Wise men still seek him.
Aristotle begins his metaphysics with the statement: “All men by nature desire to know.” He taught that men first began to seek wisdom in philosophy because of wonder at the world that they experienced with their senses.
The first man who investigated nature was astounded by the first explanation that he could find, so he was impelled by the truth itself to seek further. This led wise men to discover the existence of God. But this did not still the quest of the mind to know the truth.
This natural desire for knowledge can only be stilled in the direct vision of God in heaven.
“The desire for God is written in the human heart, because man is created by God and for God; and God never ceases to draw man to himself” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 27). For the Jews, this desire of knowledge was partially resolved in the giving of the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai.
St. Paul thought that the law was given to them through “the ministry of angels” (Galatians 3:19). The truth of the natural law was made specific there, and so Christ himself states that salvation would come from the Jews because they were enlightened (John 4:22). They are the community or people of God prepared by God so that the Messiah may come from them.
The Gentiles also search for God and are led to him through nature.
“Ever since the creation of the world, his invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made” (Romans 1:20). Many philosophers of nature can and have come to know the existence of God. They have done this through ordinary experiences with their five senses.
In this quest, the wise men of Israel and the wise men of the Gentiles agree. But again, the mind wants to go further, which cannot happen without grace. Wise men knew they could not solve the problem of man simply by human power. Grace and truth from above were needed. A Redeemer was needed.
In the Epiphany, which means “manifestation,” the Church celebrates the fact that the wise and powerful among the Gentiles come now to know the Redeemer, the King of the Jews, through nature. The Magi represent these people. Their pursuit of Christ via the star was to fulfill the prophecy of Balaam, who announced that “a star shall come forth out of Jacob, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel” (Numbers 24:17).
Christ is manifested to the Jews through the angels because it was through the angels that God revealed the Old Law. He is manifested to the Gentiles through their study of nature and the heavens because it is through nature and the heavens that the pagan philosophers came to know the truth.
The Magi were mysterious figures in the ancient world. They were natural philosophers, which today would mean they were also scientists. They were originally a priestly tribe of the Medes, so they also represent natural religion. They also were of the upper class of society because they brought costly gifts.
They observed a new star in the heavens. This is an external sign to show that faith does demand preambles. Faith and reason do not contradict each other. Faith is not based on myths or fables or mere projections of the human mind or to fulfill a human need.
The star that is brighter than others in the heavens is a “motive of credibility” for the Gentiles. The “preaching of the heavens” (St. Gregory the Great, Sermons, 34) evangelizes the Magi. The star points to a new knowledge that, though it is not contradictory to reason, cannot be attained by reason.
Because the Magi are rightly disposed within, the light of the star outside becomes a light within — the light of faith. They are led by an external light, but they are also led by their faith within. The rays of truth touched their minds and enlightened them with divine knowledge.
They set out on the road led by their faith. Faith for them was “by no means a blind impulse of the mind” (Catechism, 156).
Their faith, which was “a light of revelation for the Gentiles” (Luke 2:32), led them to Israel. Because they were Gentiles, they identified the source of the light, the Creator of the world, with the King of the Jews. They naturally sought him in the city of the king of the Jews, Jerusalem. The wise men of the Jews and the king interpret the prophecies correctly for the natural scientists as to the place of the birth of the Messiah. They offer a true reading of the Scriptures.
“But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me who will be ruler of Israel” (Micah 5:2). Yet because they did not understand that the kingdom of Christ was “one of holiness, grace, truth, justice, love and peace” (Preface for the Solemnity of Christ the King), the star does not lead the wise and powerful men of Israel. There is no faith in their hearts to connect with the light of the star. The Jews who do worship the Child are the shepherds, humble servants of the law.
The star leads the Magi to Bethlehem, where they find Jesus with Mary. They prostrate themselves before him. The powerful, rich and wise of the earth acknowledge that grace is true power, true wealth and true wisdom. They identify the light of the star by the light of faith with the Child.
What a great example for the learned and clever in this age. Science and reason prostrate before faith as servants of divine truth. Knowledge here is not concerned with power, but with the truth of receiving the gift of divine life in humility. Grace becomes the fulfillment of the light of the Old Law. The star of the heart meets the thunder and cloud of Sinai.
Their gifts mystically show the fullness of revelation about the Child: Gold shows he is a king of hearts. Frankincense shows he is God. Myrrh shows he will give us grace by death.
The star of believing should lead all the wise men of each age to see in him the completion of the wonder of their hearts at the nature of the world. The star of believing may have become dim in the present age from the “dictatorship of relativism.”
Many of those considered wise today question whether there is such a thing as objective truth. But God is truth, and the truth of Christ cannot be denied, since it fulfills the quest of the nature of man to know.
“O Herod, wicked foe, why fear that Christ the Lord approaches near; he does not take your earthly sway, Who heavenly kingdoms gives away” (Office Hymn for Epiphany).
a mission preacher and
adjunct professor at
Holy Apostles Seminary
in Cromwell, Connecticut.