Commit your way to the LORD;

trust in him, and he will act. . .

. . .  For the wicked shall be cut off;

but those who wait for the LORD shall possess the land.

Yet a little while, and the wicked will be no more;

though you look well at his place, he will not be there.

But the meek shall possess the land,

and delight themselves in abundant prosperity. (Psalm 37: 5;9-11)

In the earliest days of the Church Epiphany was one of the most important observances, perhaps second only to the great Feast of the Resurrection at Easter.  Even before Christmas existed as a Christian holy day, believers gathered on January 6th to celebrate the Epiphany, i.e., the “revealing” of Jesus as the Son of God in some combination of the Incarnation and the Nativity, the visit of the Magi, and the Baptism of Jesus.  A few years back the Catholic bishops in the United States determined that they could best impress the importance of this feast on their flock by moving it to the nearest Sunday, rather than keeping it in its ancient home on the sixth day of the year. Whatever we may think of that decision, it does give me another opportunity of discussing  those mysterious visitors to newborn Jesus described in chapter 2 of Matthew’s Gospel, the Magi.

Detail from the medieval polychrome choir screen in Paris’ Notre Dame Cathedral, Paris
 

Let me begin with an observation from my post on this year’s liturgical celebration of Epiphany this past Sunday. I described the Blessed Mother as exemplifying St. Augustine’s famous description of theology: fides quaerens intellectum, “faith seeking wisdom.”  The Magi, too, are the very personification of fides quaerens intellectum. Their faith isn’t the Jewish faith, of course, and they’re decades too early to know the Christian faith . . . although they do come to Christ.  We are not sure exactly who they are where they come from.  Matthew doesn’t tell us that they’re kings, or how many of them there are.  He simply describes them as  μάγοι ἀπὸ ἀνατολῶν, magi (sometimes translated “wise men”) from the east (Matthew 2:1). The term magi suggests that they may have been Zoroastrian priests from Persia. In any case, they come following a star, a sign from God.  They put themselves into God’s hands, trusting in him to lead them to a “newborn King of the Jews.”  When they are led to a seemingly ordinary baby boy with undistinguished parents, they still trust that he is nonetheless worthy of their kingly gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Their trust in God’s guidance, that is to say their faith, is rewarded one last time when they are warned in a dream to avoid the murderous King Herod on their way home.

Ah yes, let’s not forget Herod.  Where the Magi embody trust in God, Herod is the man of action who puts his trust in his own worldly power. His lack of faith blinds him.  He’s unaware of the Messiah being born in his own backyard.  He lives in mortal fear of losing his power (which is not, in fact his own power at all: he is a puppet kinglet under the control of the Emperor across the sea in Rome, who can remove him at his pleasure).  In his fear and rage, he lashes out with deadly violence against the innocent baby boys of Bethlehem.  It’s all to no effect. With all his worldly power he can’t stop the coming of the Messiah, or even save his own life: he is dead shortly after the birth of Jesus, and his already small realm is divided into four even smaller pieces among his heirs.

Wise Men Still Seek Him, Print by Jennifer Pugh   

We can learn a lot from the faith of the Magi.  There is a popular meme that has made its way onto countless Christmas cards: a picture of the Magi with the inscription “Wise Men Still Seek Him.”   How often do we, who have the full revelation of Jesus Christ and his Gospel, instead seek our own worldly agenda, following the example of miserable King Herod? St. Paul tells us that “the wisdom of this world is folly with God. For it is written, ‘He catches the wise in their craftiness . . . So let no one boast of men. For all things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future, all are yours; and you are Christs; and Christ is Gods.”   (1 Corinthians 3:19; 21-22).

That’s a star we all can follow.

Music for Epiphany

Some of you may disagree, but it seems that the quality of Christmas songs sharply declines beginning in the mid twentieth century.  Happily, here are some exceptions. One of them is posted below: the 1963 Bing Crosby recording of “Do You Hear What I Hear?”

The song was composed by Noël Regney and Gloria Shayne in the midst of the fear and anxiety of the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, and a version by the Harry Simeon Chorale was released that year. Bing Crosby’s recording the follwing Christmas made the song a favorite.  It features the star from Matthew’s Gospel, and a king who is decidedly not King Herod:

Said the king to the people everywhere
Listen to what I say! (Listen to what I say!)
Pray for peace, people, everywhere
Listen to what I say! (Listen to what I say!)
The Child, the Child sleeping in the night
He will bring us goodness and light
He will bring us goodness and light

Featured image: Interview of the Magi and Herod the Great, by J. James Tissot late 19th century

Lyrics

Do you hear what I hear?

Said the night wind to the little lamb
Do you see what I see?
(Do you see what I see?)
Way up in the sky, little lamb
Do you see what I see?
(Do you see what I see?)
A star, a star, dancing in the night
With a tail as big as a kite
With a tail as big as a kite

Said the little lamb to the shepherd boy
Do you hear what I hear?
(Do you hear what I hear?)
Ringing through the sky, shepherd boy
Do you hear what I hear?
(Do you hear what I hear?)

A song, a song high above the trees
With a voice as big as the sea
With a voice as big as the sea

Said the shepherd boy to the mighty king
Do you know what I know? (Do you know what I know?)
In your palace warm, mighty king
Do you know what I know? (Do you know what I know?)

A Child, a Child shivers in the cold
Let us bring him silver and gold
Let us bring him silver and goldSaid the king to the people everywhere
Listen to what I say! (Listen to what I say!)
Pray for peace, people, everywhere
Listen to what I say! (Listen to what I say!)

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