Hungering for the Truth
Epiphany. Fr Timothy Radcliffe follows the journey of the magi in search of the truth found in Jesus Christ.
The recent census showed a sharp rise in the number of people in England and Wales who do not belong to any religious faith. Yet there is still a hunger for meaning, even among those who reject the existence of God. Some people try to find it in their relationships, others look to art and music, to poetry and films, to give some glimpse of why we are here and for what we exist. Many people still find the meaning of our lives in the sacred scriptures of their faith.
What does this story of the magi have to say to about our search? Finally they arrive at Bethlehem and offer Jesus their homage, but they need all sorts of help to get there. First of all there is their own wisdom and expertise, the astronomical knowledge that sets them off on the journey and points them in the right direction. But that was not enough. It got them only as far as Jerusalem. Then they needed the help of King Herod, who told them to go to Bethlehem. He, in turn, needed the expertise of the chief priests and the scribes, who had studied the scriptures and so knew where the Messiah was to be born.
None of these would have been enough by itself. Without their own wisdom, they would never have set off to look for ‘the newborn king’; without the knowledge of the religious authorities, they would not have known where to find him. Even Herod had his part to play.
So it is with us in our own search for the meaning of our lives. First of all we Christians have the wisdom of our Scriptures, the Word of God. It is to this Word, who is ultimately the person of Jesus, that we owe our primary obedience. Here we hear the summons to take to the road. But if we just rely on our own interpretation of the Bible, then we may easily misunderstand what it says. So we listen to the scriptures as members of the Church, a community which stretches across two thousand years. We listen to the wise and holy men and women who have wrestled with the Word, and learn from them.
We also listen to the Church’s teachers, the Magisterium. St Paul tells the Ephesians that ‘you have heard of the stewardship of God’s grace that was given to me for your benefit, namely, that the mystery was made known to me by revelation.’
We also search with the help of our own expertise and the help of the wise and creative people of our time, regardless of whether they are Christians or not. St Thomas Aquinas said: “Do not heed by whom a thing is said, but rather what is said you should commit to memory.” These may be the magi of our time, coming from foreign lands or alien ways of thought. Cornelius Ernst OP, a member of the English Dominican Province, wrote in his diary shortly before he died, that he acknowledged that besides the tradition of the Church, ‘I have another tradition to which I am almost equally respectful – in some ways more so – the tradition of the human heart: novels, art, music, tragedy. I cannot allow that God can only be adored in spirit and in truth by the individual introverted upon himself and detached from all that might disturb and solicit his heart. It must be possible to find and adore God in the complexity of human experience.’
Even in this age which profoundly distrusts any claims for absolute truth, there remains in the human heart a deep desire for the truth. Our Dominican constitutions speak of the ‘inclination to the truth’ (propensio ad veritatem) which is in every human heart. We believe that the child born in Bethlehem is the truth for which human heart hungers. Like the magi, we need to be attentive to the truth wherever it is to be found, for ultimately it is one in him who said, ‘I am the truth’.