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: 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.