What the Magi teach us

Among the tenured professorial skeptics, few Gospel episodes have been sliced, diced, and tossed to the dissecting room floor as “mythology” more often than the story of the Magi: the “wise men from the East [who] came to Jerusalem, saying, ‘Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the East and have come to worship him’” (Matthew 2:2). 

In Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives, Joseph Ratzinger/Pope Benedict XVI, who avoids the unfortunate academic habit of treating ancient texts with haughty suspicion, takes a different view.  The Magi, he writes, are not mythical figures in “a meditation presented under the guise of stories.” Rather, “Matthew is recounting real history,” but “history theologically thought through and interpreted.” That is why the Magi story helps us to “understand the mystery of Jesus more deeply.”

What do the Magi teach us?

First, they anchor Jesus in the human drama, in a real time and place, by putting these exotic pilgrims in contact with Herod the Great, about whose brutal reign we know a lot; the reference to Caesar Augustus in Luke 2:1 performs the same “anchoring” function. At the very beginning of the Jesus story, Matthew and Luke tell their readers (or more often in their day, their listeners) that Jesus of Nazareth is not a figment of someone’s fevered religious imagination. Jesus is as real as real gets.

Secondly, the Magi’s protean accomplishments – they were philosophical sages, priests, and astronomers – have a meaning beyond credentials. They remind us, Benedict XVI notes, that “religious and philosophical wisdom” can be “an incentive to set off in the right direction” in life: which is to say, human wisdom can, for those with open minds and hearts, eventually lead to Christ. 

As men of a profound if unfulfilled openness to the divine, the Magi are “successors of Abraham, who set off on a journey in response to God’s call.” As philosophers, though, they are also “the successors of Socrates and his habit of questioning above and beyond conventional wisdom toward the higher truth.” Thus these mysterious figures (depicted in colorful, polka-dotted raiment in the Basilica of St. Mary Major, Rome’s “Bethlehem”) are “forerunners, preparers of the way, seekers after truth, such as we find in every age” – at least among those with the humility to reject a cramped, materialistic view of the world and ask, “Is that all there is?”         

Third, the fact that the Magi were not Jews suggests that the mission ad gentes, “to the nations,” is embedded in the reality of Jesus, the long-awaited Jewish messiah, from the beginning. That the first of these gentile “others” to recognize the “newborn king of the Jews” were men of intellect and science teaches another important lesson: all truths lead to the one Truth. Every authentic human religious impulse, Pope Benedict asserts, “involves a search for truth, a search for the true God and hence ‘philosophy’ in the original sense of the word” [love of wisdom]. Wisdom purifies “scientific knowledge,” because wisdom does not permit “science” to remain rationalistically introspective: wisdom reminds science that there is more to truth than equations, formulas, and data. 

Fourth, the Magi “from the East” – the locus of dawn – are emblems of new beginnings. As such, they are timely visitors at the end of a terrible year in which history seems to have lost its moorings. Pope Benedict again: The Magi “represent the journeying of humanity toward Christ,” in whose life, death, and resurrection the human story begins anew. The Magi “initiate a procession that continues throughout history…they represent the inner aspiration of the human spirit, the dynamics of religions and human reason toward him” who alone can make “all things new” (Revelation 21:5) – even amidst pandemics and the politics of the culture of death.   

Finally, the Magi anticipate St. Paul’s teaching that Jesus Christ is lord of the cosmos as well as lord of history. The early Church, Pope Benedict writes, had to deal with the challenge of all sorts of “astral divinities” thought to be in charge of the universe and of our lives – not unlike the challenge posed today by a widespread credulity about horoscopes. Matthew’s theological crafting of the story of the wise men thus makes a crucial point: in Benedict’s words, “it is not the star that determines the child’s destiny; it is the child who directs the star.” God is in charge: not the stars, the planets, or other impersonal forces.

So welcome again, Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar. Our confused age needs you.   

