Saturday, January 7, 2017

En Route with the Magi

In 2005, I attended World Youth Day in Cologne. The great Gothic Cathedral in that city was originally built to house the supposed relics of the magi, who came from the east to do homage with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. [Matthew 2:1-12], and whose relics Cologne acquired from Milan in 1164.

The commemoration of the arrival of the magi on Epiphany typically produces an alteration in the nativity scene, in which the shepherds are now joined by the magi. (In the actual story, of course, the shepherds had left already on Christmas day and so were obviously long gone by the time the magi might have arrived.) 

Sadly, here in the United States where discarded Christmas trees already litter many of our streets, Epiphany (if noticed at all) now seems almost an add-on or some sort of vestigial postscript to Christmas. Historically, however, Epiphany is actually the oldest festival of the Christmas season, older even than Christmas Day itself. Traditionally, it ranked right after Easter and Pentecost, and (although now outranked by the historically more junior feast of Christmas) it still ranks as one of the principal festivals of the Church’s calendar. (Calling Epiphany "Little Christmas" is certainly better than ignoring it completely, but it really reverses liturgical history and in its own way may risk trivializing further this once-great festival.)

Here in the West, we focus primarily on the Magi. But as the famous antiphon at Vespers proclaims: Three mysteries mark this holy day: today the star leads the magi to the infant Christ; today water is changed into wine for the wedding feast; today Christ wills to be baptized by John in the river Jordan to bring us salvation. The photo above, from an old Missale Romanum, likewise highlights the three Epiphany mysteries - portraying the magi n the center, but flanked by Cana and the Baptism in the Jordan.

(In the Eastern Christian Churches, where Matthew’s story of the magi is read on Christmas Day itself, Epiphany is primarily a celebration of Jesus’ baptism, the beginning of his mission.) 

Of course, we really know next to nothing at all about the magi themselves – not their names (although tradition has given them the familiar names Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar), nor their exact social status (though tradition, inspired in this case by Psalm 72, has crowned them as kings), nor even their number (though tradition, based on the gifts itemized in Matthew's Gospel, has counted them as three, which over time came to be interpreted as representing the three then-known continents (Africa, Asia, and Europe) and also the three ages of human life (youth, maturity, and old age). Now that I am in the last of those ages, that interpretation resonates with me in a whole new way!

But, while Matthew tells us none of those things that we would so much like to know about the magi, it does tell us what it is actually important for us to know about them. First of all, it tells us that they were foreigners - Gentiles, that is, pagans. As such, they represent the majority of the human race – past and present – in a world in which darkness covers the earth, and thick clouds cover the peoples [Isaiah 60:2]. The magi were armed with human, natural knowledge, as they sought - as Saint Paul said in his speech to his pagan audience in Athens, the God who made the world and all that is in it and gives life and breath to everyone [Acts 17:24-25]. In his wonderful little book about the birth of Christ as recounted in the Gospels, Pope Benedict XVI wrote that the magi “represent the inner dynamic of religion toward self-transcendence, which involves a search for truth, a search for the true God.” He called the magi “forerunners, preparers of the way, seekers after truth, such as we find in every age” (pp. 95-96).

But human, natural knowledge - itself a divine gift in the order of creation - is limited and can take us only so far. So next the Gospel account tells us that, whatever varied the paths that different people may start out on, in order to achieve fulfillment our paths must all finally converge in Jesus, the one and only Savior of the world, and furthermore that the interpretive key to the story of Jesus is God’s revelation of himself in the history of Israel.  As Jesus himself would later explain to the Samaritan woman, Salvation is from the Jews [John 4:22]. Thus, it was to Jerusalem, that the magi came to learn the full significance of the star – a meaning revealed in the Jewish scriptures, which translated the natural light of a star into the revelation of a person. As Isaiah had prophesied, Nations shall walk by Jerusalem’s light, and kings by her shining radiance [Isaiah 60:3].

By way of warning, however, the story also illustrates how easily we may miss the point. When Herod heard the Magi, he was greatly troubled and all Jerusalem with him – troubled, not overjoyed like the Magi! What troubled them? What made such good news seem to them like bad news? The same Christmas star that filled the magi with hope somehow seemed like an evil portent to those who somehow sensed the threatening challenge it posed to their power and priorities.

Commenting on Herod's reaction Saint Quodvultdeus (a 5th-century bishop of Carthage who died in exile in Naples c. 450), observed: "To save his kingdom [Herod] decides to kill [Jesus], though if he would have faith in the child, he himself would reign in peace in this life and forever in the life to come" [Sermon 2 on the Creed]. What a lesson in the folly of our ruling ethos of power, domination, and control! 

But Herod was hardly alone in missing the point. The scholars whom Herod consulted correctly quoted the scripture, but they didn’t get it either. It was as if they had an abundance of academic knowledge of the subject, but lacked any real wisdom. So none of them did the obvious thing – go to Bethlehem and do Jesus homage. Only the pagan magi did!

Talk about missing the opportunity of a lifetime!

The magi, on the other hand, were overjoyed, not troubled. The magi set out as true pilgrims – and on entering the house they saw the child with Mary his mother … prostrated themselves and did him homage. In the traditional liturgy, when those words were read or sung in the Gospel everyone was directed to genuflect. It was the liturgy’s way of physically bringing the point of the story home, helping us to identify personally with the pilgrim magi. Undoubtedly such practices catechized more effectively than many a homily, and their abandonment has been an evident loss for the Church.

As for the magi, we never hear about them again. Fictional accounts abound, of course, but all we really know is that they departed for their country by another way. Nativity scenes sometimes seem, as I have often observed, frozen in time. Everybody stays stationary – at least until it’s time to put the figures all back in the closet. But the real magi didn’t just stay there in Bethlehem, anymore than the shepherds did. They went back to wherever they had lived before, but they departed for their country by another way. They went back to whatever they had been doing before, but they would never be the same again. And, thanks to Christ’s coming into our world, we too must be different now from what we would otherwise have been.

At World Youth Day in Cologne in 2005, one of the activities was to make a ritual pilgrimage to the cathedral, to the magi's shrine. Having imitated the magi in the first part of their journey, the rest of life, it seems to me involves returning to daily life, as they did by another way.

Every January, after what we whimsically call "the holidays," we return, as we inevitably must, to our ordinary activities – at home, at work, at school, whatever and wherever. Like the magi, however, our challenge is to travel through our ordinary life by another way, because something so special has happened that has made everything so very different from what it would otherwise have been.

Long before there were funeral homes to print parish calendars, Epiphany became the annual date which the Roman Liturgy assigned to announce the date of Easter and other important dates in the coming year, a custom which, unlike the genuflection during the Gospel, has not been abolished and in fact seems to be enjoying a bit of a revival.

None of us, of course, can even begin to foresee what this new year of our Lord 2017 will bring, whether for each of us individually or for our confused and troubled world. Yet, even as we navigate our way through an uncertain and challenging present, the Christmas star invites us to travel with the magi – to go on pilgrimage with then to Bethlehem and back again – confident that, whatever else may be the case, the Christmas star will precede us to illuminate every new day of this new year, and so will guide us, first, to Christ, and, then, thanks to Christ, on that new way, which, like the magi, we are, all of us together, being summoned to find and follow.

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