Text: Isaiah 60:1-6; Ephesians 3:2-3a, 5-6; Matthew 2:1-12.
The three who came from the East are called wise, and indeed they showed their wisdom by obeying the star’s call to come and pay homage to this mysterious newborn king, and again when they heeded the dream’s warning not to return to the jealous Herod.
I am, by training, an engineer; the interpretation of stars and dreams is not something that was given much credit in my education, and most of our society today generally dismisses such things as superstitious hogwash. Our Catechism even states that “All forms of divination are to be rejected … [as] practices falsely supposed to ‘unveil’ the future, … [which] conceal a desire for power over time, history, and, in the last analysis, other human beings … [and] contradict the honor, respect, and loving fear that we owe to God alone.”1 And yet, these travelers are our representatives, as the Gentiles who come to Jesus from outside the Jewish tradition, as most of us here have done. How can we reconcile this seeming contradiction, so that we too can bring our gifts in honor and love to God?
To answer this, we need to look again at wisdom. Wisdom is a subtle thing, transcending the merely intellectual. In the mind’s realm, everything we experience and observe is data, which we analyze and fit into patterns to form information. When that information is absorbed, it becomes knowledge, and when that knowledge is in turn integrated into a global framework, it becomes understanding. Wisdom is something more: it directs the application of knowledge and understanding, living in one’s words and actions as a moral, not an intellectual, property. Knowledge and understanding, rightly applied, are at wisdom’s service; unapplied, they are sterile, and wrongly applied (as by Herod), they serve worldly cunning.
As such, wisdom should influence how we interpret events, and how we respond to them, as it did in the wise men. This is because our interpretation is itself a choice, an action to which we can be mindful. When we look for knowledge and understanding, we can receive or reject whatever presents itself to us; the wise consider carefully the source and implications of a message, proceeding from the premise that God is both truth and love, so anything that seems to lead away from love must be considered with utmost care, since either it, or our love, is either false or misunderstood. We observe the world around us openly and honestly; the days when the truths demonstrated by well-grounded science are suppressed in misguided service to an ignorant cosmological conception elevated to the status of dogma are hopefully behind our church for good.
Revelation reached the Magi through the means that were understood in that time and place; it was no matter of “divination,” of attempting to take for themselves knowledge and power to which they had no right. They did not seek out these signs and visions for their own aggrandizement, but received them as gifts. They then confirmed the truth of the message they had received by humbly and reverently going and seeing. Understanding the value of peace and righteous authority, they chose to bring gifts to Jesus; the grasping, fearful Herod would instead have come with a cord to strangle the child, in hopes of protecting his own power. The priests and scribes who told Herod where the Messiah was to be born aimed to ingratiate themselves with the holders of temporal power: Herod was Rome’s vassal, and clearly had no intention of submitting to this upstart king, whatever he told the foreigners. They abused the revelation of the prophets, applying it to aid their own and Herod’s cunning. They did not go themselves, but treated the travelers as their servants and scouts. Fortunately, the wise men’s understanding of politics and of Herod’s character led them to accept the dream’s warning, since it confirmed what they had seen with their waking eyes. Their wisdom was not blind to evil, but responded to it in an effective, yet non-destructive, manner.
Revelation reaches us too, along with Paul and all of the Apostles and Prophets, by way of the Spirit. It is not always direct: sometimes, perhaps most often, God is revealed in the actions, words, and persons of those around us. It is for us to be open to it, while trusting in Providence that nothing we really need will be withheld from us, so that we may ask, seek, and knock, but not demand, pry, or break down.2 This is part of the promise of which Paul writes, that we all receive as heirs the glory of God, of which Isaiah wrote so lavishly.
It remains for us only to hear and act wisely. There is a simple basis for this—love—but the specifics vary as widely as we do ourselves. The beginnings are always in mindfulness, in taking care and thinking through the implications of things. We can’t predict everything, but we gain in and apply our understanding, and trust that what is beyond us is God’s. The manifestation of God’s love that is revealed to the travelers and to us in Jesus is the light that has come; listen and see, shine and be radiant, because God is eager to share his glory through his abundant love.
1: Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1984, Para. 2116.
2: Luke 11:9-13
And now to nap... I fear I may have a cold.