Sunday Thoughts: The Treasure in the Field

Deconstructing fairy tales is like deconstructing a ming vase; it’s easy to do, but it says more about you than about the subject itself. When some wag sniffs at the ‘love at first sight’ trope, or writes smarmy novels about Cinderella realizing how shallow her love for Prince Charming really is, it only shows the narrowness of her own mind.

Remember, narratives are always inadequate to the reality. You are always going to miss something. The question, then, is what elements of the real thing are you going to portray and why, with the goal being to convey the true, complete nature of the thing as much as possible.

Love at first sight, leading to an unyielding desire to possess the object of ones affection, is not how things usually play out day-to-day in real life. It is, however, the true pattern of an ardent love; you recognize the other for the thing you desire and you put all on the line to win her and keep her. In the context of the real world, that recognition likely takes place over the course of a good deal of time and, since we’re flawed beings, may be imperfect. In any case, there will always be elements about her that could lead you to think that you may have made a mistake at some point. But the pattern holds good; success comes in finding what you want and committing wholly to it.

As you will notice, this pattern is itself a copy of the greater pattern that Christ speaks of in today’s Gospel readings: the man who found a treasure in a field, then went and sold all he owned to possess it, or the merchant of pearls seeking one of great price who, when he found it, sold everything he owned that he might have it.

The point both here and in the fairy tales is that the hero discovers something that is worth making the baseline of his life; the thing to which all else can give way because its value exceeds them all. It is the thing that gives context and meaning to all else, and thus takes precedence over all else. It is your purpose, your destiny. Lose that, it won’t matter what else you have. Achieve it, and you achieve all.

It used to be that this pattern was repeated on earth in a minor key. And it still is in less noticeable measures; the desire to serve a noble cause and a great leader is baked into the heart of man. In legend, a young knight would consider it the highest honor to be in service to King Arthur or Charlemagne, and would endure anything for that opportunity. More recently, hundreds of men signed up to serve with Roosevelt’s Rough Riders, and many were disappointed to be turned away. The chivalrous spirit has, as an essential part of it, unyielding loyalty to one’s master and cause: to the Faith the knight defends and the King who serves that faith. In practice, it wasn’t so much important that the king be a good king; it was the unyielding loyalty, the submission of the self that matters. David, one of the prototypes of the Christian Knight, continued to serve King Saul even while Saul was seeking to murder him.

The virtue of devotion must be practiced in an imperfect context – to King, to country, to wife – because that is the one we know and see and thus can’t fool ourselves over. If we say “I’ll be loyal to Christ because he is perfect, but not to my country because it’s imperfect,” then we probably won’t be loyal to Christ either if He ever asks us to do something difficult or something we don’t understand. Indeed, how often do we hear people today saying things like “I love Jesus, but I don’t think he cares about my sexual habits, or about usury, or about whether I go to Church.” Because we don’t have the habit of devotion, of serving the imperfect, we have instead the habit of ‘serving’ only as we see fit. Which, of course is not serving at all. A soldier who only follows orders that he himself judges to be correct and sensible is claiming the rank of a general; a knight who only obeys his king when he would have done the same thing is claiming the rights of a king. If we have no experience of actually serving, how will we know to serve God? “He who is loyal in small things will be loyal in great ones.”

Hence, the narrative pattern of giving all for the desired object; the princess, the treasure in the field, the pearl of great price. Hence the pattern of the noble knight who wants nothing more than to serve the good king. These are, in fact, the correct way to look at life, despite slurring over the details.

Christ, our Lord, our maker, our redeemer, is the foundational value; the base from which all other value proceeds. To be of the Kingdom of God — to be ‘in service’ to Christ — is the supreme glory of the human person and ought to be our greatest desire.

Sunday Thoughts – Corpus Christi

I think one of the great problems of the contemporary world is that we undervalue the material aspect of things. I’m sure that sounds shocking, given how materialistic we are, but actually our materialism is only what is to be expected from the undervaluing of matter. Because as with lust to sex, the evil of materialism isn’t that it gives matter too high a place, it’s that it gives it the wrong place. It takes it out of context and so values the wrong aspects. It’s as though we are appraising a book without being able to read, and so we judge it on the typeface and the quality of the pages.

