The Many Meanings of January 1st

123114This feast day of January 1st is a very complex tapestry, both culturally and liturgically. Perhaps we can use the second reading by St. Paul to the Galatians as a way to weave through some of the many details. We can look at it in three parts.

The chronology of our celebration – The text from St. Paul’s letter to the Galatians says, When the fullness of time had come …

Most people in the wider culture and in the Church are going about today saying, “Happy New Year!” And rightfully so, for it is the beginning of the new year. But most people think of New Year’s Day in almost wholly secular terms. Sadly, it is best known for excessive drinking and rather loud parties.

Yet it is a mistake to see New Year’s Day simply as a secular holiday. St. Paul reminds us, in speaking of “the fullness of time,” that all time and all ages belong to God.

It is not simply 2020; it is 2020 Anno Domini (A.D.). Even the most secular and unbelieving of people in the Western world locate their place in time in relation to Jesus Christ. It is 2020 years since the birth of Christ. Every time we write the date on a check or at the top of the letter, every time we see the date at the top of the newspaper or on our computer screen, that number, 2020, points back to Christ. He is the Lord of history. Jesus sets the date; He is the clock we go by. All time belongs to Him.

Jesus says in the book of Revelation, I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, The beginning and the end. He who is, and who was, and who is to come (Revelation 22:13).

If it is true that 2020 references the birth of Christ, the question arises as to why Christmas Day is not also New Year’s Day. But this actually fits in well to liturgical and spiritual sensibilities.

In the Church, and stretching back into Jewish times, it was customary to celebrate the high feasts of faith over the period of a week. In Christian tradition this came to be known as the “octave.” Although we think of a week as comprising seven days, consider that we celebrated Christmas this past Wednesday and this week we celebrate New Year’s Day on Wednesday; Wednesday to Wednesday, inclusive, is eight days.

Wednesday, January 1, 2020 is the eighth day of Christmas. In the Christian tradition the octave is considered really as one long day that lasts eight days. Therefore, Wednesday, January 1, 2020, completes Christmas day; Christmas day is fulfilled. Or as St. Paul says, the “fullness of time” in terms of Christmas day has come. And thus the calendars flip from one year to the next. Now, at the end of Christmas day, our calendars go from 2019 to 2020 A.D.

The rest of the secular world has largely moved on already, barely thinking of Christmas anymore. As I walk in my neighborhood, I see the strange spectacle of Christmas trees already set out at the curb waiting to be picked up by the recycling trucks. Yes, for many in our hurried world, Christmas is over. But we in the Church continue to celebrate the great Christmas feast and cycle. Having completed the octave, we move on to Epiphany week.

Thus, this New Year, we contemplate the “fullness of time.” The passage of another year reminds us of the magnificent truth that to God all time, past, present, and future, is equally present. He holds all things together in Himself. He is the same yesterday, today, tomorrow, and forever. And whenever He acts, He always acts in our time, out of the fullness of time. This is a very deep mystery and we should ponder in silence the mystery that for God, all things are. He is not waiting for things to happen. For Him, everything is accomplished. I will write more on this in tomorrow’s blog.

The content of our celebration – St. Paul goes on to say, God sent forth his son born of a woman. And with this statement we are again reminded that we are still in the Christmas cycle.

We’ve already discussed the concept of the eighth day, of the octave. And while it is New Year’s Day, there is also a complex tapestry of religious meanings to this day as well.

As we’ve already seen, it is still Christmas day, the eighth day of the one long day that we call Christmas Day.

Historically, this is also the day of Christ’s circumcision. And for a long period in Church history that was the name given to this feast day, “The Circumcision of the Lord.” As I have written previously, I personally regret the loss of this feast, at least in terms of its title.

This is the day when Joseph and Mary brought Christ to be circumcised. In this, Jesus as man and also as God reverences the covenant He has made with His people. It is a beautiful truth that God seeks relationship with His people. And in this covenantal act of the circumcision is the moving truth that, as the Letter to the Hebrews puts it, Jesus is not ashamed to call us His brothers (Heb 2:11).

There is here the first shedding of blood by Jesus. It is also a sign of His love for us.

Another truth about the content of this feast is the Holy Name of Jesus. For not only was a Jewish boy circumcised on the eighth day, but he was also given his name, and all hear that name for the first time.

