The Epiphany of our Lord

January 3, 1999: Chapter


THE GOODNESS AND KINDNESS OF OUR GOD AND SAVIOR HAS APPEARED (Titus 3:4). God is essentially good; his goodness is commensurate with his nature. As St. Thomas Aquinas puts it, …good is attributed to God inasmuch as all desired perfections flow from Him as from the first cause. This goodness of God is essential, pertaining to his very nature. Boethius, the sixth century philosopher and theologian had already considered this question and was one of Thomas's teachers. He underlined this point, showing that only the perfectly simple being can be essentially good; he observes that all things but God are good by participation for they are composite, not simple; their existence is distinct from their being. That we creatures exist at all depends upon the goodness of Him whose essence it is to exist.

That God is essentially good means that He acts from the impulse to create that which gives happiness, completes and perfects. He has care and concern for all He has made, and devises means to assure their well being. These attributes have always characterized God's behavior toward us, His creatures, but they have not always been sufficiently manifest for our human race to recognize them for what they are in practice. That there is a Great Spirit, an Absolute, a Transcendent One, an Eternal Being many peoples have believed. Some have become convinced that there is an All-Merciful One who comes to the aid of true seekers, as in the case of one branch of Buddhism. The Muslims hold this view of God as well, based on a revelation as they maintain, made to Mohammed.

But it is only with the appearance of Christ Jesus in the flesh that the full extent of God's goodness and humanity reveal themselves in so far as that is possible in this world of time and matter. The measure of God's kindness is seen not only in the newborn Christ child but also in the whole of the life and the death and resurrection of the Lord.

This persuasion is what led St. Paul to write to Titus in the terms cited above: THE GOODNESS AND KINDNESS OF OUR GOD AND SAVIOR HAS APPEARED. The Feast of the Epiphany celebrates the birth of Christ viewed as this manifestation of God's loving plan for human kind to the Magi, considered to be representatives of all the nations of earth. Rupert of Deutz views them in this light and sees their three gifts as summarizing the Christian faith.

Saying, Where is he who is born, they confessed him as man; saying king of the Jews, as King; we have seen his star, as God. Again when they opened their trunks and offered him their gifts: Gold testified to the king, incense to God and myrrh to hi s mortal humanity. This, I say, by an admirable and venerated gift of grace has been conferred on the nations by one inspiration…. They brought forth from the good treasury of their heart a summary of the Christian faith, both by their voice and their gifts.

Recognition of Christ for who he truly is is reserved to grace, as Rupert makes very clear. Indeed, he calls such a grace marvelous and something to be venerated. St. Augustine, whom Thomas cites in his treatment of God's goodness, mentions an important condition for recognizing truths of faith when he writes that the Trinity is the supreme good, discerned by purified minds (De Trinitate ii). The Epiphany has at its central figure Christ revealed as God and man. He is knowable as such only to the eyes of faith. Living faith not only enlightens the mind, it functions also to purify the heart. Under its influence the spiritual senses are rendered capable of discerning divine truths otherwise hidden to the human mind. The Gospels do not go into the question of just how clearly the Magi, the shepherds, even Mary and Joseph saw into the mystery of our Lord's true identity. Certainly all were enlightened by faith that convinced them that this child stood in a special, even unique relationship to God. The more explicit descriptions of his identity and the implications of his dual nature while remaining a single person required some centuries to be formulated with some measure of precision that still respects the mystery of this union. But the essential content of these later insights are but the spelling out of what Mary, Joseph and these privileged participants were given to see in the new-born infant: Jesus is both God and man. Rupert comments on several of the various revelations given in connection with the appearance of Christ in the flesh.

Having considered these texts interiorly faith, which is able to test noble countenances and knows how to distinguish them from the common, recognizes the magnificent nobility of her king. She believes and confesses with grateful praises that only this man is noble among the human race and that he alone is suited to reign. She understands as well that to profess his service is the true and unique liberty.