Our materialism is founded in a denial that matter has any intrinsic meaning; the reductionist view that, “the material does not convey Grace, or beauty, or importance; it only helps to elevate our minds to them because we have imputed meaning to these things.” The throne is just a chair and the king is just a man who happens who is imputed to have authority because he is supposedly the best qualified. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. A flag is just a piece of cloth. The sacraments are only symbolic expressions of faith.

And matter, consequently, has its importance defined as “does it keep us safe and comfortable?” It is no longer a vehicle of spiritual elevation and communion with God, but only of pure pragmatism. Call it a soft Manichaeism.

The problem is that we only experience the world materially, just as we only read through letters. If you deny that the letters have any meaning and try to sever the letters of the poem from the words, then you soon only have a jumble of symbols on a page. And if all you have is a jumble of symbols, then you can do with them whatever you like. The actual purpose of the letters – the words – has been obscured, and so the letters at once seem to be the only relevant factor and to impose no obligations on us. We don’t have to form actual words or coherent successions of sound, just an arrangement that pleases us. The disconnection of the meaning from the letters leaves the letters both the only concrete thing and without any actual value of their own.


Christianity, in contrast, teaches that matter is not only good, but meaningful. Physical actions create and correspond to spiritual realities, from eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil to painting doorposts with the blood of a lamb. Most importantly, God Himself became Man. A real flesh-and-blood man, born of a woman, with all that implies. His physical actions with that body created a new spiritual state of affairs for the mankind which He is now a part of.

Not only that, but this same body of His is the means by which He works His salvation upon us (and this is where things get really interesting). He tells us ” Except you eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink his blood, you shall not have life in you.” (John 6:54). Now, what happens when we eat something? It is broken down and the relevant nutrients become part of our bodies. So, when we eat the flesh of God, God becomes a part of us. That is, we become part of Christ’s body when we eat His flesh. As such, we participate in His resurrection and glorification, as we are now physically related to Him. It’s sort of like how we are physically related to our family members (at least in the sense of there being a real material link), but conveyed in a different manner.

The feast of Corpus Christi reminds us of this relation. More fundamentally, it ought to remind us that material things are not to be treated as if they were just material. Because there is a Body of Christ, let no one hold the body as such in contempt.

The Conquest of Death

For by a man came death, and by a man the resurrection of the dead. And as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. 
-1 Cor. 15: 21-22

God never undoes what He once does, nor unsays what He has once said. When man brought death upon himself through the sin of Adam, God’s plan of redemption was never to remove it, so that man would be immortal again. For man is such that he partakes in his own creation: God brings him into being, but he permits man, of his own free will, to have a hand in what he will finally become. Our first father could be said to have made sin and death a feature of humanity, and God would not revoke that.

Instead He showed His supreme majesty by transforming death into the means of life, and of a new and higher form of life. A truly masterful artist who finds a blot on his canvas won’t throw the canvas away and start over; he will incorporate the blot into his painting so that it seems to have been intended all along. God, who is the supreme artist, not only incorporates the blot that Adam made, but transformed it into the focal point of His masterpiece. Death is no longer only the supreme shame and punishment, but the path to glory and the new creation.  And this is done, not by a mere fiat of God’s, but through the obedience and humility of a Man; a Man who is God, but no less a Man for that, taking mankind itself into the eternal Godhead. He has not so much abolished death, but conquered it, subdued it, and forced it into His service.

Because Christ is risen from the dead, this fallen world of ours is no longer a dead end, but a pathway, which He has marked out, leading through death to our true home.

Authority in the Passion

The concept of authority has been on my mind quite a lot lately. There’s a whole lot to delve into there, especially since it’s a subject we moderns tend not to understand very well. We tend to think of it as either consented rule (which would make it synonymous with ‘counsel’ or ’employment’) or oppression. In fact, authority means the power to impose a moral obligation on someone to obey. A father, for instance, imposes bedtime by his authority; his child is obliged to obey whether he wants to or not. Likewise, if I own a book, and you try to take it, I can, by my authority as its owner, order you to return it and thereby impose a moral obligation on you to do so, whether you wish to or not. Even in our own, liberal society, a substantial part of the electorate explicitly does not ‘consent’ to rule by the President, yet (for now) we generally accept that they nevertheless have a moral obligation to follow his leadership and not try to set up their own, separate government.  