COMING UP: Collegiality and eucharistic integrity

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The concept of the “collegiality” of bishops has been sharply contested since the Second Vatican Council debated it in 1962, 1963, and 1964. That discussion was sufficiently contentious that a personal intervention from Pope Paul VI was required to incorporate the concept of episcopal collegiality within the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church in such a way that the pope’s primacy and universal jurisdiction were safeguarded. The debate about collegiality has continued ever since. Now, however, it’s focused more on what kind of collegiality exists within national conferences of bishops. Is it an “affective collegiality” of mutual support and encouragement? Or is episcopal collegiality within bishops’ conferences “effective,” such that a conference has real teaching and legislative authority?  

Whether collegiality is “affective,” “effective,” or some combination of the two, it ought to be clear what truly “collegial” behavior isn’t.   

It isn’t individual bishops attempting end-runs around their national conference, appealing for Roman interventions that would forestall debates that their brother bishops wish to engage. It isn’t bishops trying to browbeat the conference chairman into changing an agenda to suit the tastes of a distinct minority — and misleading their brother bishops as to what they’re about when soliciting support for such a gambit. And it isn’t trying to filibuster a conference meeting so that no action is possible on an agenda item that the great majority of bishops wish to consider and act upon. 

If any of those three maneuvers qualifies as collegial, then “collegiality” has no more meaning than the claim that my poor Baltimore Orioles have a great starting rotation. 

For years now — and by “years,” I mean long before the idea of a “President Biden” entered the stream of national consciousness — the bishops of the United States have been concerned that ours is becoming less of a eucharistic Church than Vatican II called us to be when it taught that the Eucharist is the “source and summit” of the Church’s life. Pope St. John Paul II reaffirmed that conciliar summons when, in his final encyclical, he taught that “the Church draws her life from the Eucharist,” which “recapitulates the heart and mystery of the Church.” Yet all around us we see declining Sunday Mass attendance: a sadness that preceded the pandemic but has been further exacerbated by it.  Moreover, surveys suggest that too many Catholics think of Sunday Mass as essentially a social occasion, rather than an encounter with the living God in which Christ is offered to the Father and is given back to his people in holy communion — a communion in and through the body and blood, soul and divinity of Christ, received under the forms of bread and wine.

If the Church lives from the Eucharist and yet the people of the Church don’t participate in the Eucharist as often as they should, or don’t understand what they’re celebrating and receiving when they do, then the Church suffers from a serious eucharistic deficit. Those ordained to leadership in the Church are obliged to do something about that. 

That is why the U.S. bishops have been determined for some time to undertake a comprehensive program of eucharistic education throughout the Church. For the great majority of bishops, that determination has been intensified by the fact that our eucharistic deficit is being compounded by the eucharistic incoherence of public officials who, rejecting authoritative Catholic teaching based on both revelation and reason, nonetheless present themselves for holy communion as if they were in full communion with the Church. The longstanding episcopal failure to address this incoherence exacerbates the eucharistic deficit in American Catholicism by implying that the Church really doesn’t mean what it teaches about the sacred nature of the Eucharist. 

Those suggesting that this is all about “politics” are either ill-informed or deliberately misleading the Church and the gullible parts of the media. Concern for the eucharistic integrity of the Church includes, but goes much deeper than, concerns about the eucharistic incoherence of Catholic public officials who act as if the Church’s settled convictions on the life issues and on worthiness to receive holy communion don’t exist. That is why the U.S. bishops are forging ahead with developing a teaching document that will clarify for the whole Church why we are a Eucharistic community, what the Eucharist truly is, what reception of the Eucharist means, and why everyone in the Church should examine conscience before receiving Christ in the sacrament. 

The wheels of collegiality may grind slowly. In this case, however, they are grinding truly, and for the sake of the Gospel.

George Weigel is an independent columnist whose weekly column is syndicated by the Archdiocese of Denver. The opinions and viewpoints expressed by Mr. Weigel therein are his alone and do not necessarily reflect those of the Archdiocese of Denver or the bishops of Denver.