There are different opinions today as to the historicity of the Magi and the account of their visit to the newborn Christ. Some scholars maintain that the Magi are introduced by Matthew as a form of Midrash, that is to say, as an elaboration of certain theological points he wishes to make. There do exist parallel accounts in antiquity which describe visits by magi, for example to the court of Nero. There is also a rather elaborate Midrash (Midr. Rabbah to Exodus 1) that has elements in common with Matthew's version. Accordingly, some, like David Hill, conclude that

These stories are constructed around a series of testimonies (Num.24: 17; Mic. 5.1,2; Hos. 11.1), and are, despite their sobriety of tone, primarily instruments of theological statement rather than examples of historical description

Others scholars have quite a different way of viewing this account. For example W. C.Allen states with confident assurance a contrary view.

The main outlines of the story of the Magi is in many respects noteworthy for its historical probability. The expectation of a world's Redeemer, or in Palestine of a Jewish Messiah; the interest of Eastern Magi in these questions; their presence in the west to do homage to the supposed Savior; the inference from Mic 5:1 that Bethlehem was to be his birthplace: all this violates no historical probability…. The modern theory, that the story is a literary fiction, based only upon legendary motives and folklore analogies, violates every probability. In view of the matter of fact character of the editor of this Gospel, it is almost certain that he believed that he was transmitting matters of actual fact.

Of course, this does not necessarily mean there is no literary embellishment at all. One need not hold the star served precisely in the way the Gospel describes. Few stories have captured the imagination of people and artists as this one; in some mysterious way it speaks to everyone's heart who is at all seeking the deeper truths by which to guide life.

When St. Luke treats of the birth of Christ, it is the poor, marginalized shepherds whom he presents as the first to receive a revelation as to his identity as Messiah, King of the Jews. St. Matthew, on the other hand, whose Church had experienced the reluctance of the Jews to accept the Lord, but had seen many gentiles readily give their adherence to the Gospel, tells of magi, gentiles from the East, as the first to adore Christ as the true King. These gentiles are not poor outsiders but wealthy, cultivated men of consideration. The Magi are types of scholars and contemplatives who study nature in order to attain to spiritual truth as well as scientific knowledge.

All efforts to arrive at knowledge of God contribute to purity of heart and thus prepare one for accepting grace and arriving one day at a saving acceptance of the light God gives them. The very search is already a response to grace offered by God through natural attraction of mind and character. The Magi illustrate this truth. They go as far as the light of reason used under grace can carry them; then they ask of those who have the revelation of the prophets and thus come to their destined end. Examples of men and women who attain to faith in this way continue to present themselves in our times. Whether the study is history or physical sciences people are still finding their way to God by their application in a spirit of sincere desire to follow where the light of reason takes them. Most perhaps do not advert to the role of grace until after they make the great discovery of God's existence and providence. Only then retrospectively, and with attentive analysis of their experience in the light of faith, do they become conscious of God's having led them all along. It is always fascinating to hear or read of the witness given by such persons. Alexis Carrel is one such scientist. A Nobel prize winning physician who was an atheist until he studied a case of disseminated turberculosis miraculously cured at Lourdes.

The graces received from the search for truth continue to apply as well not only to converts but also to all who study, meditate and contemplate the word of God and events in the world with the sincere desire to discover what God's will is for us. These kinds of activities make up a large portion of our monastic life in our own continuing search for union with God. Such a search, far from being completed upon conversion to Christianity takes on a fresh urgency once the believer is given a glimpse into God's goodness and the deposit of revelation. The lifelong task of all believers consists in a striving for an ever more full understanding of the revealed realities that offer so much light to the minds and hearts of all who pursue them. While prayerful study contributes a good deal to such enlightenment, this knowledge is gained especially through penetration into the depths of life in Christ. It is by experiencing something of the realities of life with the Father in prayer, in his preaching and by sharing in his sufferings and death that the faithful advance on the way to union with him and so share more fully in his goodness.

Persistence in this search requires considerable ardor and a strong determination born of desire to attain to God, and to serve His interests as fully as possible. For there are many obstacles to staying the course to the end, some from without but the more dangerous from within. After years of struggling with some of the same persistent passions and attitudes that are contrary to the ways taught by the Lord, the temptation to grow weary or discouraged can suddenly arise and lead to discouragement. How deeply rooted are our selfishness, our need for recognition, our desire for visible success and other success, for sensual satisfactions! No one can be sure of having definitively overcome any one of these human propensities; each of us must learn ways to confront them and weaken the scope of their influence upon us. Those who know themselves well realize that while habits can be controlled and their influence diminished, even made latent for an extended time, yet suddenly one or other will surely return and, perhaps with renewed vigor, test our determination.