Now, with regards to the Passion of Our Lord, remember that Christ stands in place of mankind; in place of sinners. Therefore, it was necessary, as I understand it, for Him to be condemned by people who, humanly speaking, had the authority to so condemn Him. Had He been stoned, as St. Stephen, there would have been no ‘reparation’ on behalf of mankind; no connection between Christ’s sufferings and the guilt of humanity. Mob murder by those who do not have the right of judgement is only a crime, with no moral implications for those who are not involved. St. Paul was complicit with Stephen’s martyrdom since he was there, but Pilate wasn’t.

But Christ is suffering on behalf of and in place of all mankind. This great mystery requires that mankind as such should condemn Him, and thus it must be by those who have a right to speak for mankind. It must be by those who stand in authority over Him, and His execution must be by ‘legal’ means.

Who has authority? First of all, the high priest, whose duty it is to represent God to the people and the people to God. The Mosaic priesthood, centered around the Temple and descending from Aaron, was at the time the voice of God upon earth. It was the legitimate, true means of rendering Him worship and of speaking His word (corrupted and stagnant though it had become; Christ Himself reminded His hearers that the Pharisees “sit upon the throne of Moses” and so the people were to “do and observe all they tell you” (Matthew 23: 1-3). The authority remains, even in the hands of bad actors (as indeed is shown by the fact that the priesthood even remains after setting up idols in the Temple back in the days before the exile). Thus, Christ is first tried by Caiaphas and the elders, who condemn Him for blasphemy because He claims to be the Son of God and ‘makes Himself equal to God’ (keep that in mind). They have the right to condemn Him, though they obviously are not right to do so.

However, as Caiaphas says to Pilate, they don’t have the right to execute Him, under Roman law, and so they go from the Temple to the praetorium; the seat of the Roman governor. From ecclesiastical authority to secular authority. Note also that, while Caiaphas can condemn Christ as a blasphemer and cast Him out of the Temple, he cannot take His earthly life. That power rests in the secular, earthly authority of Caesar, represented by Pilate.

Here is something interesting (to me at least). Rome rules Judea, and indeed the whole world. But is that authority legitimate, given that they are an occupying foreign power? The answer to that comes when Pilate tries to evade the issue by sending Jesus to Herod: the subordinate ruler of Galilee and (as I understand it) the present claimant to the throne of David. Herod, however, declines his authority by sending Him back to Pilate, and Christ seems to deny it as well by refusing to speak with him (He does speak with Pilate, at least a little). There is no legitimate authority left in that throne.

The authority of Rome is then further confirmed in that most unfortunate outburst of the priests: “we have no king but Caesar.” In their zeal to kill Jesus, they deny God in favor of secular authority.

Thus it falls to Rome, the legitimate representative of Man on Earth, to condemn the Son of Man. Indeed, Christ Himself acknowledges that authority: “thou shouldst not have any power against me unless it were given thee from above” (John 19: 11). Which is to say, all legitimate authority, including the authority by which Pilate condemns Christ, comes from God. Were Pilate’s authority illegitimate (as was Herods and as was that of the crowd that sought to stone Him), he would have had no power over Jesus.

But then, another interesting point is that Pilate, of his own authority, doesn’t want to condemn Jesus. He is obliged to do so by the threat of the mob; the people. Note that Caiaphas had no such pressure, but rather orchestrated it. Secular authority is never as secure as it seems, and ultimately is always handcuffed by what the people will allow (call it consent of the governed if you like). It is, therefore, the people who condemn Jesus, using the legitimate government as their instrument.

Again, Christ is standing in place of mankind as a whole, taking on our sins and giving satisfaction for them. Therefore, He must be condemned by those who have the right of judgment.

And what is He condemned of? First blasphemy, by the priesthood, and then sedition, by the government. The same basic criminal idea breathed through two contexts. The condemnation is that Christ seeks to usurp or undermine legitimate authority.

Which is the very crime that Adam committed: “ye shall be as gods” (Genesis 3:5). Indeed, it is the basic crime behind all sin, seeking to set ourselves up as knowing better than God, as ruling in place of God, as denying and undermining His authority.