The name, Jesus, means “God saves.” And indeed this most Holy Name of Jesus, when used in reverence, has saving power. We are baptized in His Holy Name along with that of the Father and the Holy Spirit. And all of our prayers conclude with His Holy Name. Scripture says of His great and holy name,

Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father (Phil 2: 9-11).

And yet another identity and content of this feast day is shown in its current, formal title, “The Solemnity of Mary Mother of God.” This title replaced the title of the Feast of the Circumcision back in 1970. However, it is the most ancient title for this feast day. Again, you can read more on this issue in a previous blog post.

We note in the reading that Paul says that God sent forth his Son, born of a woman. Jesus is the eternal Son of the Father; He is God from God, Light from Light, True God from True God. Jesus is God, and since Mary gives birth to Jesus, Mary is the Mother of God, because Jesus is not two different persons.

Mary did not just give birth to part of Jesus, she gives birth to Jesus. And thus the title “Mother of God” speaks to us as much about Jesus as it does about Mary. It is a title that she has because of the Church’s insistence that Jesus cannot be divided up into two different people. We cannot say that Mary gives birth to one Jesus but not “the other one.” There is only one Jesus, though He has two natures, human and divine.

And thus, on this feast of Christmas, on this eighth day of Christmas, we are reminded and solemnly taught that Jesus is human and also divine. In taking a human nature to Himself from his mother Mary, He remains one person. God has sent forth his son born of woman.

The consolation of our celebration – St. Paul goes on to say, Born under the law to ransom those under the law so that we might receive adoption as sons. As proof that you are sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son in our hearts crying out Abba, Father! So you are no longer a slave,  but a son, and, if a son, also an heir through God.

Note three things about this text:

Our Adoption – We have already noted that on the eighth day Jesus is circumcised and enters into the Covenant,  into the Law. In the Incarnation He joins the human family; in the Covenant He joins our family of faith. He will fulfill the old Covenant and inaugurate the new one. And by this New Covenant, by baptism into Him, we become members of His Body and thereby become adopted as sons.

We become sons in the Son. When God the Father looks to His Son, loving His Son, he is also looking at us and loving us, for we are in Christ Jesus, members of His Body through baptism. God is now our Father, not in some allegorical sense, but in a very real sense. We are in Jesus and therefore God really is our Father.

Our Acclamation – St. Paul says that the proof of our sonship is the movement of the Holy Spirit in us that cries out Abba! In Aramaic and Hebrew, Abba is the family term for father. It is not baby talk, like “Dada.” But just as most adults called their father “Dad” or some other endearment rather than “father,” so it is that Abba is the family term for father. It would be a daring thing for us to call God “Dad” unless we were permitted to do so, and instructed to do so by Christ.

St. Paul speaks of this word as proof that we are sons. In so doing, he emphasizes that it is not merely the saying of the word that he refers to. Even a parrot can be taught to say the word. Rather, St. Paul is referring to what the word represents: an inner movement of the Holy Spirit wherein we experience a deep affection for God the Father. By our adoption, our baptism into Christ, by our reception of the Holy Spirit, we love the Father! We develop a deep affection for Him and dread offending Him. By this gift of the Spirit, God is my Father whom I deeply love!

Our advancement – Notice that St. Paul then speaks of how we have moved from being a slave to being a son, an heir. In Jesus, we are not just any son, we are the only Son of the Father. And as Jesus has a kingdom from His Father, we too inherit it with Him! As sons in the Son, we are heirs with Jesus to the Kingdom!  Jesus speaks of His disciples as one day reigning with Him: And I confer on you a kingdom, just as my Father conferred one on me (Lk 22:29). In Jesus, all Heaven will be ours and we will reign with Christ forever. This is not our doing, not our glory; it is Christ’s doing and His glory in which we share.

And thus we have a very rich tapestry on this New Year’s Day, this feast of the Octave of Christmas, this Feast of the Circumcision of the Lord, this Feast of the Holy Name of Jesus, this Feast of Mary the Mother of God. And also we are given this feast wherein the glory of Christ is held before us and we who are  members of His body are told of the gifts that we receive by His Holy Incarnation and His Passion, Death, and Resurrection.

