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The Quest Of The Magi And Our Own In 2019

January 11, 2019 Featured Today No Comments

By JAMES MONTI

How truly fitting it is that the celebration of the Epiphany, the visit of the Magi, should come at the beginning of January. For just as the Magi set out on a quest “into the unknown” to find and pay homage to a Newborn King they as yet knew not, scarcely imagining that their journey would lead them to an encounter with the God of the Universe Incarnate, so too, the beginning of a new year in January sets us on a quest into the unknown, none of us really knowing for sure what the year will bring. In this new year there is heightened anxiety as the Church finds herself in particularly uncertain and dangerous waters.
The journey of the Magi could be said to be the first great Christian pilgrimage, the prototype for the pilgrimages to Jerusalem, Rome, and Compostela over the centuries that followed. Acting under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, St. Matthew gives us just the bare essentials regarding these “wise men” and their expedition to find the Christ Child.
Clearly the star of Bethlehem caught their attention because it was somehow unprecedented, not like the other stars, but what was it that led them to recognize in the star a divine message announcing the birth of a new king of Israel? Did they find this star prophesied in some ancient text, now lost? And why would this have been of so much interest to them as Gentiles that they would set out on a quest to find this royal Infant and salute him with costly gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh?
Were they all from the very same country or from different places, and if from different places, what led them to make the journey together? Did they perhaps individually discover the star and then meet the others along the way, deciding subsequently to proceed together? And were they indeed kings, even though St. Matthew does not mention this?
I personally believe that the tradition concerning the Magi as kings three in number deserves respect. Modern culture habitually assumes that nearly everything our forefathers believed was somehow fabricated, invented to fool credulous minds, but modern scientific and archaeological findings, such as those examining the most revered relics of Christendom, have increasingly vindicated the beliefs of our forebears. The Magi as they have been described and depicted for centuries can be found in a twelfth-century scriptural commentary, the Collectanea et Flores of Pseudo-Bede:
“They are the Magi who gave gifts to the Lord: the first is said to have been Melchior, old and gray, in a long beard and hair, clothed in a crimson tunic, and a black mantle, and shoes with mingled crimson and white handiwork, as well as a turban of varied composition; he offered gold to the Lord King. The second, with the name Gaspar, a beardless young man, ruddy, clothed in a black tunic, a red mantle, crimson shoes; with frankincense as a worthy oblation to God, he honored God. The third, black, entirely bearded, with the name Balthasar, having a red tunic, clothed in a white embroidered garment, with black shoes. By the myrrh he is professed the Son of Man going to die. But all of their clothes are Syrian” (text in Patrologia Latina, volume 94, column 541).
Even with a tradition as detailed as this, so much of the “why” and “how” of the journey of the Magi remains totally hidden in the mists of history. Like so much that is sacred, it is wrapped in wondrous mystery. But so is that other pilgrimage we are all making — the pilgrimage of our own lives toward the Heavenly Jerusalem.
In a fallen world, it was inevitable that the pilgrimage of the Magi would encounter evil along the way. This came when they were close to their destination, and in the holy city of Jerusalem, no less. For it was there that they came face to face with a wolf in sheep’s clothing, Herod the king, who feigned that he wanted to go worship the Christ Child when in fact he wanted to slaughter Him. The Magi at first took Herod at his word, but when they were later warned in a dream to steer clear of him, they changed their plans and “departed to their own country by another way” (Matt. 2:12).
In our own pilgrimage to eternity we also encounter evils that are ultimately the handiwork of Satan. Among the lessons to be learned from the recent scandal in the Church is just how extremely dangerous heresies are, for often enough they are the breeding ground of moral depravity.
The great twentieth-century Catholic writer Dom Anscar Vonier (1875-1938) observed, “Heresies . . . are each one a yawning abyss ready to swallow up the army of God” (The Spirit and the Bride, London, Burns, Oates and Washbourne, 1935, p. 161).
Explaining that “the hatred of heresy is the adoring love of God’s ever-blessed truth,” the English Oratorian Fr. Frederick William Faber (1814-1863) comments:
“I have another unpopular complaint to make. The old-fashioned hatred of heresy is becoming scarce. God is not habitually looked at as the sole truth; and so the existence of heresies no longer appalls the mind. It is assumed that God must do nothing painful, and His dominion must not allow itself to take the shape of an inconvenience or a trammel to the liberty of His creatures….What the many want they must have at last” (“Heaven and Hell,” in Fr. Frederick Faber, Spiritual Conferences, London, 1860, pp. 374, 372, respectively).
Modern heresies are driven by a desire to bring the spirit of the world into the Church, but this is a lethal error. For years now, the annual celebration of New Year’s Eve in New York’s Times Square has been marred by the playing of an all too famous pop song — just moments before the New Year begins — that exhorts the listener to imagine a world without God and without religion, in which the only thing to live for is the here and now. It presents this as a dream devoutly to be hoped for, a dream of secular salvation for the New Year — but it is fact a dream of Hell on Earth.
In an exhortation to his fellow English Catholics suffering imprisonment and death for their faith during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, the Jesuit martyr St. Robert Southwell (1561-1595) warns that succumbing to the spirit of the world brings a fate worse than bodily incarceration:
“Greater darkness hath the world, which inveighs and blinds not only the eyes, but the hearts of men. Heavier chains and shackles doth the world lay on us, which do fetter and entangle our very souls. Far worse odor and stench doth the world breathe out, I mean, ribaldry, carnality, and all kind of brutish behavior” (An Epistle of Comfort to the Reverend Priests, and to the Honorable, Worshipful, and other of the Lay Sort restrained in Durance for the Catholic Faith, Paris, 1588, fol. 102v).
Having the courage to stand tall against the spirit of the world, to part company with the world just as the Magi turned away from Herod, is for a believing Catholic the only true path forward: “. . . for a Catholic, who has Christ for his auctor [author], the Apostles for his witness, all former saints for testimonies, how honorable it is to suffer in God’s quarrel” (St. Robert Southwell, in ibid., fol. 103r).
Upon learning that the high and the mighty of Jerusalem knew nothing of a Newborn King of the Jews, the Magi did not lose faith. And when at their journey’s end they discovered this Newborn King living in dire poverty and obscurity, they were not scandalized. Rather, they prostrated themselves before Him and went ahead with offering Him their most precious gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Our Lord said, “…blessed is he who takes no offense at me” (Matt. 11:6).
To all too many modern biblical scholars, the Infancy narratives are such a “scandal” that they tell us not to believe them. They seem “scandalized” that our Lady conceived virginally and remained a perpetual virgin, scandalized that God would set a special star in the sky to announce the birth of His Son, scandalized that He would summon wise men from afar with this star to come and worship His Son.