The condemnation was unjust because Christ, as the Son of God, is the one man in all the world who never has nor could commit that crime. He suffers and dies in place of those who do; namely us.

Some thoughts from ‘The Infidelity of the Future’

Today at lunch I refreshed my mind by reading St. John Henry Newman’s sermon The Infidelity of the Future. Some of his main points, with brief thoughts:

*The great evil of our time is the Spirit of Infidelity itself.
Has it never struck you as odd that we consider terms like ‘unorthodox’ or ‘unconventional’ to be complimentary, rather than, at best, merely descriptive? It seems to me that one of the basic assumptions of our age is that any established system is, for that very reason, a bad system that ought to be attacked (which, of course, is one reason why we often go to such lengths to pretend that old structures and standards are still the norm). We celebrate people simply for rebelling against established modes, even when those modes were objectively better than their rebellion, simply because we delight in disobedience (well, at least when it isn’t directed against ourselves). Such is the world in which we live.

*Christianity has never, before the present age, encountered a simply irreligious society.
For most of its history, Christian evangelism has been directed at converting people from belief in false gods to belief in the True One. It would be misleading to say that today it is about converting people from non-belief, since I don’t think there is any such thing. Rather, the peculiar feature of today’s superstitions and false religions is that they are mostly materialistic or at least atheistic: where the ancients said ‘fate’, they say ‘social influences’ or ‘genetic determinism’, and what the ancients attributed to the gods, the modern attributes to something like history or evolution. This means the first step is often convincing people that there is a God and that He is concerned about us; very few people today – in or out of the Church – really believe that.

*Evangelization does not primarily come through argument, but by the ecclesiastical spirit; by living the Gospel.
This isn’t to say that argument is irrelevant or that Catholics shouldn’t know their faith, but that the important part of calling others to Christ does not happen through argument, as if God were an intellectual proposition. Ultimately, He calls whom He wills and He works the conversions of hearts. Our part is to model and preach what we believe

St. Cardinal Newman, of course, puts all this a lot better than I do, so I encourage you to go and read his sermon. And whether you do or not, pray!

Sunday Thoughts

I sometimes wonder, as I’m learning the ins and outs of coding, how the individual programs and methods and the like would conceive of their existence. I can picture skeptical, hard-headed programs saying “all that’s really happening is that we take one set of 0s and 1s, compare it against another set of 0s and 1s, and readjust our own sets accordingly. Isn’t that so much simpler than positing some intelligent user who has some unimaginable purpose for us?”

Meanwhile, unbeknownst to him, those 0s and 1s allow us to listen to this:

Of course, it is, at bottom, a series of logic gates programmed to act a certain way, just as even in person, it is, at bottom, a set of sound waves set on the air in a certain pattern.

Materialists of one stripe or another are fond of this ‘at bottom’ argument: “That nebula that you think is so beautiful and inspiring is really just a collection of atoms jostling together with no rhyme or reason,” or “what you call ‘love’ is nothing but biological processes.”

The question, though, is whether ‘at bottom’ is the same as ‘in the truest sense.’ And, as the example of the symphony indicates, there is a serious problem with that idea. The program that allows us to listen to Beethoven may be a set of simple logic gates ‘at bottom,’ but the only reason those gates are arranged as they are in the first place is for the sake of allowing us to listen to the symphony. That is, the symphony that we hear did not arise from those logic gates; they exist for the sake of the symphony.

It is the Aristotelian distinction of causes; the material cause (the logic gates) only exists because the Final Cause (the desire for the music) existed first. The material cause, in itself, is barren. In the same way, a series of electronic logic gates, if that is all you have and know, will get you nothing. They are only useful at all when you realize you can use them for a given purpose.

Thus, if you say “love is only biological processes”, it is at least as proper to say “those particular biological processes are really love; what love looks like on that level.” At best, they are equivalent. Because no one experiences simply biological processes, just as no one sees atoms; the experience of love or the nebula are the substance, the underlying mechanics the shadow.

And we’ll go one step further; we ourselves are in the same position as the programs; the things we do have significance beyond anything we can see or imagine. This is the idea of the Sacraments: seemingly simple material actions – words pronounced, bread consumed – but we trust on faith that they have meaning and effects that we couldn’t conceive of, any more than our sentient program could have imagined the symphony.

