Wisely watch for the sight
Of the supernova burgeoning over the barn,
Lampshine blurred in the steam of beasts, the spirit’s right
Oasis, light incarnate.
Just like all the stories in the Bible, it isn’t necessary to accept the literal historicity of all the facts that Matthew represents in this story of the visit of the wise men from the East; but, as Fr. Deiss would say, it would be equally imprudent to just brush them all away. What I find is an interesting exercise is to cleanse the palate of all our preconceived notions, and to try re-imagine the story in a kind of tabula rasa.
It’s actually not clear that there were only three visitors; that number comes from the fact that there were three gifts. Nor is there any indication that they were kings; that grew up in popular legend and songs. They do seem to have been astrologers though, which in that time was probably in the brackish water between magic and science, as much fortune telling as anything, but also something common in the Jewish scriptures. (We would probably not condone it now!) And they came in from the East––the place of the appearance of light––maybe from Babylon. (Even Fr. Aelred’s translation of the hymn for Epiphany that we sang mentions “…the Persians from the East.”) There is some speculation that they might have even been Jews in exile, but most scholarship thinks that they were non-Jews… and that seems to me to be the most important fact, the thing that the church focuses on in this feast: that God gave some kind of indication, some inspiration, some sign to people from outside the Chosen People that there has been a divine manifestation. The other two manifestations that are normally celebrated together on this feast are Jesus’ Baptism in the Jordan, which is recorded in all the Gospels, and the wedding feast at Cana, which is recorded only in John; but I think it is significant that this one precedes both of those; the manifestation to people outside of the flock of Israel is the one we really focus on.
I want to be careful to hedge any kind of perceived anti-Jewish sentiment in these remarks by saying that in my mind even Israel in some way is a mythic symbol in this narrative, just as Herod, Jerusalem and Bethlehem are, symbols of established taken-for-granted-religion as contrasted with something new evolving and being revealed. Geographically, it is really not that far from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, a couple of hours walk. So why didn’t Herod and his chief priests and scribes go themselves? Especially in Matthew’s Gospel, you can hear the evangelist waging war against his own Jewish people throughout, but he is writing at a distance of some 60 years or so when the people of Israel are persecuting this new sect of followers of Jesus. But Israel is not left behind in this, nor are the Jewish people. But what Israel then, as Israel today, is being challenged to do is recognize its universality. Hence our entrance song from the prophet Baruch (5:5): Arise, Jersualem, look to the East! Your children come to you; open your gates! (And my Jewish friends up at TempleBeth-el up in Aptos, for instance, are doing just that, reaching out to the marginalized and creating sanctuary.) The more important point for us is that anything addressed to the Jewish people in the gospels is now being addressed to us, to Christians, and of course to our own specific tradition, to us as Catholics. This was one of the amazing features of the Second Vatican Council, and is probably the most salient feature thus far of Pope Francis, that it and he both respond to this call to universalize, to open up, to be in dialogue with the rest of the world.
I generally try to avoid using the word “pagans,” even in reference to the third good of the charism of our Camaldolese Congregation—evangelium paganorum, the “evangelization of pagans”—, mainly because it has such a negative connotation. I usually use the word “non-Christians” (as the Second Vatican Council does) or “non-believers.” (Though some of my acquaintances use the word proudly, I think mainly to “Say it loud, say it proud!” in the face of overbearing Christians. Thus folks at Esalen laughingly refer to themselves as the “pagan monastery,” and there are indeed neo-pagan movements with various degrees of integrity.) When we use the word “pagan,” it is usually in the context or with the mindset of what we call a “theology of replacement,” that in our missionary and evangelization effort we have to come in and wipe everything out that is there, and replace it with Christianity. But this feast tells us something different, and in this context I actually do want to use the word “pagans” (albeit with scare quotes around it), because this feast holds up these people traveling from a far-off land from who-knows-what-religion as the heroes of the story, as opposed to the established religious leaders who lived practically next door. The one detail that I always like the most is that they bring gifts. They bring gifts with them! And their gifts are received! People who come to Jesus bring their own treasures and lay them at his feet, and they and the treasures they carry are received, not tossed aside or left outside.
