THE GOODNESS AND LOVING KINDNESS OF OUR SAVIOR AND GOD HAS APPEARED (Titus 3:4). The word for appeared, epephane, in this text from the Epistle to Titus, is the same from which the name of today's feast derives. The Epiphany is the appearance or manifestation of the Word of God in the flesh, born of man of the Virgin Mary. This feast has a strongly oriental flavor to it, largely because it celebrates the visit of the three Magi from the East. An important feature of this commemoration is the recognition of the divine origin of this child by these Zoroastrian priests and natural philosophers, in today's term, astronomers.
This occasion recalls not only the appearance of the Son of God but the fact that he is recognized for what he is by men of learning and good will who are disposed to pursue the truth concerning God's Providence wherever it leads them. This is not a minor feature of this story, for it has vast implications for the mission of spreading the Gospel truth to men of good will in all cultures and times. People are much better disposed to accept the Church's preaching when they are informed that their ancestors who lived by the truth their best efforts disclosed to them were following the light of the Logos, The Word of God manifested in nature. That same word has become man and appeared to the eyes of discerning men dedicated to searching out the will of heaven as best they could. As recently as Vatican II this teaching was reaffirmed and stated quite formally in the document Lumen Gentium where we read the following statement.
Those also can attain to everlasting salvation who through no fault of their own do not know the gospel of Christ or His Church, yet sincerely seek God and, moved by grace, strive by their deeds to do His will as it is known to them through the dictates of conscience (§ 16).
This same principle applies not only to pagan philosophers. It is equally the case that all men of good will who, through no fault of their own have been unable to arrive at an explicit belief in God and consider themselves atheists, but who live according to the dictates of their conscience, following the laws of nature as they understand them, can please God and find salvation. They are, unknown to themselves, being assisted by grace, as the same Conciliar document affirms. This feast, then, has a particular bearing upon the universality of the salvation brought by Jesus, who is manifested both to Israel in the person of his mother and Joseph and to the distant persons of good will who live by the light of reason that is obscurely illuminated by God's grace.
The Magi serve an even broader purpose. In addition to serving as a symbol for all those who recognize God when he manifests himself under an unexpected form, they represent those who act upon the light they receive and follow where God's grace leads. They are figures of all who are keenly aware of their need for God's mercy and redemption They go to great pains to seek him out so as to pay him homage. They are grateful for his guidance and devote themselves to carrying out his will. It is not enough to have the faith revealed by Christ in his Church; we must also experience the sharp necessity for God's mercy in the form of guidance and further insight into his revelation if we would find him in the freshness of his life. Not all who know of Christ so believe in him and his Church as to desire ardently to see and honor him. St. Bernard speaks of the fact that it is only those who experience strongly that the life they know here on earth is an exile who truly respond to the manifestation of God in the birth of Jesus.
Thanks be to God through whom our consolation has been so great in this sojourn in a foreign land, in this exile, in this misery. We have often taken pains to admonish you concerning this matter so that we might never forget that we are foreigners , far away from our homeland, expelled from our inheritance. For whoever does not know his desolation cannot recognize his consolation. Whoever does not know consolation is necessary must do without the grace of God. And so it happens that men of the world, implicated in affairs and disordered passions, while they do not feel their misery do not look for mercy (In Epiphania, Sermo I.1 PL 183:141).
