“As with gladness men of old
Did the guiding star behold;
As with joy they hailed its light,
Leading onward, beaming bright;
So, most gracious Lord may we
Ever more your splendor seek.”
William C. Dix
If the point of the Lord’s Circumcision is to establish unmistakably his connection to Israel, to the flesh and blood of a people rooted in human history, then what is the point of his Epiphany if not to reveal, in that same flesh and blood, the sheer universality of Christ’s saving event? So that just as the horizon of his appearance will ultimately transcend the tribes of Israel, his immediate target nevertheless remains a tribal people peculiarly set apart from all others. The movement therefore is from the few to the many, Jew to Gentile, ethnic to eternal. The Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, who in the most stunningly concrete way became one of us, now manifests his intention to encompass the whole of humanity from within the ambit of a single historical figure, a Galilean no less, who happens also to be God.
What had heretofore been the exclusivity of a single people—the People of the Book—their identity forged by no less an architect than God himself, now gives way to the inclusivity of a God determined on the salvation of an entire universe. The Jew whom it was once thought so odd of God to choose, indeed, to embrace with unending nuptial intimacy, becomes the bridge over which God himself will cross in the most daring descent imaginable. In other words, for God to dispel the darkness of sin and death, and so to summon all creation into an everlasting light, he must himself become that very bridge.
Luigi Giussani gives us a marvelous illustration of this in one of his books. Imagine, he says, a vast plain on which great numbers of people stare in stupefaction at the distant stars. How they long to touch the heavens! Yet, for all their superb engineering skills, there is simply no way for them to throw a bridge across so infinite a space. And so all at once, as it were, and in a manner totally unforeseen by anyone, a Voice speaks, telling them to stop. “There is an insurmountable disproportion between you and the farthest star in the sky, between you and God. You cannot imagine the Mystery.” Any attempt to do so, moreover, will only lead to sadness and frustration. “Now leave your hard thankless work and follow me: I will build this bridge for you, rather, I am this bridge! Because I am the way, the truth, and the life!”
It is not in any of the details surrounding the Christmas Story itself, including the cutting of the foreskin of the Child eight days after his birth—the seal of God’s most intimate membership in the House of Israel—that we find an intimation of the ultimate strategy of the God and Father of Israel. Rather it is in the mysterious encounter of the Magi from out of the East that a first glimpse of what is to come is presented to us. That and the strange assortment of gifts they lay at the feet of the Child to whom they have come to pay homage. What do these presents represent? Well, the gold is clearly a gesture meant to announce kingship; the frankincense points to the worship due a divine king; and the myrrh is a reminder that here is a king who has come among us to die.
But why did these wise men set out in the first place? What possessed them, members of an alien race and religion, to travel so far in search of a king of whom they knew almost nothing? “It is because,” writes Pope Benedict XVI, “of a deep desire which prompted them to leave everything and begin a journey. It was as though they had always been waiting for that star.” And so in their faith-filled peregrination, they embody the desires of all who long for something more, for that very star of hope which beckons us all.
How strangely eloquent the dumb universe conspired to speak of God’s coming on that blessed night! A single star shone in the heavens, giving silent witness to the Child whose birth the magi are directed towards. And so “unutterable” was its light, as St. Ignatius of Antioch recounts in one of his letters, that its very strangeness awakened the wonder and amazement of the world. “And all the rest of the constellations with the sun and the moon formed themselves into a chorus about the star; but the star outshone them all.”
Pope Saint Gregory the Great has embroidered beautifully upon this theme. “When the king of heaven was born,” he writes, “the heavens knew that he was God because they immediately sent forth a star; the sea knew him because it allowed him to walk upon it; the earth knew him because it trembled when he died; the sun knew him because it hid the rays of its light.”
It was, however, the star-studded showing on that magical night that especially drew the magi to Bethlehem. Traversing great distances, they eagerly lay before the Child King on whom the luster of the heavens shone, the plundered wisdom and power of pagan antiquity. The Light of the Nations had at last come, the sudden luminosity of whose appearance in human history no one could possibly have predicted. Here was the true Lumen Gentium awaited by all who languish in darkness; he would burst with singular brilliance upon the world.
A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.
So begins T.S. Eliot’s “Journey of the Magi,” a beautiful poem in which the musings of one of the magi are recorded late in life (“All this was a long time ago, I remember…”), recalling the events of a journey that would upend the world itself. And after his account of the special difficulties and distractions faced along the way, he asks himself whether, in the end, it was birth or death that they experienced. “There was a Birth, certainly,” he assures us,
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and
But had thought that they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.
And why shouldn’t he long for death, the world Christ suffered to enter having been subverted and blown to pieces by his scandalous coming among us? The old dispensation is over and done with; like the great god Pan, it can never return again. Thus the bright rays emitted long ago on that first Epiphany night, continue with unceasing warmth and light to radiate outward, reaching the most distant shores of time and space.
At the Mass celebrating the great feast of our Lord’s Epiphany—certainly the most dramatic monstration yet of God’s love, the parish choir where we regularly attend Mass sang the lovely 19th century hymn by Wm. C. Dix, “As With Gladness Men Of Old.” It seemed to me, listening to the heartfelt words, the answer to every prayer of man on the planet, including especially the prayer of those who were the first to follow the star that leads to God:
Holy Jesus, ev’ry day
Keep us in the narrow way;
And, when earthly things are past,
Bring our ransomed souls at last
Where they need no star to guide,
Where no clouds thy glory hide.