It is especially when we look at the history of this feast and this whole Christmas season from a liturgical and symbolic standpoint that we realize (with a kind of shock) how much we have received from the “pagans,” besides the gold, frankincense and myrrh! Even the date of Christmas we adapted from the Romans’ Feast of the Unconquered Sun and the “pagan” winter solstice celebration, something that, by the way, our “neo-pagan” friends are still very attracted to. The Christmas tree seems to be borrowed from Nordic “pagan” customs. Farther on, we could mention our philosophy, even our basilicas and our vestments are all derived from “pagans.” And Epiphany itself seems to be an adaptation of the Hellenistic practices of Delphi and the manifestation of the god Apollo. In Alexandria, for example, the winter solstice was celebrated on either the 6th or 10th of January with the pagan celebration of the Sun god Aion who was born of a virgin named Kore. It seems that our first ancestors in the faith knew all about these beliefs, and they didn’t contradict them, they didn’t necessarily want to offend popular piety, but they Christianized these practices, and attributed them to Christ, baptized and converted them, and showed how they were fulfilled in Jesus.
This leads me to a series of conclusions that are all related. First, as Jacques Dupuis would say, that so many good things are not just pre-Christian, but pro-Christian; that many of our cultural treasures are not just before Jesus, but pointing to Jesus. And so, not a theology of replacement, but a theology of fulfillment, meaning that humanity’s strivings toward transcendence and spirituality are beautiful intuitions, if sometimes partial and misdirected, and they are brought to their fulfillment in the Incarnation––the mystery hidden for ages in God… as it has now been revealed, as Paul writes in this letter to the Ephesians. Notice in the earliest years of the church there is already a shift away from the Hebrew emphasis on wiping out nations that get in the way and destroying temples and smashing idols. Why? Well, we’re back to a fundamental truth expressed in Catholic theology through Thomas Aquinas but already visible in the earliest days of the church: because grace builds on but does not destroy nature! And is this not the ultimate meaning of the Word became flesh and dwelt among us? We are not destroyed by the coming of grace, nor is our culture or are any of our treasures destroyed. We are, they are, received, reverenced, and brought to their fulfillment. And so, when people come to the Church––or when the Church goes to people––maybe our first response, along with offering them the Good News of Jesus, is to pay attention to the treasures that they already have and the treasures that they already are, and to reverence those gifts, uphold those gifts, say a berakah prayer over them and lift them up on high. We need to open our gates! And the same thing when people come to our community, any community: it is easy to play the part of the holy ones who have all this rich treasure to offer. But in doing so we are often blind to the riches that our visitors bring to us. I think of Pico and Vicki and Michael Richards, to name a few, not to mention these wonderful men who have come to share life with us in formation and as vocation candidates in the past years. This too is an epiphany, you know: to recognize that God is already and always manifesting in the beautiful face of my brother, in the simple gifts of my sister, in the stories of a guest seeking shelter and rest. Like Israel of old—and I think the Holy Father would back me up on this one—we have to open up and make sure we stay open (!), and realize that sometimes the visitors in our midst, even the “pagans,” are recognizing and carrying and manifesting the Word in ways that remain hidden to us.
And finally, this bringing and receiving of the gifts from these visitors from the East could be seen as a Eucharistic moment, too, because this is exactly what we do when we carry the gifts to the altar: we lay our gifts at the feet of Jesus, and not anything even as beautiful as gold, frankincense and myrrh—just lowly bread and musty old wine, which are of course symbols of our lives, our joys and pains, our treasures and our hurts, our loves and our dreams. And they are received and lifted up, and that is what gets turned into the Body and Blood of Christ. It is about just these things that Jesus says, “This is my body! This is my blood!”