Following the Magi for Our Christmas Journey

Christmas is more than a birthday party; it is the manifestation of the newborn king of heaven and earth. In the early Church, the Epiphany of Christ, the manifestation of his divinity to the world, unveiled the meaning of Christmas. In fact, the 12th Night of Christmas, Epiphany Eve, culminated the celebration, with the largest gatherings, feasts, and dances happening that night. The birth of Christ was not complete without the Wise Men, representatives of all the nations, paying homage to the king. Our celebration, likewise, falls short unless we join them in finding Christ and worshipping him.

Father Dwight Longenecker, in his 2017 book, Mystery of the Magi: The Quest to Identify the Three Wise Men, presents strong evidence that the Wise Men were from a region neighboring Judea, Nabataea. This proximity made them familiar with scriptural prophecy of the Messiah and led them to watch the stars for signs of his coming. Nature itself pointed to the coming of the Christ, the king who would rule not only Judah but all the nations. Even if Jesus’ birth happened in obscurity, the Wise Men recognized the alignment of planets and stars that bore witness to the coming of their creator. Rick Larson’s The Star of Bethlehem (DVD, 2017) provides additional clues on the nature of the star they followed. 

The Magi not only search, they actually find. It is popular to speak of searching today, in a way, however, that makes the searching itself the goal. It can be fun to look around aimlessly, like a tourist, denying that life has a clear purpose that can be discovered. The Wise Men, like pilgrims, were looking for something in particular, and found it. God may remain hidden in some ways, even as he makes himself present to those who search for him. He does not just reach out and grab our attention, not usually at least, but wants us to make the effort to drop what we are doing and to look for signs of his presence. Nature can point the way to some degree, giving evidence of its Creator, although it is Scripture that points to the entrance of God into history, as the Magi needed the confirmation of prophecy to go to Bethlehem (Mt 2:5-6). Although the star alone  could not lead them, it did confirm the presence of Jesus, as “it came to rest over the place where the child was” (Mt 2:9). Some scholars think this resting arose from the retrograde motion of a planet, perhaps in conjunction with the constellation Aries, which the Greeks associated with Judah.

“When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy; and going into the house they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh”

Mt 2:10-11

The Wise Men also reveal the nature of Christmas by modeling how we should respond to Jesus: with joy, recognition, worship, and homage. Matthew’s Gospel describes the Magi’s actions: “When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy; and going into the house they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh” (Mt 2:10-11). They rejoice that they found the goal of their search, knowing that they had discovered what mattered most. They recognize the king as they see the child, having faith in his true identity, Emmanuel — God with us. They pay him homage through worship, not just finding the child out of curiosity, but relating to him by falling down before him. They surrender their wealth and possessions to him, truly honoring him as their Lord and putting themselves at his service. 

We need to follow the journey of the Wise Men, with all of its actions, each Christmas. The Church gives us the celebration of the Epiphany so that we can continue to seek, to find and recognize Jesus with joy, to worship him as our Lord and king, and to give our lives to him. The Magi challenge us to find Jesus in a new way, accepting him as our true light, a fixed star that guides our own pilgrimage through life. Jesus offers the peace that comes from finding life’s true center and purpose, ending our restlessness and aimless distraction. Christmas gifts are symbols of what we find in Jesus, the gift of his life for us, but we should also think about giving a gift back to him, like the Wise Men, such as spending more time with him in prayer, reading the Bible, giving a gift to the poor, and making sacrifices for him in love. 

We can take Christmas for granted — the manger, the animals, tame looking angels — which all seem so soft and trite. Breaking through the pervasive consumerism and trivialized entertainment, the birth of Christ should shock us: God has become man, the Creator has come into his creation, the Lord of all has made himself into a small baby. Finding him and accepting this child as Lord should turn things upside down: moving us from concern about the outward to the inward, from pain and bitterness to peace, from anxiety and fear to joy. We can allow him to reign in us in a new way, for this is why he came into the world: “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government will be upon his shoulder, and his name will be called ‘Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace’” (Is 9:6).

Christmas is a celebration of 12 days, giving us time to soak in this reality and to extend the celebration after the preparation of Advent. The Epiphany culminates the Christmas celebration as we embrace not only Jesus’ birth, but accept the lordship of the newborn king. Christmas extends to the Epiphany and should shape the new year that begins during these 12 days (which we count from the birth of Christ). Christmas marks a new beginning that grounds our plans and hopes in Christ’s kingship. Looking ahead to 2021, we need to affirm again that Jesus is the true  Lord of the world. For this reason, we do not fear, whatever may come, because we have the joy that Christ brings to us at Christmas. 

