Two transcendentals for Twelfth Night
By Br Daniel Benedict Rowlands, O.P. | To borrow from St Gregory Nazianzen, in a turn of phrase much loved by Pope Benedict XVI, the Magi depart no longer relying on a star because they realise it is Christ who sets the orbit of the stars, and their own orbit too. And so it always is with the transcendentals: we are captured by a kind of gravitational attraction, and pulled into a new orbit around nothing other than the Good, the True, and the Beautiful itself, the infinite love of God – for God is love – love concretised and freely offered to us in the birth of Jesus Christ.Giotto’s Adoration of the Magi depicts the star as a comet. Not the most astrophysically likely explanation, but it effectively captures the idea of the fleeting nature of the sign that, pointing beyond itself, ultimately gives way to the signified.
Emitte lucem tuam et veritatem tuam: ipsa me deduxerunt et adduxerunt in montem sanctum tuum… Send forth Thy light and Thy truth: for they have led me and brought me to Thy holy mountain…
The priest prays these words from Psalm 42(43) in the prayers at the foot of the altar before the beginning of Mass in the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite. Though used throughout the year, the verse acquires a special resonance on the Epiphany of the Lord: in the story of the Magi finding Christ by following a star, the principal liturgical leitmotif in the Christian West’s celebration of the feast, one can scarcely conceive a more evocative vignette in affirmative answer to the psalmist’s supplication.
Towards the beginning of the Gospel account, St Matthew reports the words of these wise men from the East: “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we have seen his star”. In this short line we find adumbrated the right relation between faith and reason. Send forth thy light and thy truth. Yes, God can indeed be “known with certitude by the natural light of human reason” as the First Vatican Council reaffirmed, but rather than succumbing to the temptation of “philosophical pride” that St John Paul II identified as so prevalent in modern philosophy, the Magi operate in a spirit of philosophical humility. Namely, a spirit of faith in God’s revelation of hitherto hidden mysteries, supernatural revelation by the same God who ordered the cosmos. They present themselves to the Jews and confess the incompleteness of their knowledge, and their desire for the fullness of knowledge, for a context in which to make sense of the isolated fact they have grasped. The object of the Magi’s intellectual search, the truth apprehended in the course of their astronomical observations (albeit interpreted astrologically in line with ancient prophecy), coincided with the object of faith, God as revealed in the Hebrew scriptures.
In a recent post, Br Pablo reflected on the transcendentals and what he called the “inexhaustible richness of what is real”. It is only in light of such a philosophical doctrine – the interconvertibility of the transcendentals: wherever “being” is, so too is there goodness, truth, and beauty – that the Magi could so nonchalantly, so immediately harmonise faith and reason in their pursuit of truth. Scientific or philosophical truths are luminous but transparent: they point beyond themselves to the depths of reality, to Truth itself (see image). “The heavens proclaim the glory of God” (Ps 18(19):1). The partial truth glimpsed in starlight did not satisfy their desire but awakened a desire for the fullness of truth. And so, when the Magi “fell down and worshipped”, their worship can truly be called in the words of the Apostle: reasonable, logical (logikē latreia cf. Rom. 12:1). Something of this is preserved in the Roman Canon: “quam oblationem tu, Deus, in omnibus, quaesumus, benedictam, adscriptam, ratam, rationabilem, acceptabilemque facere digneris” (“Be pleased, O God, we pray, to bless, acknowledge and approve this offering in every respect; make it spiritual and acceptable”). This connotation is easily missed in the English translation of the Roman Missal which renders “rationabilem” as “spiritual”. In the Byzantine Rite, it is dramatically gestured to in the liturgy of preparation (prothesis), in which the mysteries of Christ’s nativity and infancy are symbolically reenacted: the asterisk (a star-shaped utensil supporting a veil) is placed over the bread to be consecrated as the priest recites the words “And the star came and stood over the place where the child was” (cf. Mat. 2:9).
The Latin hymn tradition suggests another of the transcendentals as an appropriate lens with which to look at the story of the Magi. Prudentius’ hymn for the Epiphany (incorporated into the Roman Breviary by the Dominican Pope St Pius V), contains the lines “Quem stella, quæ solis rotam / Vincit decóre, ac lúmine” (And a star which surpassed the disk of the sun in beauty and in splendour). Here we have an appeal to the captivating beauty of the star of Bethlehem, rather than the scientific precision of astronomical observations that enabled the Magi to report the “exact time” (Mat. 2:7) of the star’s appearing to Herod. Pseudo-Dionysius drew attention to the connection between to kalon (the beautiful) and the verb kaleō (I call), an observation that was richly explored by von Balthasar in his theological aesthetics (cf. Glory of the Lord vol. 1): the beautiful – dancing in “uncontained splendour around the double constellation of the true and the good and their inseparable relation” – extends a call, and moreover, “within the beautiful” one finds oneself “moved and possessed”, and ultimately sent to share it with others. “It is not possible to enjoy a reposeful aesthetic contemplation of the divine glory, a contemplation that would consider God ‘in himself’ and thus could dispense with the opposition between God’s holiness and the unholiness of the world… It is this that distinguishes the biblical reality from the epiphanies of gods outside the Bible”. We see this dynamic unfolding in the way the Magi are “overwhelmed with joy” at the reappearance of the star, until at last they are drawn entirely within the ambit of the Beautiful itself, before which falling down in worship, utterly possessed, is the only proper response.
What’s more, in the prostration of the Magi I suggest that we see not only the formal ritual gesture but also a spontaneous perception of their unworthiness, the “opposition between God’s holiness and the unholiness of the world”, an echo of St Peter’s “depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man” (Lk 5:8). Indeed, they do depart, returning to their own country “by another way”. Of course they no longer need the guidance of a star. To borrow from St Gregory Nazianzen, in a turn of phrase much loved by Pope Benedict XVI, from now on they realise it is Christ who sets the orbit of the stars, and their own orbit too. And so it always is with the transcendentals: we are captured by a kind of gravitational attraction, and pulled into a new orbit around nothing other than the Good, the True, and the Beautiful itself, the infinite love of God – for God is love – love concretised and freely offered to us in the birth of Jesus Christ. Thus do we too depart, bearing this love within ourselves as apostles to the nations, praying with George Herbert
That, as my Calling doth require,
Star-like I may to others shine;
And guide them to that Sun divine,
Whose day-light never shall expire.
Image: Adoration of the Magi, by Giotto (Wikimedia Commons)