Christmas and the humbling of the wise men

It might seem that everything that could be said, has been said, about the shepherds, the wise men and the Christ Child. But that’s one of the marvels of Scripture: the unfolding history of the Church draws out of the inspired Word of God allegories and images previously unrecognized. Thus the familiar Christmas story and its well-known cast of characters shed light on a year in which the Church has been roiled by contention between today’s shepherds and today’s Magi: between those who, today, hear angels singing, and those whose experience of the faith has been thoroughly “demythologized” and intellectualized.

The shepherds we know: poor peasants who, initially afraid, nonetheless did as the angel commanded. And the Magi? They were scientists, intellectuals, who had a lot of obstacles to overcome in reaching their Bethlehem destination—and in comprehending just what happened to them there.

There was the obstacle of distance, for these were, as Matthew tells us, wise men “from the East.” (The mosaicist decorating St. Mary Major in Rome took that to mean Persia, and gave the Magi bright, polka-dotted vesture.) Wherever they came from, though, they came “from afar,” which was no easy business in those days, even for scientists following a celestial GPS.

But the greater obstacle for the wise men was, well, their wisdom: or, perhaps better, the intellectual pride that’s a constant temptation for people who live their professional lives inside their heads. As Hans Urs von Balthasar once wrote in a Christmas homily, those who are rich in knowledge “have to do a great deal of gymnastics to extricate themselves from their neat and tidy concepts, opinions, perspectives, experiences and worldviews” before they can approach in humble faith “the naked earth where the Child lies in the crib.” And then, at the crib, they must offer their “intellectual riches … to holy poverty,” accepting “the inner poverty of all human knowledge [in order to find] their way to the divine poverty.”

In impoverishing themselves by giving their gifts and abandoning their intellectual pride, the Magi “brought themselves down to the level of the shepherds, and so a first Christian community can be formed out of the two groups.” And thus it has been ever since: all of us must “come down to the level adopted by God himself in his Incarnation—the level of poverty, crib, flight …” Yet in lowering ourselves to the lowliness that God himself assumes in taking on a human nature, we remain who we are: some are intellectually gifted and rich in the world’s goods; others are impoverished in various ways. But all can become one in Christ Jesus, as St. Paul teaches, because all have been empowered by the Lord to make of our lives a gift to others.

What does this have to do with this past year in the life of the Church? At least this:

According to tradition, the relics of the Magi, those humble intellectuals, rest in Germany’s Cologne Cathedral. That now seems quite providential. No local Church over the past two centuries has invested more in the intellectual life than German Catholicism. No local Church today is prouder of its theological accomplishments than the German Church; indeed, one German theologian, introducing an anthology of critical commentaries on John Paul II’s encyclical, Veritatis Splendor, claimed that Germany bore a special responsibility for Catholic theology.

Yet German Catholicism is sclerotic, its churches largely empty. Something is, obviously, missing. That “something,” I suggest, is the vibrant, New Testament-style faith found in the Catholic Church in Africa, whose leaders, at Synod 2014, challenged the leaders of German Catholicism to stand firm in the “faith once delivered to the saints” [Jude 1:3].

The Africans seem to have been reliving the role of the Christmas shepherds recently, rejoicing in the Good News. As for today’s Magi, well, German Catholic leaders might well reflect, this Weinacht, on the lessons in intellectual humility taught by the scholars whose relics are venerated in one of Germany’s great cathedrals. So should all of us in the ideas business.

COMING UP: Q&A: USCCB clarifies intent behind bishops’ Eucharist document

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Last week, the U.S. bishop concluded their annual Spring meeting, during which much about the Church in the U.S was discussed. In particular, the bishops voted to draft a document on the meaning of Eucharistic life in the Church, which was approved by an overwhelming majority.

Since then, speculation about the nature of the document has run rampant, the chief of which is that it was drafted specifically to instigate a policy aimed directly at Catholic politicians and public figures whose outward political expressions and policy enactment do not align with Church teaching.

The USCCB has issued a brief Q&A clarifying the intent of the document, and they have emphasized that “the question of whether or not to deny any individual or groups Holy Communion was not on the ballot.”

“The Eucharist is the source and summit of Christian life,” the USCCB said. “The importance of nurturing an ever
deeper understanding of the beauty and mystery of the Eucharist in our lives is not a new topic for the bishops. The document being drafted is not meant to be disciplinary in nature, nor is it targeted at any one individual or class of persons. It will include a section on the Church’s teaching on the responsibility of every Catholic, including bishops, to live in accordance with the truth, goodness and beauty of the Eucharist we celebrate.”

Below are a few commonly asked questions about last week’s meeting and the document on the Eucharist.

Why are the bishops doing this now?

For some time now, a major concern of the bishops has been the declining belief and understanding of the Eucharist among the Catholic faithful. This was a deep enough concern that the theme of the bishops’ strategic plan for 2021-2024 is Created Anew by the Body and Blood of Christ: Source of Our Healing and Hope. This important document on the Eucharist will serve as a foundation for the multi-year Eucharistic Revival Project, a major national effort to reignite Eucharistic faith in our country. It was clear from the intensity and passion expressed in the individual interventions made by the bishops during last week’s meeting that each bishop deeply loves the Eucharist.

Did the bishops vote to ban politicians from receiving Holy Communion?

No, this was not up for vote or debate. The bishops made no decision about barring anyone from receiving Holy Communion. Each Catholic — regardless of whether they hold public office or not — is called to continual conversion, and the U.S. bishops have repeatedly emphasized the obligation of all Catholics to support human life and dignity and other fundamental principles of Catholic moral and social teaching.

Are the bishops going to issue a national policy on withholding Communion from politicians?

No. There will be no national policy on withholding Communion from politicians. The intent is to present a clear understanding of the Church’s teachings to bring heightened awareness among the faithful of how the Eucharist can transform our lives and bring us closer to our creator and the life he wants for us.

Did the Vatican tell the bishops not to move forward on drafting the document?

No. The Holy See did encourage the bishops to engage in dialogue and broad consultation. Last week’s meeting was the first part of that process. It is important to note that collaboration and consultation among the bishops will be key in the drafting of this document.


Featured photo by Eric Mok on Unsplash