complexity, etc.) demonstrate the reasonableness, and indeed truth, of monotheism. Belief in one God is thus a natural truth.However, mere monotheism is not the fullness of truth. As Christians, we believe that the fullness of truth is in Jesus Christ. No procedure of natural reason, no syllogism can ever prove that Jesus Christ is indeed the incarnate, only-begotten Son of the Father who will ransom men from sin. None of the classic proofs for the existence of God ever say anything about Christ, or the Holy Spirit, or the Church, or the Bible. The belief that Christ is Lord is a truth that must be given from on high, received, and accepted. This is revealed truth, for it comes from the revelation of God, and is not grasped by the unaided human mind. Faith only springs from the grace-filled positive response of man to the revelation of God.Thus, by discerning the signs of the natural world and following the star, the Magi came close to the newborn King, but lost their way in Jerusalem’s maze. Only after consulting Herod’s scholars– or rather, after consulting the revelation contained in Holy Scripture– did the Magi discover that the Christ was to be born in Bethlehem-Ephratha, “the least among the cities of Judah”. Natural reason can only go so far; to reach the fullness of truth, one must receive the revelation of God.

That the Magi had to “stop for directions” is not a tragedy, as the aforementioned Protestant preacher would have it; rather, here we find a profound commentary on man’s absolute reliance on the grace of God, mediated through revelation, to reach faith in Jesus Christ. Yes, the natural law is written on every human heart, and natural reason can glimpse the truth of the one God who alone is “king of kings and Lord of lords”. But it is an act of God himself that reveals the fullness of his truth to men, and having seen his manifestation, men must continue their arduous journey toward Christ his Son. Pope Francis reiterated this in his homily today:

Nel palazzo i Magi attraversano un momento di oscurità, di desolazione, che riescono a superare grazie ai suggerimenti dello Spirito Santo, che parla mediante le profezie della Sacra Scrittura. Queste indicano che il Messia nascerà a Betlemme, la città di Davide.

In the palace, the Magi encountered a moment of obscurity, of desolation, which they were able to overcome thanks to the guidance of the Holy Spirit, who speaks through the prophecies of Sacred Scripture. These indicated that the Messiah is to be born in Bethlehem, the City of David.

The story of the Magi teaches us even more: when the wise men gazed upon the Christ child and beheld his divine splendor, they gave precious gifts and did him homage. True worship is inseparable from giving of our best to God. The Gospel of Matthew, written to prove to Jews that Jesus was indeed the Messiah, thus harks back to the Pentateuch, to story of Cain and Abel; God was pleased with Abel, who gave the firstborn and fattest of his flock in sacrifice. Cain, however, offered up his produce, far less valuable that the offering of his brother– and this was displeasing to the Lord. There is also a connection with the Gospel of John (and the parallel accounts in the Synoptics), which recounts Judas’ protest as a woman anointed the Lord with precious ointment (“This could have been sold for silver and given to the poor!”), as well as Christ’s stinging counter-rebuke (“The poor you will have always”). “She has done a beautiful thing for me,” said Jesus, for he knew it to be a true act of worship towards him.

Thus when the Church sponsors splendid art, brilliant vestments, precious vessels, and all the other beautiful things which adorn so many well-built churches throughout the world, it is an expression of an authentic liturgical sense which concretely gives God the best and greatest of our possessions. St. John Vianney, patron saint of priests, slept in rags; still, he accepted the finest offerings of silver ornamentation to edify his chapel at Ars. Francis of Assisi, patron of the poor, firmly admonished clerics who did not carry the Eucharist in the most precious of vessels. As the Roman Canon says, we offer God de [suis] donis ac datis, returning to him the gifts that he has firstly given us.  Today, the true Feast of the Epiphany, let us learn follow the example of the wise men by bringing to God the very best of what we have. There is no price that can match the priceless worth of the Paschal Mystery; and thus our worship should shine with all the solemnity and splendor– both interior and exterior– that we can offer.

To conclude, let us turn once more to the wise words preached by Francis today in the Vatican Basilica, and remember that to stop and ask for directions as the Magi did is not a “tragedy”; rather, turning to revelation is the remedy that corrects our course when we lose sight of the Lord’s star. By receiving the revelation of God, we too enter into the mystery of the Incarnation and find the fullness of truth, who is Christ Jesus.

I Magi sono entrati nel mistero. Sono passati dai calcoli umani al mistero: e questa è stata la loro conversione. E la nostra? Chiediamo al Signore che ci conceda di vivere lo stesso cammino di conversione vissuto dai Magi. Che ci difenda e ci liberi dalle tentazioni che nascondono la stella. Che abbiamo sempre l’inquietudine di domandarci: dov’è la stella?, quando – in mezzo agli inganni mondani – l’abbiamo persa di vista. Che impariamo a conoscere in modo sempre nuovo il mistero di Dio, che non ci scandalizziamo del “segno”, dell’indicazione, quel segno detto dagli Angeli: «un bambino avvolto in fasce, adagiato in una mangiatoia» (Lc 2,12), e che abbiamo l’umiltà di chiedere alla Madre, alla nostra Madre, che ce lo mostri. Che troviamo il coraggio di liberarci dalle nostre illusioni, dalle nostre presunzioni, dalle nostre “luci”, e che cerchiamo questo coraggio nell’umiltà della fede e possiamo incontrare la Luce, Lumen Gentium, come hanno fatto i santi Magi. Che possiamo entrare nel mistero. Così sia.

The Magi entered into the mystery. They passed from human calculations into mystery: this was their conversion. What of our conversion? Let us ask the Lord that he grant us the ability to embark upon the same path of conversion trod by the Magi. That he defend us and free us from the temptations which hide his star. That we might always have the restlessness to ask ourselves, “Where is the star?” whenever– in the midst of the temptations of the world– we lose sight of it. That we might learn to understand, in ways ever new, the mystery of God, that we are not scandalized by the “sign” told by the angel: “a child wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger”, and that we might have the humility to ask his Mother– our Mother– that she show him to us. That we might find the courage to free ourselves from our illusions, from our presumptions, from our own “lights”, that we might find this courage in the humility of faith, and that we might encounter this light, the Lumen Gentium, as the holy Magi found him. May we enter into the mystery. Amen.

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