Quisquis enim desolationem non novit, nec consolationem agnoscere potest( For whoever does not know his desolation cannot recognize his consolation). These words apply not only to pagans and atheists but to all. We as monks, to be sure, have known enough of our desolation to have decided in practice to transfer our allegiance from this world to that world where alone true consolation is to be had, the world where God is all in all. In entering the monastery we choose to place our hope for satisfaction and accomplishment in serving God in this life and resting in fulfillment with him for eternity. But before long we discover by painful proofs that there is much in us that remains firmly anchored in this world and implicated in its doings. Though we are not engaged in actual affairs yet we find many of the same attitudes and affections that we sought to leave behind have followed us and remain active enough to influence our thoughts, desires and acts to some extent. We come across these passions in our daily living as we strive to attain the height of holiness that we are called to as monks. In this way we discover how deeply we are mired in misery. We have many kinds of help to free ourselves from this swamp that clogs our steps and halts our advance. These helps take the form of prayer, good advice, community life, the word of God and sacraments, and yet we repeatedly find that we have not managed to sever the bonds that bind us to the things of this world alienated from God. This struggle after inner freedom so as to conform to Christ's teaching and example is itself at once a misery and a joy. A misery because we suffer from the faults that are felt and acknowledged; a joy because in resisting their pull and striving to overcome the appeal of the immediate gratifications they promise, we realize we are laboring with Christ, bearing the cross with him. The hope of eternal life strengthens our determination to persevere until we shall have proved worthy of his eternal consolation.
Even now, we have the encouragement of faith in his promises and the consolations that derive from our repeated discoveries of his goodness and loving mercy toward us. Contemplating the sacred mysteries surrounding his Incarnation puts us in touch with God's great benevolence and introduces us afresh to the working out of his plan of salvation. One of the conditions for finding joy in God and his Providence is poverty of spirit. We must free ourselves from desires for other satisfactions and set our hope and desire on knowing the Lord and being united with him. This is a great labor that we are to undertake and persevere in day by day throughout our lives. As we confront our divided self and come to perceive more sharply just what divides us we are in a position to choose more deliberately and effectively to renounce our former ways and to employ our resulting inner freedom in the more intent search for God. No matter how far we might have progressed along this path, there will always remain further progress to cover. Nature never dies in us; rather, it ever impels us to gratify our instincts both corporal and psychic. The desire for affection, recognition, affirmation and approval from those whom we admire or respect ever waxes strong in us. We can only turn it to God and the things of God so that we seek such approval where it supports our spiritual search. For it is God alone who gratifies radically the need for that approval that recognizes the proper measure of our worth as his children.
As we have already observed the Epiphany then has as its formal theme the manifestation of our Lord to the Gentiles, the nations of the world as represented by the Magi. But there is animplicit issue as well- their recognition of him as the Savior of the world. This feature is essentially bound up with his revealing himself in the humanity of his Son. Manifestation, epiphany, is God's reaching out to us; recognition and acknowledgment of his kindness and love and acceptance of him as truly divine is our response to God's initiative. St. Bernard had adverted to this feature of today's feast and insisted on it in his talk in chapter to the community of Clairvaux.
God is immense and infinite in justice, just as he is in mercy. He is lavish in forgiving, and lavish in avenging. But mercy takes the priority so that if we choose strictness will find no one to rage against. He has first dispensed mercy so that reconciled by it we might confidently look upon severity. The fact is that he wished not only to descend to earth but also to become known; not only to be born, but to be acknowledged (op. cit., 4 PL 183: 133).
When Bernard has an issue he wishes to stress more particularly he frequently brings his point home by using the literary devices of poetic rhythm and rhyme. He does that in this passage where the Latin of the last sentence reads: "Propterea voluit non solum ad terras descendere, sed etiam innotescere; non solum nasci, sed agnosci." Our response is what God looks for in the birth of his son. What kind of a reception will he receive from us? How clear sighted will our welcome be? Will we perceive God manifesting himself in this infant who is found in a stable, alone save for his parents, poor in his possessions and ignored by persons of consideration? The abbot of Clairvaux well understood that for contemporaries of every age the infant Messiah can be a scandal for those who judge with the eyes of this world. Only those who, being enlightened by the guidance of grace, follow the lead of its light as the Magi followed the star in the heavens will be able to penetrate the veils that conceal divinity. This test the Magi passed; they did not stumble or hesitate but showed spontaneous worship to the infant whom they acknowledged as the world's Savior. Bernard depicts their response as follows.
