TO THE EDITOR, CATHOLIC TIMES, CREDO FOR EPIPHANY, 7TH JAN 2001
FR FRANCIS MARSDEN
“After the miraculous Virgin-birth, a God-man having by Divine power proceeded from a virgin womb, a God was suckled and suffered the wrappings of vile rags in the obscure shelter of such a cradle, a narrow stall, in which Divine Majesty lay in a body more narrow – amidst all this, all of a sudden a new star shone in the sky upon the earth, and driving away the darkness of the world, changed night into day . . “ (St Augustine)
The Epiphany celebrates the revelation of the Messiah-child to the pagan nations, personified by the Magi or wizards from the East. Probably they were Chaldaeans who were known as avid star-watchers, or Persians, for they had in their scriptures a prophecy of the coming of a Saviour-King in the west. Christian tradition has embroidered the story and turned them –incorrectly - into kings.
“Three Kings are here, both wealthy and wise,
Come riding far over the snow-covered ice;
Royal in throng, Noble in song
They search for the child, the redeemer of wrong;
With tambours and drums they go sounding along . . ( Flemish carol)
Every year the newspapers propose new theories about the star of Bethlehem. If it was a natural phenomenon, it may have been the conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter in late 7 B.C. St John Chrysostom comments however that it “was obviously not one of the common stars of heaven” for four reasons. It moved from east to south. It appeared both by day and by night. It disappeared when the Magi were in Jerusalem, and reappeared afterwards. It stood stationary over Bethlehem.
In the Nativity stories we are dealing with history, not myth or legend. The Gospels do not begin with the “Once upon a time” introduction of fairy tales. St Matthew, like St Luke, specifies a definite time and place: “in Bethlehem of Judah in the days of King Herod.”
God speaks to each race in a manner they can accept. The Gentile astrologers did not possess the revealed prophecies of the Jews – instead they are led by a star to worship the true Light. They are invited to escape their subjection to the deadly determinism of horoscopes and the signs of the zodiac, and to discover the freedom of those who worship Christ. “Far be it from the hearts of the faithful to call any thing ‘fate’” comments St Gregory. Christians believe in Father, not in fate.
“Besides that star thus seen with the bodily eye, a yet brighter ray of truth pierced their hearts – they were enlightened by the illumination of true faith.” (St Leo)
When the Magi reach Jerusalem the star disappears. They have no alternative but to consult the Jews. They seek “the infant King of the Jews”, so naturally they proceed to the royal court of Herod. The star symbolises the grace of God, and Herod the devil. Whoever puts himself in the devil’s power loses grace. His guiding light is extinguished. He loses his sense of moral direction. But if by repentance he turn back to grace (the star), he will be led to Christ’s dwelling place, to Holy Church.
Herod was not of Jewish blood. His parents were Idumaean. By Roman favour he held the throne as their vassal. He behaved cruelly to both the Jewish people and his own family. Naturally he feared a genuine Jewish rival to his power-base. He consults the high priests and scribes who know well that the prophet Micah foretells the birthplace of the Messiah:
“And thou, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, thou art by no means least among the princes of Judah, for out of thee shall come a governor, that shall rule my people Israel” (Micah 5:1)
Craftily, Herod invites the Magi to a private audience. He does not want the Jews to suspect his intentions. With savage irony he earnestly requests: “Go and search diligently for the young child; and when ye have found him, bring me word again, that I too may come and worship him.” Note how he declines to acknowledge the child as King. The Magi feign meekness and diplomatic affection, but they will not return to Herod.
From Jerusalem to Bethlehem on foot takes only a couple of hours. The star reappears. “The star is the way, and the way is Christ. He is a blazing and a morning star. Thus, where Herod is, the star is not seen: where Christ is, there it is again seen, and points out the way.” (St Ambrose)
The Christ was born in a Bethlehem stable, not in a King’s court, for good reason
as regards the future history of Christianity:
“Had he chosen the mighty city of Rome, it might have been thought that this change of the world had been wrought by the might of her citizens. Had He been the son of the Emperor, his power might have aided him. But what was His choice? All that was mean, all that was in low esteem, that in this transformation of the world, divinity might at once be recognised. Therefore He chose a poor woman for His mother, a poor country for His native country. He has no money, and this stable is His cradle.” (Theodotus)
The star goes before the Magi, and stands over the house where the child is. Perhaps Joseph and Mary have managed by now to find better accommodation than the original stable. The Magi enter and “rejoice with exceeding great joy.”
Had they been seeking an earthly monarch, they would have been dismayed to find only a baby boy and his impoverished parents. They would have considered their long arduous journey a wasted effort. But “the Spirit showed Him to their hearts in all His wonderful power, they fell down and worshipped, seeing the man, they acknowledged the God.” (pseudo-Chrysostom)
Their gifts are gold for a King, frankincense for Deity, myrrh and Arabian spices for embalming the dead. Gold also symbolises Wisdom, incense refers to prayer, and myrrh stands for the mortification of the flesh.
St Augustine draws this lesson: “Jesus was manifested neither to the learned nor to the righteous – for ignorance belonged to the shepherds, impiety to the idolatrous Magi. Yet that Cornerstone attracts them both to Himself, seeing He came to choose the foolish things of this earth to confound the wise, and not to call the righteous but sinners, that nothing great should exalt itself, none weak should despair.”
God warns the Magi in a dream not to return to Herod, but to go back to their own country by a different route. Herod, made cruel by his paranoia, is driven to deeds of horror. The Holy Family flee to Egypt to escape the massacre of the innocents.
We Christians can learn much from this return of the Magi by a different route, writes St Gregory the Great. “Our country is Paradise [i.e. the Garden of Eden], to which, after we have come to the knowledge of Christ, we are forbidden to return the way we came. We have left this country by pride, disobedience, following things of sight, tasting forbidden food. We must return to it by repentance, obedience, by contemning things of sight, and overcoming carnal appetite.”
St Matthew’s account has two lessons. He draws a parallel between the childhood of Moses and that of Jesus. Moses, hidden in the bullrushes, was saved from death at the hands of Pharaoh’s servants. Joseph and Mary flee with Jesus into Egypt, saving Him from Herod’s military. “I called my Son out of Egypt” is applicable to both to Moses, Lawgiver of the Old Covenant, who received the Decalogue on Sinai, and to Jesus, who will be the new Lawgiver of the New Covenant.
Secondly, St Matthew offers us the Magi as models for Gentile believers who actively seek out Christ. They are contrasted with the Jewish religious leaders, who do not bestir themselves from Jerusalem to investigate these reports of the birth of the long-awaited Messiah; and Herod, whose heart is torn by evil.
Dark the night lay, wild and dreary
Moaned the wind by Melchior’s tower,
Sad the sage, while pond’ring weary
O’er the doom of Judah’s power,
When, behold, the clouds are parted,
Westward-lo, a light gleams far!
Now his heart’s true quest has started;
For his eyes have seen the star. (Welsh carol)