Friday, May 29, 2009

1-4-2009: Epiphany of the Lord (B)

Isaiah 60:1-6 /Psalm 72 /Ephesians 3:2-3,5-6 /Matthew 2:1-12
Epiphany, meaning manifestation, celebrates the revealing of Christ as savior, not only for Israel, but for the entire Gentile world whom those enigmatic Magi represent. So important was this notion of Christ’s universal importance that the early Church would make a feast of the Epiphany before making a feast of the Nativity.

The Magi are a mysterious lot, as their title suggests; our word, magic, being obviously cognate. They were, perhaps, related to the ancient Persians, well-educated in the natural science of the day, expert in ancient astrology, a mix of shaman and scientist with some royal connection – coming from the East, bearing ornate gifts of the Orient, the Magi embodied the exotic and extraordinary. It’s more than a bit ironic that their contribution to Christian faith hinged on their reading of the stars and not the Bible, on their practice of astrology – something long held in contempt by orthodox Christianity.

Astrology didn’t get a really bad name in Christian circles until the seventeenth century Italian abbot Orazio Morandi prophesied by the stars that the reigning pontiff, Urban VIII, would soon die. News of the pope’s imminent demise spread quickly, even to Spain, where cardinals readied for the journey to Rome eager to elect a pontiff more amenable to their particular needs. Urban, needless to say, didn’t take the news of his impending death very well and immediately imprisoned Morandi (soon to die of mysterious causes). No doubt Morandi’s demise was largely due to political realities, but his astrology was condemned as well -- for the conflict it posed for those who read the Bible literally. In regard to the study of the stars, it was during Urban’s reign that Galileo was tried for the second time and his work condemned.

The story of the Magi has an interesting and important theological implication in regard to the importance of the Bible in revelation. The essence of the story is that the Magi, who would have been Gentiles and largely unfamiliar with the Jewish Bible and thus unencumbered by prophesies of Messianic deliverance, were able to see in the Christ child a semblance of divinity and a promise of deliverance. All this the result of their search, their research, “scientific” inquiry; they possessed a dedicated curiosity of the natural world.

In light of the efforts within Catholic circles over the last fifty years to “catch up” to Protestants in their reverence for the Bible (even to the point of imitating a slavish and literalist adherence to the text), it’s good to remember that the Bible itself does not limit God only to his revealed word, but invites all to explore the mysteries of the natural world with unhindered curiosity. The story of the Magi suggests, in a very Catholic way, that the Creator has left vestiges of divinity on his magnificent creation and we human beings, through the light of our own reason, can come to some knowledge of God even apart from his revealed word. In short, the Magi remind us that although what the Bible reveals is true – all truth is not contained in the Bible. There are marvels yet unseen and still unknown awaiting our discovery. The story of the Magi suggests that curiosity-research-discovery is a significant part of our spiritual journey, perhaps as important as our study of the Bible itself.

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