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With Exceeding Great Joy

Thursday, December 31, 2015

Epiphany. fr Aidan Nichols shows the significance of the journey made by the wise men and of their gifts. fr Neil Ferguson's sermon for the Solemnity of Mary Mother of God can be found on the main page of Torch.

In St Matthew’s account of the infancy of Christ, the roughly two- year stay of the Holy Family at Bethlehem included an astronomically-inspired encounter with wandering astrologers from the pagan cultures to Palestine’s east. To us, astrology means reading your horoscope for a lucky week in the Daily Express. But as it existed in the high cultures that practiced it, astrology was more than that. It combined primitive science with speculation about great religious and historical themes or trends.

Such astrology made rulers jittery. At one point in the later New Testament period, the emperor Domitian had those born with the horoscopes of potential emperors identified and executed. King Herod was likely to be on the alert for rumours of this kind. So the setting of the Epiphany is historically credible. And in any case, if we believe that the Church has inherited a special insight into the revelation entrusted to her (and there is no other serious reason for belonging to the Church than this), we need to say that her methods take us further than others do. And she certainly celebrates the Epiphany liturgically as a genuine event.

Let us, say, then, that something significant happened. The text of the Gospel, and the texts with which it is surrounded in the Liturgy, tutor us in what that ‘something’ was. It has to do with the glory of God revealed in the child in Mary’s arms and the universal importance – for all peoples, all individuals – of what his birth means.

The Wise Men stand for the wisdom that lies outside Israel, beyond the confines of the Land of the Promise. They represent a knowledge and an understanding of the world which was alien to the religious and cultural tradition in which, most immediately, the Word became incarnate. And yet despite this, they manage to come to Christ, to the incarnate Wisdom of the God they barely knew.

They come with questions, wider ones than the geographical one they put to the wicked king Herod. What those questions are become apparent from the gifts they carry. Gold is the metal from which royal insignia are made, and in which in many places, via coins or ingots, trade was conducted: indeed, in living memory, gold was the standard for valuing all currencies in the world. It represents, then, politics and economics – questions about the nature of power and how wealth might be used for the human good.

Frankincense is the material of worship. It is used in the cult – the worshipful service – of God or the gods. As Wise Men, the Magi necessarily have searching questions about the divine, searching theological questions, as we would say.

Lastly they bring myrrh: the stuff used for mummifying the dead, and death, we can say, is the great question-mark set against all human activity. Existentialist philosophers, with forerunners in earlier times, have found the question of death a supremely philosophical question. That must be so if philosophy is the discipline which asks in the most general way possible about the what, the how, and the why of the world and our place within it.

So the Wise Men have questions about the political and economic or social order of the world, they have theological concerns, and they have philosophical anxieties. And these they bring with their own kind of faith and hope to this unique Child whom the Church of the Gentiles will eventually proclaim to be the answer to their question. Jesus Christ is the universal King – his reign is the ultimate answer to the questions of political, social and economic order. He is God from God – and so the ultimate object of theological concern. He is the Victor over death – and thus the ultimate resolution of philosophical anxieties.

By the presence of these pagan intellectuals at the opening of the Gospel, St Matthew anticipates the ending of his gospel-book. That is when the risen Christ will tell the disciples to go out and preach the Good News to all the nations. The Epiphany is the proclamation to those who are not Jews, and whose faith may be far from simple, that they too shall be brought into the presence of God made man, the truth they seek in his own person, and rejoice there, as the evangelist records, with exceeding great joy.

Readings: Ecclesiasticus 24:1-2,8-12|Ephesians 1:3-6,15-18|John 1:1-18

The image used above is a detail from a medieval wall painting from the tomb of Bishop Rodrigo Díaz (d.1339) in Salamanca's Old Cathedral.

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Aidan Nichols O.P.

fr Aidan Nichols is resident in the Priory of St Michael the Archangel in Cambridge. He is a well-known and prolific writer and theologian.


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