All created things, in fact, are like this; they flow into one another, not in the Eastern sense of being a single organism under different aspects, but in the sense that each, in its individuality, is part of something more than itself. I imagine that God enjoys the dance of the atoms for its own sake, but their interactions create the world of matter, which in turn creates the world of life, which leads to man, and the interactions of man create the family, then the nation, than the interplay of nations creates…well, who knows? Just as in a symphony each individual note and line may be beautiful in itself, but also goes to make up the whole, and just as in a good story every character and incident is properly placed to compose the whole, yet is no less itself for that, so God’s creation is a single, harmonious dance made up of things good in their individuality.

In other words, when speaking of things happening ‘at bottom’ it would be more accurate to say, not “this is only this” this but “this is also this.” It is part of the whole individual, glorious thing we call a symphony, or a program, or a nebula, or a man in love, which in turn is part of the whole, harmonious, glorious thing we call ‘Creation.’


Mass Meditations – Sacrifice and Coronation

Before going to Mass today, I brought up the Enthronement Ceremony for Japanese Emperor Naruhito, intending to watch it later, though I perused a few photos and brief footage from it.

In this frame of mind, I went to Mass and a number of thoughts went through my mind. I don’t know how much foundation or antiquity these ideas have; they are my own, though naturally informed by the writings of other men. Take them for what they are worth.

First is that the Mass is the participation in the Sacrifice of Christ. In all sacrificial rituals that I am aware of, and most notably the Jewish rituals, an essential part of the sacrifice is the eating of the victim. Thus, in consuming Christ’s Body and Blood, we are partaking in His Sacrifice, which is re-presented for us in the Mass (that is, Christ was sacrificed once and for all – God sacrificed to God – but by miracle that same event is mystically presented to us in the consecration of the bread and wine).

At the same time, it is also a coronation. Christ comes to rule over us, to take His rightful place as the Lord of our bodies and souls. His minister and representative bears Him in and presents Him to us for our veneration (traditionally, we bow to the Priest as the minister and bearer of Christ as he enters and leaves the sanctuary). Which, of course, is part and parcel with the Sacrifice. A sacrifice is an act of obeisance, a sign of submission to the authority of the Deity. Even more so in this case, the sacrifice offered and the Deity offered to are one, so that in partaking of the sacrifice, we also welcome our Lord in to rule over us.

Of course, just as a sacrifice is an act of submission to divine authority, so too is a coronation. The monarch is placed under the rule of the People even as he takes his place as ruler over them. He is ‘sacrificed’ in the act of taking authority, made into a type and figure of the people themselves. Which, of course, Christ also did in His Passion, becoming the new ‘type’ of humanity; Man sacrificed on behalf of Man to God, and God to God.

Here we’re touching on what I find to be a key theme in theological and philosophical matters; that as you approach the Divine, distinctions break down. Rather than reducing things into ever more precise and ever smaller taxonomic categories, apparently distinct things blend together into a common and irreducible whole. Sacrifice and Coronation are revealed to be, in fact, a single thing that we experience under different forms; namely, the submission of man to the Divine and the elevation of the individual to the archetype. The more you really look at God and Man, the more that apparently distinct things – male and female, individual and society, authority and obedience – blur and reveal themselves to be parts of a singular whole. This is what we should expect from Christian teaching, which holds the God is absolutely simple (in the sense that He has no ‘parts’; He is what He is), and that His act of creation is a singular, coherent act; not like how we build something where we say “I want it to do this, which requires this, but then I’d need that to compensate for the other…” For God, His action is absolute and simple; a singular, coherent whole of which we experience a little bit at a time. Thus, when we speak of His Wisdom, His Wrath, and His Mercy, we’re not describing distinct moods or acts of His, but rather how His singular nature strikes up against us in this particular moment.

We’re getting into very deep water there, which I’m not really qualified to navigate. To return to the Mass coronation and sacrifice, the core of it is, of course, the Consecration and distribution of the Eucharist, which is the actual participation in the sacrifice and ascension of the King. The ritual in the lead up to it is, like all such things, a matter of context. In a coronation, the pageantry and speeches, the ritual of it, is meant to place the king in context of his nation and people. A coronation must be done according to ritual, the repeated, traditional pattern born out of history, because a people are their history and their traditions (again, definitions turning to simplicity; a ‘nation’ cannot exist without history, religion, language, customs, and so on). The oaths, the speeches, the ministers are all a matter of context; recalling to the King and to the people what he is and what they are.