It’s not a bad way to start the new year: reminded of God’s incredible love for us, of His rich blessings and promises.

On the Value of Silence before the Great Mystery of the Incarnation

blog-12-tnSomething at Christmas urges me (a man of many words) to write of holy silence. Perhaps it is due to one of the great Christmas antiphons, which speaks of the birth of Christ as a magnum mysterium (a great mystery). During Mass recently, the words of Zechariah came to mind:

Sing and rejoice, O daughter of Zion, for behold, I come and I will dwell in your midst, declares the Lord … Be silent, all flesh, before the Lord, for he has roused himself from his holy dwelling (Zechariah 2:11, 13).

There is a common idiom: “Words fail me.” It is in this context that we can best understand God’s call to fall silent before the mystery of the Lord’s incarnation. Notice in the passage above that the call to silence follows the call to “sing and rejoice.”

Is there a difference between singing and rejoice and just plain speaking? Of course there is! By adding the inscrutable sighs we call “song” (a deeply mysterious emanation from our souls) to the words, singing is declaring that “words fail.”

To be sure, words are a “necessary evil” for us, but in using words we indicate more what a thing is not than what it is. For example, if I say to you, “I am a man,” I have really told you more what I am not than what I am. I have told you I am not a woman nor a chair nor a lion nor a rock. But I have not told what it means to be a man. I have not told you myriad other things about myself that I could: I am a priest; my father was a lawyer and Navy veteran; my mother was a teacher; I am descended from Irish, German, and English immigrants. I have not told you about my gifts or my talents or my struggles or numerous other aspects that make me who I am. And even if I spent several paragraphs relating my curriculum vitae to you, there would still be vastly more left unsaid than was said. Words fail.

Further, words are not the reality they (often poorly) attempt to convey. They are symbols of what they indicate. If you see a sign, “Washington” you don’t stop there and take a picture of the sign. The sign itself is not Washington; it merely points to the reality that is Washington. You pass the sign and enter into a reality far bigger than the metal sign and begin to experience it. Words fail.

Many words are also more unlike the reality they describe than like it. My philosophy teacher once asked us how we would describe the color green to a man born blind. We struggled with the task but were able to come up with some analogies: green is like the taste of cool mint; green is like the feel of dew-covered grass. To some extent green is like these things, but the color green is more unlike these things than like them. Green, as a reality, is so much richer than the taste of cool mint or the feel of dew-covered grass. Words fail.

And if this be so in the case of mere earthly things, how much more so in the case of heavenly and Godly matters! The Lord, therefore, commands a holy silence of us as a kind of reminder that words fail. Silence is proper reverence for the mystery of the incarnation and of God. Words are necessary; without them, orthodoxy could not be set forth, and truth could not be conveyed. But, especially regarding God and the truths of faith, there comes this salutary reminder from St. Thomas Aquinas: Now, because we cannot know what it God is, but rather what he is not, we have no means for considering how God is, but rather how he is not (Prima pars, q. 3, prologue).

Therefore, fellow Catholics, as the mysteries of the incarnation unfold for us liturgically, Let all mortal flesh keep silence, and with fear and trembling stand, Christ our God to earth descendeth, bearing blessings in his hand (from the hymn, “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence”).

Biblical Teaching on Marriage and Family—A Homily for the Feast of the Holy Family

It is not difficult to demonstrate that most of our modern problems center around marriage, sexuality, and the family. In our thinking and our behavior in these three fundamental areas, we have departed significantly from the teachings of God and from common sense.

Today’s Feast of the Holy Family provides a rich tapestry of Scripture readings and presents us with an opportunity to reflect. Many of these teachings are not politically correct, but for that I make no apology. They remain God’s teachings and it is hard to argue that modern notions of sexuality, marriage and family have produced anything short of catastrophe. And, as is often the case, it is children who suffer the most.

Any look at statistics reveals facts and trends that are not merely alarming but downright astonishing, especially given how suddenly they have occurred. More than 40% of children in this country today are raised in homes without both parents. The numbers are even lower within minority communities.

