The Epiphany of the Lord, the great solemnity when the Church remembers the figures of the three wise men from the east, marks the revelation of the Christ child to the Magi, and symbolically through them, the revelation of the good news of his coming to the whole world.
We call them “wise men”, yet their wisdom was not worldly; in fact, the credulity of the Magi contrasts sharply with the cunning of Herod. Yet the Magi are not fools, they have based their long journey on careful scrutiny of the night skies, much as travelers all across the globe have done until recent times. Even after their audience with Herod they cautiously wend their way from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, following the star’s movements all the while. When it comes to the object of their search, however, their faith is not measured and calculated, but absolute and implicit: the Magi accept without hesitation that a newborn king of the Jews had come to Israel, and they offer him profound reverence, even worship.
Their encounter with the revelation of the Christ child is so clear and so neat; how is ours? The paragraph above points out that faith has to do with two elements of the human person: our will and our intellect. In the case of the magi, their desire to worship “the newborn King of the Jews” urged them on, and their intellect guided them along the way, guileless though they were. We must employ our will in consciously desiring to believe and in moving ourselves toward that end, yet we must also use the intellect that God gave us to carefully weigh the objects of faith brought before us. Long separated from the worldview of the Magi then, when it comes to matters of religion, how do we protect ourselves from the twin dangers of cynicism and naiveté?
In our modern-day reception of the Word of God’s revelation and our encounter with our faith, we must face these opposing possibilities, giving in neither to a false certainty about the power of our intellect, nor to an all-too-eager reception of ideas that could lead us astray. Both can derail our journey to adore the Christ child, to share in his life and teaching, and to inherit the redemptive fruits of his cross and resurrection.
When it comes to revelation and its legitimate interpretation the Church has long told her members that we must bring all of our intellect to bear on the mystery of salvation—yet not to presume that we can entirely grasp it by that intellect alone. Similarly, the Church has counseled her faithful that we are not to be credulous, rejecting the rightful place of the intellect in our journey of belief, and preferring old wives tales or superstition to the living Word.
How do we strike a balance then, between the twin dangers of religious naiveté and smug empiricism when it comes to what we believe? Years ago, the then Anglican minister, now Catholic blessed John Henry Newman proposed that it is love which serves as “the safeguard of faith against superstition”. Love acts as well to protect a person from the arrogance of false intellectual pride, for it tolerates neither folly nor hubris.
As we begin a new year with great hopes and aspirations may we imitate the Magi and let the love—the greatest of the Christian and human virtues—be the moving force behind our faith, enabling us to enter into the mystery of the Christ child with both humility over his gracious invitation to us, and joy over his sharing his nature and wisdom with us through the gift of divine revelation. Together then, we will be able to say with Isaiah the prophet: Rise up in splendor, Jerusalem! Your light has come, the glory of the Lord shines upon you. (Isa 60:1).
Edward Mazich, O.S.B.