What the Magi teach us

George Weigel

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: Five tips for reading the Word of God

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Sunday, Jan. 24 marks “The Sunday of the Word of God,” instituted by Pope Francis last year and to be held every year on the third Sunday of Ordinary Time. This may strike us as odd, as we might think to ourselves, “but isn’t the Bible read at every Sunday Mass?” Certainly so. Not only that, but every daily celebration of the Mass proclaims the Word of God.

What’s different about “The Sunday of the Word of God,” however, is that it’s not just about hearing the Bible read on Sundays. As the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith notes, it “reminds us, pastors and faithful alike, of the importance and value of Sacred Scripture for the Christian life, as well as the relationship between the word of God and the liturgy: ‘As Christians, we are one people, making our pilgrim way through history, sustained by the Lord, present in our midst, who speaks to us and nourishes us. A day devoted to the Bible should not be seen as a yearly event but rather a year-long event, for we urgently need to grow in our knowledge and love of the Scriptures and of the Risen Lord, who continues to speak his word and to break bread in the community of believers. For this reason, we need to develop a closer relationship with Sacred Scripture; otherwise, our hearts will remain cold and our eyes shut, inflicted as we are by so many forms of blindness.’” This gives us a wonderful opportunity to pause and reflect on the Sacred Scriptures. 

There are two means by which God Divinely reveals truths to us: Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition. As such, the Bible is not merely a human document, nor simply a collection of amazing stories that call us to do heroic things, or a collection of wise sayings. Rather, the Scriptures are “inspired.” St. Paul has a beautiful teaching about this in 2 Timothy 3:16-17 – “All scripture, inspired of God, is profitable to teach, to reprove, to correct, to instruct in justice, That the man of God may be perfect, furnished to every good work.” By “inspired” we mean that God is the principle author of the Bible.

Certainly there were different men who physically wrote the words on the papyrus. Yet these men were influenced by the grace of inspiration to write, not just their own words, but God’s. And so the Scriptures are a mysterious congruence of Divine and human authorship – the human writers capably made full use of language, literary forms, creativity, and writing style to communicate their message, yet they did so under the grace of Divine inspiration. This means that while they wrote in such a way that they had full freedom to write as they wanted, what they wrote was also, “to a tee,” exactly as God wanted written. God is the principle author of the Bible, the human author its secondary writer. Such inspiration is how, despite the various human authors, events, and historical and cultural contexts behind the 73 Biblical texts, we’re still left with only one story since they all have the same one primary author. 

Given that the Bible is the written word of God, I’d like to offer a few “tips” for reading the Bible, since it certainly cannot be read like any other text. 

1. Pray! We must pray before opening the Scriptures for enlightenment from God. We must pray after reading in thanksgiving to God. And we must pray throughout reading in order to encounter God in Scripture and apply it to our life. Of course, the tried and trusted practice of praying the Scriptures is Lectio DivinaThe Ladder of Monks by Guigo II is the ancient resource for Lectio Divina, while a helpful book to get you started is Dr. Tim Gray’s Praying Scripture for a Change: An Introduction to Lectio Divina

2. Remember that you are in no rush. The important point is encountering Christ in the Scriptures, not racing through them. Speed reading isn’t reading, after all, much less when applied to the Word of God. It’s not about getting through the Bible, but encountering Christ therein. That may be a few chapters at a time or may actually be only one verse that you pray with. Whatever the case, slow and steady wins the race, as Aesop reminds us. 

3. We have to read the Scriptures regularly, daily if possible. We read in Psalm 1, “Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers; but his delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night.” Meditating day and night. A good way to start would be to read one Psalm a night as a part of your nightly prayer. Ever better would be praying that one Psalm with your spouse, if married. 

4. Do not worry about starting on page one and reading from cover to cover. It’s easy to get overwhelmed and lost in the text. We all know about Adam and Eve, Noah and the Flood, Moses and the Plagues. But how many understand animal sacrifices in the Book of Leviticus or its purity laws? It’s very easy, starting from page one and flipping straight through, to lose sight of the story of salvation history. Start from page one if you’d like, but don’t feel like you can’t start with whatever book (especially the Gospels) that you find yourself drawn to. 

5. Come take classes with the Denver Catholic Biblical School! In chapter eight of the Book of Acts, we read of an Ethiopian Eunuch reading from the Prophet Isaiah. When the Deacon Philip asks him if he understands what he’s reading, the Eunuch responds, “How can I, unless some one guides me?” This is what we at the Biblical School are here for – to guide you in your encounter with Christ in the Sacred Scriptures. We’re in the middle of our Scripture classes already for this year, but we always start new classes in the fall every September. And in the meantime, we have plenty of things still coming for this year – a class on Catholic Social Teaching that begins on Jan. 27 a lecture series for Lent that starts on March 1, a conference on the Sacred Heart being offered on May 15 and Aug. 28, and a six-week class on St. Joseph in the summer starting in July. We have something for everybody – just reach out to us!