What are you doing, O Magi? What are you doing. You adore an infant at the breast in a wretched shed, in cheap clothes. Is he God then? God certainly in his holy temple, Lord whose throne is in heaven and you seek him in a stable. What are you doing in offering him gold. Is he then a king? Then where is his royal hall, his throne, his courtly throng? Is the stable a royal hall, a crib the throne, Joseph and Mary his court? How have the wise thus become foolish that they adore a child contemptible for his age as well as for his poverty (op. cit., 5)?
Of course, for some decades now many academics have come up with the view that the story of the Magi has no basis in history; rather, it is a kind of fable, they say, or an explanatory story, or midrash, devised to show that our Lord is the fulfillment of Balaam's prophecy that "a star will arise out of Jacob." For me this is a non-explanation that poses more problems than it solves, but there is nothing in our faith that precludes such a reading of the text if it makes you happier. The ancients, however, and their successors for about 1900 years had no such critical misgivings. They were convinced the Magi's visit was historical and that Matthew had access to facts. Many went too far in this direction of historical literalness, giving names to the Magi, and claiming to have preserved their relics (a claim which is certainly legendary). This kind of popular elaboration would seem to arise from the human propensity to abhor a vacuum and to fill out historical blanks with facts devised by the fancy of the more imaginative among the unsophisticated. As a monument to this legendary amplification stands one of the most impressive buildings in Europe, the Cathedral of Cologne. It was built as a vast memorial to their name in order o house their relics. This great church attests still today to the popular appeal of these holy men of science and wisdom.
For all Christians, in any case, the Magi as depicted by St. Matthew, continue to represent important features of the spiritual life that will always be valid requirements for attaining to union with God. For one thing their earnestness in acting on the light given them by God. The Magi were a caste of learned Zoroastrian priests in the distant land of Medea or Persia, given to both scientific observation and religious reflection and study. They had to travel a great distance, at considerable discomfort and even danger, in order to follow up on the revelation they were convinced came from God. Their trip had to be planned well in advance and was costly in terms of time and wealth. In short, to follow the light they had to make deliberate choices that entailed sacrifice and the facing of the unknown in a foreign land. The same applies to anyone who undertakes to seek God. The transcendent world where God inhabits infinity is an unknown land and the way to it passes by many a difficult and at times dangerous path.
Before they could set out on such a venture these men had to know where to go. They received intimations of this voyage from their application to their calling. This meant years of faithful pursuit of knowledge by a daily discipline of study. Their study included the traditions of their own religion as well as that of other peoples. It also entailed working as a community in making observations of the stars and planets and sharing the fruits of their meditation on their scientific data. In short, they were given to what the Greek Fathers later called Theoria Physike, the contemplation of history and nature with a view to recognizing God's action and attributes as manifested in creation. Their fidelity and sincerity in this form of life served to purify their hearts so that they were able to perceive a sign given by God through nature and were prepared to act upon the spiritual urgings that prompted them to leave their own land and seek the God- sent King.
While the story of the Magi is not an extended parable yet it is a kind of general model that all of us must follow who would attain to true knowledge of God, and learn to acknowledge and serve him in the manner he chooses to reveal himself. Understood in this way the story of the Magi and the Epiphany of Jesus is as pertinent today as ever it was. We too must purify our hearts by lives of reading, study, prayer, meditation and contemplation. We must be prepared to follow wherever God's merciful love and light lead us. Only then shall we be among those who recognize in the lowly circumstances of the birth of Jesus the manifestation of God's divine Son and the Savior of the world. If we faithfully pursue this path of daily application to prayer, lectio, work and communal sharing we too shall be able to see that THE GOODNESS AND LOVING KINDNESS OF OUR SAVIOR AND GOD HAS APPEARED in this new born child, and, obedient to his example and teaching, return to our true country in the way God reveals to us until we meet with him face to face in the presence of the Father.Abbot John Eudes Bamberger
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