WE HAVE SEEN HIS STAR IN THE EAST AND HAVE COME TO WORSHIP (MATTHEW 2:2). The Magi appear in the infancy narrative as mysterious and intriguing figures who represent a whole world that is at once exotic and appealing. Debate still goes on in modern times as to whether they were actual historical personages, or figures of a story Matthew invented with the purpose of presenting a favorite theological idea. Moderns are divided on the point; some are convinced there is a historical basis for Matthew's account, others maintain that it is a form of midrash that the people of Matthew's times and culture would recognize as a manner of inculcating some particular points of theology.
At any rate, this account, along with the rest of the Infancy Narrative of Matthew's Gospel would seem to have been better appreciated and perhaps better understood by contemplatives, artists and poets than by the majority of modern exegetes . The dominant intellectual climate in modern times, going back to the Enlightenment, is reductionistic in its tendency as it deals with history and psychology. This works well in science, of course, but life outside the laboratory is not so readily explained by any one tendency or theory. In any case, this story has offered no end of inspiration to the imagination as well as to those reflective spirits who contemplated the meaning of the actions and figures depicted here. This includes not only the simple, pious believers but also some of the great minds and talents of the Patristic age such as St. Augustine and St. Leo the Great. They entertained no doubts at all concerning the reality of the Magi and their visit to the Messiah; for them not only the beliefs taught by this account, but the facts are worthy of credence. The same acceptance o this story as being historical characterized the believers through the centuries, though the Church has never taken any official stand on the point.
As time went on the human desire for more detailed knowledge of heroes, led to some rather innocent embroidering of the narratives. Since three gifts are mentioned as having been offered to the new-born Messiah, it was rather natural that the Magi were thought to be three in number, though less widely held views maintained they were more, even twelve. In the ninth century they were given rather exotic names and each was considered a king: Melchior, king of Persia, Gaspar, king of India, and Balthasar, king of Arabia. One of the most imposing buildings in Europe is the great Gothic cathedral of Cologne. This massive and magnificent structure, requiring for its completion a period of 800 years, was conceived of as a shrine for their relics. In any case, the Magi represent persons who attain to truth through a revelation made through nature, in this case, through a study of prophecy and the observing of the stars. We know of any number of people in history- religious seekers, philosophers, artists, students of nature and science- who in all sincerity seek to learn the truth about life and to contribute to the good of our race, and thus prepare their hearts to respond to the grace of a revelation that for them is a source of salvation. In the case of the Magi, Matthew's sympathetic description would seem to imply that it was such study that enabled these men to recognize the appearance of God's son, who is Wisdom incarnate, when he came into the world. Their involvement with nature was a kind of lectio divina, a contemplative penetration of the workings of the physical world with a view to discerning their meaning in terms of the whole, and of the divine Providence that guides all things. In fact, their study of nature and the purity of their lives proved to be a better preparation than the study of the Law and prophets by the scribes and Pharisees of Jesus' time, as Matthew presents matters. St. Leo the Great commented on the significance of the Magi's visit in theological perspective. He understood that their seeking after the new born Son of God was in response to grace, God assuming the initiative.He who gave the sign gave understanding to those who saw it; what he gave them to understand caused them to inquire, and once he was sought after he offered himself to be found (Leon Le Grand, Sermons S.C. 22 (1947) I, p. 188).
The lessons brought out by the story of the Magi are important for an understanding of the meaning of Jesus' birth and of his person. First of all, he is an extraordinary man, destined for great things and specially marked out by God as his Messiah. His mission is significant, not only for the Jewish people to whom he is sent as their spiritual King, but also for all peoples, the gentiles, who are represented by these Magi. His birth has, as well as a historical and spiritual significance, a cosmic one, which is suggested by the appearance of the bright heavenly body. Even the elements of this world serve his purposes, for the star is used by God in a miraculous way to indicate his place of birth and to guide the Magi to him. When the child is found Mary is given a prominence in the scene by being the sole companion of the infant who is mentioned in the account.
The fact that this Feast is known as The Epiphany, which in Greek means The Manifestation, derives from the revealing of the Lord to the peoples of the non-Jewish world as symbolized by the Magi. He appears to these men for what he is, a personage specially commissioned by God and surrounded with special signs of heaven's favor. These wise men from the East are worthy of this manifestation and are able to assess it at its true value, giving homage and worship to the infant whose light now shines upon the world of darkness. Noteworthy, however, are the following developments that call for our reflection. The Magi are guided by the star only as far as Jerusalem. They lost the vision of their heavenly guide when they were in the city; it simply disappeared from their view. This left them literally disoriented, bewildered. They could not proceed further by its light and so were led to consult with those officials who were best placed to provide further directions. They could only describe their recent experience and the meaning it had for them, but were unable to show these citizens of Jerusalem the star itself. Fr. Benedict Schwank, osb, makes the suggestive observation that the reason for this disappearance was the lack of real interest on the part of the dominant people of Jerusalem, the ruler, the priests and the scholars in seeking the truth where it led; they did not truly desire a Messiah of God's choice. [Cf. His article, Nicht jeder sieht den Stern., Erbe und Auftrag 73 (1997), 462]. The local ruler, Herod, did worse: he played the hypocrite and lied, thus infecting the moral atmo sphere of the city. The lesson brought out here for all of us is that not every one can see the star, though it is offered to the sight of those who truly desire it with a deep seriousness.
