Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of December 25, 2000
The Wise Men need the baby
Without the Creator, the creature comes to nothing
By BISHOP FRED HENRY
Last year, after listening to my Epiphany homily, my niece asked: "You know what would have happened if there had been three Wise Women instead of three Wise Men, don't you?"
Caught off guard, I responded, "No, I don't know."
With more than a twinkle in her eye, she proceeded to enlighten me: "They would have asked for directions, arrived on time, helped deliver the baby, cleaned the stable, made a casserole . . . and given practical gifts."
Appreciating her insight into the complicated area of gender differentiation, I agreed.
The original story of the Magi in the Gospel of Matthew is only 12 verses. Nevertheless, it is steeped in irony, laden with symbols and rich in theological association. The Magi have become the symbolic bearers of many spiritual insights and their story sheds light on some of the common patterns of our lives.
Consider G.K. Chesterton's essay on the three modern Wise Men. They journeyed to a city of peace, a new Bethlehem. They wanted to enter this city and offered their gifts as passports of admission. The first put forth cold gold and suggested it could buy the pleasures of the earth.
The second did not carry frankincense. He brought instead the modern scent of chemistry. This scent has the power to drug the mind, seed the soil and control the population.
The third brought myrrh in the shape of the split atom. It was the symbol of death for anyone who opposed the ways of peace.
When they arrived at the palace of peace, they met St. Joseph. He refused them entry. They protested: "What more could we possibly need to assure peace? We have the means to provide affluence, control nature and destroy enemies."
St. Joseph whispered in the ear of each individually. They went away sad. He told them that they had forgotten the child.
This tale is a critique of contemporary wisdom. The Wise Men come with the benefit of wealth and technology and they think that those assets will bring peace. The story is suspicious of these gifts, but it does not deprecate them. It suggests that in themselves they will not provide access to the city of peace.
The real problem lies not in what the Wise Men brought but in what they have not brought. They have forgotten the child.
It seems that Chesterton's concern is that the modern mind for all its sheer knowledge is divorced from something very simple. He encourages humility. "Go humbly, humble are the skies, And low and large and fierce the Star; So very near the Manger lies, That we may travel far."
The problem is that our mind is not humbly at home on the earth. It is not rooted in the graciousness of divine presence. And without the Creator, the creature comes to nothing.
Western cultural models are enticing and alluring because of their remarkable scientific and technical cast, but regrettably there is growing evidence of their human spiritual and moral impoverishment.
Our culture is marked by the fatal attempt to secure the good of humanity by eliminating God, the Supreme Good. A culture that no longer has a point of reference in God loses its soul and loses its way, becomes a culture of death.
Human life cannot be seen as an object to do with as we please, but as the most sacred and inviolable earthly reality. There can be no peace when this most basic good is not protected. It is not possible to invoke peace and despise life.
Our own times have seen shining examples of generosity and dedication in the service of life, but also the sad sight of hundreds of millions of men and women whom cruelty and indifference have consigned to a painful and harsh destiny.
The tragic spiral of death includes murder, suicide, abortion, euthanasia, as well as practices of mutilation, physical and psychological torture, forms of unjust coercion, arbitrary imprisonment, unnecessary recourse to the death penalty, deportations, slavery, prostitution, trafficking in women and children.
To this list we must add irresponsible practices of genetic engineering, such as the cloning and use of human embryos for research, which are justified by an illegitimate appeal to freedom, to cultural progress, to the advancement of humanity.
Chesterton ends his poem The House of Christmas with these words:
To an open house in the evening
The stories and poems about the Magi illumine shrouded areas, areas where the pains and promises of life are mixed together. Peace will not be won by our affluence and technology until we know the earth as our home and all people inhabitants of a common house.
The Wise Men need the baby to save them from their own knowledge. When they worship the God who lives on the earth, the mind that studies the heavens will be saved. "They went home by another route" (Matthew 2:12). It's time to follow them.
Home shall men come,
To an older place than Eden
And a taller town than Rome.
To the end of the wandering star,
To the things that cannot be and that are,
To the place where God was homeless
And all men are home.
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