In the Mass, we begin with prayers confessing sins and begging pardon, then to proclamations of God’s absolute and singular sovereignty, then to the readings from Scripture, all meant to prepare the mind and heart to receive the Lord, recalling Who and What comes to rule over us, Who and What is sacrificed and Why. The Homily is meant to clarify the readings and other teachings. It is the human touch, the one thing which the priest himself contributes (for you can’t have a purely structured system; you need a man’s judgment and presence to ensure it works ‘on the ground’ as it were). This is followed by the Creed proclaiming the content of our faith, then petitions, then the consecration itself. Finally, just before the presentation and distribution of Our Lord Himself, the recital of the prayer that He Himself gave us. Then, after the distribution is the final blessing and (in the old form) the recital of the preamble of St. John’s Gospel, the most complete and concise summation of the Christian faith in Scripture. It is all a singular event directing to that union with Christ which is at once the participation in His Sacrifice, the reception of Him as King, and the being taken into His being.

You see, it is a singular event, but one that we can’t describe fully, so we have to ‘tack back and forth’ as it were, describing it now this way, now that. Pretty much all the things of God are like that; you can’t fully describe them in a single definition, you have to now emphasize one side of it, now the other, and always aware that you’re not getting the whole in. That is one of the signs that you’re really dealing with something of God. Real, natural things don’t fit into easy formulas; does the lover or the beloved command greater rule? But the more the lover loves, the greater the beloveds hold over him, and the more the beloved desires to be loved, the greater the lover’s hold over her. Is the individual or society supreme? But society can only exist through individuals, and is only as good as its constituent parts, yet the individual cannot survive or even come into being without a community and typically reaches his full realization only in the context of communal service. The greatest men are those who give of themselves in service.

The riddles of God are wiser than the formulas of men.

Sunday Thoughts: 1-5-20

Feast of the Epiphany

Reading 1: Isaiah 60: 1-6

Arise, be enlightened, O Jerusalem: for thy light is come, and the glory of the Lord is risen upon thee. For behold darkness shall cover the earth, and a mist the people: but the Lord shall arise upon thee, and his glory shall be seen upon thee. And the Gentiles shall walk in thy light, and kings in the brightness of thy rising. Lift up thy eyes round about, and see: all these are gathered together, they are come to thee: thy sons shall come from afar, and thy daughters shall rise up at thy side. Then shalt thou see, and abound, and thy heart shall wonder and be enlarged, when the multitude of the sea shall be converted to thee, the strength of the Gentiles shall come to thee.

The multitude of camels shall cover thee, the dromedaries of Madian and Epha: all they from Saba shall come, bringing gold and frankincense: and shewing forth praise to the Lord.

Reading 2: Ephesians 3: 2-3A, 5-6

If yet you have heard of the dispensation of the grace of God which is given me towards you: How that, according to revelation, the mystery has been made known to me… Which in other generations was not known to the sons of men, as it is now revealed to his holy apostles and prophets in the Spirit: That the Gentiles should be fellow heirs, and of the same body, and co-partners of his promise in Christ Jesus, by the gospel:

Gospel: Matthew 2: 1-12

When Jesus therefore was born in Bethlehem of Juda, in the days of king Herod, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem. Saying, Where is he that is born king of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the east, and are come to adore him. And king Herod hearing this, was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. And assembling together all the chief priests and the scribes of the people, he inquired of them where Christ should be born. But they said to him: In Bethlehem of Juda. For so it is written by the prophet:

And thou Bethlehem the land of Juda art not the least among the princes of Juda: for out of thee shall come forth the captain that shall rule my people Israel. Then Herod, privately calling the wise men, learned diligently of them the time of the star which appeared to them; And sending them into Bethlehem, said: Go and diligently inquire after the child, and when you have found him, bring me word again, that I also may come to adore him. Who having heard the king, went their way; and behold the star which they had seen in the east, went before them, until it came and stood over where the child was. And seeing the star they rejoiced with exceeding great joy.