The fact that the Magi themselves were unable to see the star while in the city suggests that even the well-disposed and good men are impeded by the nefarious influences of a morally unhealthy environment and can be dulled in their perceptions, and darkened in their minds. It is only when they continue their journey, leaving the city where sin reigns, that once again they observe the heavenly light. Outside the city the star reappears and their hearts are filled with a very great joy. Karl Rahner has some pertinent observations to make concerning such experiences as are portrayed here in Matthew's account of the Magi's visit, which reinforce the lesson to be learned from these lines of the Gospel. He applies these reflections to our participation in the Liturgy. In a letter to a friend he puts the matter in this way.The great experiences of life are of course one's destiny, a gift of God and of his grace, but they nevertheless mostly only fall to the lot of those who are prepared to receive them. Otherwise the star rises about their lives but they are blind to it. For the sublime hours of wisdom, art, and love, we must prepare ourselves wholly with soul and body. So it is with the great days on which we celebrate our redemption. Do not leave them to chance; do not drift into them listlessly in an everyday frame of mind. Prepare yourself; determine to prepare yourself- that is the first thing (Everyday Faith, p.23)
Our monastic fathers and the traditions that have formed over the centuries under their guidance and tutelage have always held in view this fundamental principle of the human condition. A person, they well understood, who would cultivate what is most durable and valuable in his being must fit himself for the great work. In this, to be sure, they were but applying a point of teaching emphasized by our Lord himself: "Stay alert! Watch, for you know not the hour of judgment. Be ready, the bridegroom comes on a sudden, at midnight when it is too late to purchase oil for your lamps." Repeatedly, in a variety of parables, Jesus sought to inculcate this lesson, and yet his disciples failed to grasp it until after his resurrection. "Could you not watch one hour with me? he asked them in the garden before he was arrested.
This directive to remain alert and to watch applies to all believers, not only to monks. Rahner himself, a man engaged in a very active and demanding ministry practiced what he teaches here. He would regularly spend time in meditation and contemplation, entering into silence and making it a part of his common practice. In the course of this same letter to his friend, he speaks of solitude first of all, as the way to prepare the heart for receiving Christ.Have the courage to be alone. Only when you have really achieved that, when you have done it in a Christian way, can you hope to present a Christmas heart, that is a gentle, patient, courageous, delicately affectionate heart, to those whom you are striving to love.
Basil The Great had a particularly strong conviction about the need for silence and also for a measure of solitude. He wrote the following words when he was bishop of an important See and carrying many responsibilities, having been called away from the silence and seclusion of his monastery.A remote and solitary dwelling is conducive to avoiding wandering thoughts. To live mingled with those who have no regard for the perfect observance of the commandments is harmful and destructive as Solomon indicates who teaches us this: Do not be companion to someone with a temper, or be a friend to an angry man lest you learn his ways and snare your soul (Prov. 22: 24, 25) [cf. Regulae Fusius Tractatae, VI ,Omnia Opera Sancti Patris Nostri Basiliii 2.1, 479-480].
Basil here makes the same point that Fr. Schwank pointed out in regard to the Magi: living in the presence of ungodly people weakens spiritual perception and communion with God. He describes the stages through which one passes who is immersed in a worldly and ungodly society. After a while the delight in God disappears, nor does one have any taste for his words; as this soci situation is protracted the sense of respect for God's commandments weakens and then dies out until the very memory of them is lost. No greater evil could befall anyone, Basil affirms at the end of his discussion. He then proceeds to present the advantages of living with like-minded persons, dedicated to the same goals of purity of life and contemplation of God and his works. For then we can profit from the gifts of our associates which complement our own. No person suffices to himself and collaboration and sharing with others who are dedicated to the same values is an irreplaceable advantage, even from practical considerations. In addition to the material necessities of life, spiritual goods are multiplied for each member of a community who truly participates in its sharing from the heart. He writesOn the other hand, in living with many others a man enjoys not only his own gifts but also multiplies himself by sharing and he receives from others as if it were his own (op. cit.,VII.2, p.483).
This last thought is finely expressed. It states a particular aspect of that same wisdom that the Magi searched for in their following the divine light. To enter into a community from the heart, seeking to share my own gifts, limited as they are, is to be entitled to receive those of my brothers; they become, at it were, mine by right. This presupposes that I make over all that I am and have to those with whom I live and collaborate. Is there any better way to prepare ourselves for receiving the divine light that leads to Christ and through him to the Father?
Blessed Guerric, in meditating on the presents of the Magi, points out to his monks that they too have gifts they can offer to the Lord and that none is greater than this divine wisdom.Great and altogether blessed is the man who finds wisdom and abounds in prudence- wisdom in the contemplation of eternal things, prudence in the administration of temporal matters. Or, to define wisdom more modestly, the man who knows how to rule himself and another. This gold is more precious than all riches, even than myrrh and frankincense, and all that is desirable in virtue and grace cannot be compared with it. And so let us, brothers, offer what we have to the glory of the new King; and what we do not have, let us ask for from Him to whom we desire to offer it (Sermo I in Epiphania PL 185.1:50).
As we begin this new year may we take these considerations to heart and strive generously to make of our community a source of spiritual health and strength. Each of us is continually contributing to the improvement and health of our brothers or weakening him through our negligence and selfishness. To be sure, at times when we fail due to human frailties we can repair our faults by seeking and granting pardon and otherwise making amends. The measure of our love for God is our fraternal charity and the earnestness with which we strive to expend our selves in service. In such a community as ours which has union with God in prayer as its immediate goal, not only acts of service but even more such occupations as contemplation, fervent lectio and assiduous participation in the liturgy are a major service of charity for the community. Creating a climate of faith, of consistent fidelity to the work of God and of constant prayer contributes markedly to the personal advantage of all members of one's community. The larger community of our guests, of our associates, our diocese as well as the Church throughout the world, in God's merciful Providence, also gain from such a dedicated daily fidelity. In this way is the Body of Christ built up and we attain to union with the Son of Mary, ever Virgin, who is the eternal Son of God and the divine Wisdom sought and found by the wise men, enlightened by the heavenly light.
Abbot John Eudes Bamberger
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