Beautiful Gifts

But their hermeneutic of doubt is itself a myth. A new generation of faithful Catholic Scripture scholars is supplanting these skeptics and reaffirming the veracity of the Gospels.
It is worth noting that the Holy Family does not refuse the costly gifts of the Magi nor do they rebuke them for their presentation. The idea that Christ refuses to have anything precious or magnificent built, sung, painted, sculpted, sewn, or molten in His honor because He lived in poverty needs to be consigned to the trash bin of history.
Our Lord’s birth in the poorest of surroundings doesn’t mean that He is merely “one of us” and wants to be treated as such. It does testify that He wants to draw us into the closest communion with Him by sharing in our human condition, and that He has come to serve, in humility, for our salvation. But His birth in a lowly manger also affirms how infinitely He transcends everything created — that He is so infinitely above all He has made that by comparison, gold is scarcely better than hay as His bed and princes scarcely better than barnyard animals as His attendants.
Yet like a father who gladly receives the best of what His child is able to give Him as a present, our Lord welcomes our strivings to offer Him the most excellent and beautiful gifts we have to offer.
With a star as their guide, the Magi would have had to rely upon the cover of darkness, the coming of the night, to see their way forward, to see and follow the star. Is our journey forward in life any different? Does not the hand of the Lord steer us under the cover of darkness, directly forward into an uncertain future of unforeseen events? But He steers us with the same loving hand with which He upheld St. Peter when he began to sink into the water (Matt. 14:31).
God sees what we cannot see, for as Blessed John Henry Newman (1801-1890) observed, “He knows what He is about” (Meditations and Devotions of the Late Cardinal Newman, New York, Longmans, Green and Co., 1903, p. 302). So let us trust in God’s plan for the new year: Procedamus in pace.

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