COMING UP: Sin, suicide and the perfect mercy of God

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I love my hair stylist. 

She’s a devoted Christian. So, when I see her, we tend to have much deeper discussions than the usual gossipy hair stylist sessions. And, because it’s a small shop, the discussions often branch out to the other people within earshot, waiting for their appointments or waiting for their color to process. Because she tends to attract a smart and faithful clientele, the discussion is always interesting. 

Yesterday, at my bimonthly appointment, we somehow got onto the topic of suicide — specifically, the insidious way that it spreads among teenagers. One suicide often leads to another, which leads to another. I made the comment “It is demonic.” 

At that point, a woman in the waiting area chimed in. “I disagree. I’m Catholic. It used to be a mortal sin, but they changed it. It’s not any more. It’s mental illness.” 

If a nice Catholic lady at my hair salon could be confused about this, I figured perhaps some of you out there may be as well. Which made me think perhaps it’s time for a little review on the nature of sin — both in general, and specifically as it applies to suicide. 

First, sin in general. The fundamental point here is that the Catholic Church has no power to decide what is a sin and what isn’t. It’s not like there’s a committee that meets periodically to review the list of sins, and decide if any need to be promoted from venial to mortal, or demoted from mortal to venial, or dropped from the list entirely. 

Sins are sins because they are outside of God’s will. And they are outside of God’s will because they have the potential to do tremendous damage to people created in His image and likeness, whom He loves. We know they are sins because it was revealed to us in Scripture, or it has been handed down from the time of Christ in sacred tradition. Sometimes the Church must apply these timeless, God-given principles to new situations, to determine the morality of technologies undreamt of in ancient times. 

The Church has the authority to do that because she received it from Christ, her bridegroom. And once she does declare on a subject, we believe it is done through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, who is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow. So the Church isn’t going to change her mind. Something can’t be a sin, and then suddenly NOT be a sin. 

“But,” you ask. “What about eating meat on Friday? That was a sin, and now it isn’t.” This is an example of a discipline of the Church. Eating meat has never, in itself, been an objectively sinful behavior — on Fridays or any other day. But the Church was calling us, as Jesus calls us, to do penance. And the Church selected that penance as something we could all, as a Church, do together. The sin was never in the ingestion of the meat. It was in disobeying the Church in this matter. This particular discipline has been dropped. But it doesn’t change our obligation to in some way do penance for our sins and the sins of the world. 

Now, on to suicide. It is obvious that something must have changed in the teachings of the Church. Because, in the olden days, a person who committed suicide couldn’t be buried with a Catholic funeral Mass. And now they can. So what gives? 

Here’s the situation. Taking innocent human life is always a grave evil. (I add the “innocent” qualifier to distinguish this discussion from one about self defense, or about the death penalty — which in a sense is self defense. But those are separate discussions.) God is the author of life, and it is He who decides when our lives will end. To usurp that power always has been, and always will be, a grave moral evil. 

But there is an important distinction we must understand. There is the objective gravity of the sin — the nature of it, and the great damage done by it. Then there is the question of the individual’s moral culpability of that sin. In other words: a great evil was done. But is the person who did it liable to judgment for it? Or were there extenuating circumstances that mean that, while the evil was indeed done, the person who did it was somehow functioning in a diminished capacity that reduces or eliminates their moral responsibility? 

For a person to be culpable for a mortal sin, three conditions must be met. First, the objective act must be gravely sinful. Second and third, the person committing the sin must do so with full knowledge of the sinfulness of the act, and full consent of the will. In the question of suicide, we have learned to much about the psychological condition of a person driven to such a horrible deed. The instinct to self preservation is strong. In order to overcome it, the mental and/or physical suffering is frequently very intense. There may even be, as my friend at the salon mentioned, mental illness involved. All of this can drastically reduce a person’s mental and intellectual capacity to make rational decisions. 

And so, while an objectively horrifying act has occurred, God may very well have tremendous mercy on that person’s soul, given the extreme states of agitation and pain that led up to the act. 

Know that I write all of this as someone who has lost one beloved relative and several friends to suicide. And I am tremendously optimistic in my hope that they are with God. Not because they didn’t do something terrible, or that what they did was somehow justified. But because the God who loves them sees their hearts, and knows that pain and suffering can drive people to acts they wouldn’t possibly consider while in their “right” minds. 

And this is why the Church offers the Rite of Christian Burial to those who die by suicide. Because they need the prayers. And their families need the comfort. And because the Church, too, believes in that the God who embodies perfect justice also embodies perfect mercy. 

And we live in great hope that they are with Him.