And entering into the house, they found the child with Mary his mother, and falling down they adored him; and opening their treasures, they offered him gifts; gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having received an answer in sleep that they should not return to Herod, they went back another way into their country.


With the Epiphany, we have ‘wise men from the East’ coming to Jerusalem in search of the newborn King of the Jews, bearing suitable gifts to offer in homage. That is to say, pagan scholars from a distant land – probably Persia – have learned, by their own arts, that Christ the Messiah is come, and they have undertaken a long, arduous journey to behold Him and pay Him honor. Indeed, it is said that they are guided there by “the star,” and through counsels in dreams.

What does all this mean?

Consider these three men; scholars of a distant land. They are educated men, brought up to be philosophers, astrologers, masters of knowledge and the keepers of lore. They are, presumably, literate men. We can imagine them, in their homes or workshops or libraries, pouring through scrolls and manuscripts, committing vast reams of words to memory, even from boyhood. They were relatively wealthy men, as they could travel and bear gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

In the course of their research, perhaps, they found a pattern, or a prophecy. They saw “His star at its rising.” One can picture them looking over their work in awed wonder as they realized what these signs meant; one can imagine them telling their colleagues, trying to convince them of what they had found. Perhaps one or more of them needed convincing from the others. On the strength of their studies, they had faith enough to understand what that “Star” meant and to follow it for perhaps hundreds of miles to a little village in a backwater province of the Roman Empire, where they found a peasant couple and their newborn baby.

The timeline of the Gospels is a little ambiguous. The shepherds around Bethlehem, we know, were the first to hear of His birth and pay Christ homage in the flesh. My own understanding is that the second were Simeon and Anna in the Temple. Then third come these wealthy, educated pagans out of the East, bearing rich gifts and guided by the combined work of an angel of God and their own scholarship.

In so doing, these three eastern scholars unknowingly stand in the place of the entire non-Jewish world. Their presence so near Christ’s birth, and their attendance on him, shows that He will not only be a prophet and king to the Jews, but to all mankind.

They also reveal something else, which shall be crucial for the future of the Church, once it is established. They are a vindication of pagan wisdom, and a pledge that God has not abandoned the gentiles, but has been working through them as well as through the Jews, though in a different fashion. Their studies, their own lore led them to recognize Christ; therefore let no one condemn pagan knowledge or wisdom again. They don’t just bring gold, frankincense, and myrrh; they bring Aristotle and Cicero, Homer and Virgil, Confucius and Lau Tzu, the Ramayana and the Book of Five Rings. The three wise men come to say that there is truth in paganism, or at least the way to truth, and therefore these things are to be cherished and studied, for there can be nothing good but what comes of God and leads to Him. “The strength of the Gentiles shall come to thee.”

Consider, finally, the humility of these men; here, surely, is that pure love of knowledge that is the mark of the true philosopher. Their lore tells them that Christ, the King of the Jews, is to be born in a distant land, the Messiah of a faith they do not practice, and of a people who, ostensibly, are of no account. Seeing that it is so, they undergo great hardships and dangers to bear costly gifts for His honor. They followed His star wherever it went; that is to say, they followed the truth wherever it went, not only in abstract thought, but in concrete action.

This was, indeed, the purpose of all ancient thought, and of all knowledge up until the end of the Middle Ages; we learn things, not that we may change them or manipulate them, but that we may better submit to them. We learn what the world is really like so that we might live accordingly. The purpose was to change ourselves; not the world. The three wise men following the star were following the path of the true man of knowledge: to conform our lives to the truth, wherever it leads.

This is the one common feature among all those who recognize Christ: humility, the willingness to recognize things higher than oneself and conform to them. It is present in the poor shepherds living in and around a tiny hamlet in the middle of nowhere, and it is present in rich scholars from Persia. The chief question we have to ask is, is it present in us? Do we seek to follow that star, wherever it leads? Is our main concern, “how can we change our lives to better conform them to the truth?”

Or do we greet the knowledge that something may disrupt our own ideas, our own plans, and our own comfort by being “troubled” by the idea and seeking to silence it at all costs? Is our main concern how we can interpret and use the world to suit our needs and wishes? Do we regard that star, not as primarily true or false, but convenient or inconvenient?