St. Bernard was surely one of the great spiritual figures who best understood how fragile and exposed to temptation the best of us remain all our lives. He often returned to this theme of our misery and the need for self-knowledge. In his first sermon for this Feast of the Epiphany he addresses this topic in his opening paragraph. He demonstrates the relation between such awareness and the fervent desire for grace; more specifically, this strong sense of human misery leads to the joyous recognition that Jesus comes as our Savior, manifesting by his birth the goodness of God.

The goodness and kindness of God our Savior appeared. Thanks be to God through whom our consolation so abounds in this pilgrimage, in this exile, in this misery. I have often been concerned to warn you on these points that they should never depart from your mind: we are strangers, we have been made distant from our homeland, expelled from our inheritance. Whoever does not recognize his desolation can not know his consolation. Whoever does not know that consolation is necessary, it follows that he may not obtain the grace of God.

Bernard was very much in touch with the realities of life. He knew how easily we slip away from such consciousness of the limits and miseries that life inevitably brings. We readily devise ways to avoid dwelling on such disconcerting truths when they do make their appearance. Life in the world abets such evasive tactics, with the result that people taken up with the demands of business and other urgent affairs, do not look out for mercy. He points out however that monks have no such excuse. We are given leisure precisely in view of learning to experience the sweetness of the Lord which is our consolation. But for this to happen we must live as exiles to this world.

You, I say, whom worldly occupations do not detain pay attention to what is spiritual consolation. You who are not ignorant of living in exile listen, for heaven comes to your aid. For the goodness and kindness of God has appeared… It was promised but not sensed and so many did not believe.

In Latin the word translated here as kindness is humanitas which means at once kindness and humanity and so effectively associates God's benevolence with the appearance of Jesus in the flesh at his birth. St. Benedict, incidentally, uses this Latin word in his Rule when he treats of The Manner to Receive Guests (ch. 53). In this context it means giving them a good meal. Humanitas is a practical expression of kindness; it is the quality of a person who responds considerately to the needs of human nature. Monks are to cultivate and assiduously practice such considerateness; it is integral to Benedictine spirituality. As we observe in this text, it has a firm basis in the theology of St. Paul who discerns in the appearance of Jesus in the flesh a manifestation of God's humanitas in dealing with humankind.

This way of conceiving the birth of Jesus is carried through elsewhere in the New Testament. St. John's Gospel reveals that the Beloved Disciple had given much reflection to this question of the meaning of the Incarnation and birth of Christ and, like St. Paul, came to recognize that it expresses God's tender love for our race.

God so loved the world that he gave His only begotten Son that everyone who believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. God did not send His Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through him (3:16-17).

May our celebration of this Feast of the Epiphany this year be an occasion for us to grow in confidence based on the goodness and kindness shown us by God in giving us the grace to recognize his Son and to accept him as the one who leads us effectively to the Father. The witness of faith is a major role of monastic life in the world today as it has been from the time of the first monks. The strength of our communal witness depends on the purity, depth and intensity of the belief of each of us. But faith without acts amounts to very little. Let us resolve to show our gratitude to God by putting into effect those things that the Lord revealed as particularly pleasing to his Father and our Father. Above all else that means we are to cultivate a charity that is sincere and pure and which seeks the common good in the service of others. Wherever Christians live in this spirit there is an Epiphany, a revelation of the goodness and kindness of God, revealed in his Son and the members of his Mystical Body.

1.Summa Theologica Ia 6 art.2

2. Cf. Quomodo Substantiae In Eo Quod Sint, Bonae Sint PL 164:1311- 1314 where Boethius, whom Thomas cites, treats of this question at some length and with subtle analysis.

3.In Quarto Evangelio VII PL 164: 1540

4.Op. cit., III PL 164: 1537

5.New Century Bible: The Gospel of Matthew, p. 80 Attic Press1978

6.A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Gospel According to S. Matthew, Edinburgh, 3rd ed., p. 14.

7.Sermo I.1 In Epiphania Domini, PL 183: 141C

Abbot John Eudes Bamberger

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Abbey of the Genesee

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