In 1961, the year I was born, 80% of black children were raised in a two-parent family; today that number is 20%. And for whatever assertions may be made regarding ongoing poverty, the poverty rate overall and in the black community is substantially lower today than it was in 1961. Even with far greater pressures, black families used to stay together and work through their difficulties. Today, despite far greater affluence, this is no longer the case. White families and other ethnic/racial groups may have numbers that are slightly less shocking, but when we factor in age and generational differences, the numbers are not that far apart across the races/ethnicities.

The two-parent, heterosexual family is becoming an endangered species. Many grave consequences have resulted from this decline: lower student test scores and graduation rates; higher rates of divorce, cohabitation, teenage pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases, declared homosexual inclination, and juvenile delinquency. Clearly, as the model of the stable, faithful heterosexual marriage becomes rarer, young people become less and less likely to be able to establish strong families of their own.

Despite the claims that this disordered state of affairs is just fine and that “alternative families” are just as good as traditional ones, most people know that this is a lie. It’s just common sense that the best for any child is to be raised in what nature and nature’s God has set forth as the proper environment: a father and a mother, a male and female, in a stable, committed, lasting marriage. In this safe environment of trust, children learn the male and female genius of being human. A mother alone or a father alone or two fathers or two mothers or any other combination is far less than ideal; to intentionally subject children to this is an injustice to them.

Yet such departures from God’s plan for marriage and family are increasingly the norm today. There is much about which to pray and reflect on this Feast of the Holy Family.

Having reviewed in a general way the problems regarding sexuality and family life today, let’s take a look at some of the highlights of today’s readings and see five basic teachings or themes.

Honor The opening of the first reading says, God sets a father in honor over his children; a mother’s authority he confirms over her sons (Sirach 3:2). The reading goes on to state the blessings that come from this honor and obedience.

Yet, in modern culture, honor directed toward parents and elders has increasingly disappeared. The steady diet of most children, whether through television, music, or other media, leads them to think that they are the smart ones while adults are clueless and out-of-touch. And when fathers are even present, they are often depicted as buffoons.

When I was a child, my father forbade us to watch The Flintstones. He said that he would not allow his children to watch a cartoon that presented adults as stupid because this would discourage respect for elders. He was right. Of course, The Flintstones is pretty mild in its depiction of adults compared to what is common today.

God teaches and commands children to honor their father and their mother. Without respect and honor, there can be no teaching or handing on of wisdom from previous generations. The lack of honor and respect for parents, elders, and authority figures in our culture goes a long way to explain why we are repeating foolish mistakes long since discarded by our forebears.

While previous generations of Christians were by no means sinless, it is evident that we are moving rapidly backwards; the folly and sinfulness of the pagan world described by St. Paul in Romans Chapter 1 have reemerged on a wide scale. Our folly is even worse, though, because unlike the pagans of old, we have access to the gospel and our culture has emerged from the Judeo-Christian wisdom. But in a kind of adolescent rebellion, we have collectively cast off the respect and honor that is due our elders as well as the traditions and wisdom that they and the Church can offer us.

We must restore honor to our parents, elders, and lawful authority (e.g., the Church) if we want to see our families and culture strong again. Parents and those in lawful authority must also learn to teach and act as those worthy of commanding respect.

Hierarchy – Although it is currently politically incorrect, the Lord through Scripture teaches that the family must be hierarchically ordered, with the father and husband as its head.

Today’s text from Colossians says clearly,

Wives, be subordinate to your husbands, as is proper in the Lord. Husbands, love your wives, and avoid any bitterness toward them. Children, obey your parents in everything, for this is pleasing to the Lord (Col 3:19-21).

Headship is required of every group. A body with two heads is freakish, and a body with no head is dead. It is the same for organizations and groups. Even in consultative bodies, headship is required. God sets a husband and father as head of the household, the domestic church. This is consistently taught in scripture (Col 3:18; Eph 5:22; 1 Peter 3:1, inter al).

The authority a husband and father has is for service, not domination. He exercises it among those of equal dignity before God, but he has this authority and it ought to be acknowledged and observed. He is not to be bitter toward his wife or lord it over her, but he must be willing, with love, to manifest headship in his household. (I have written more on this topic here: A Unpopular Teaching on Marriage.)

Many today have set this teaching aside, and the result is that many marriages resemble more an ongoing power struggle than a loving, cohesive unit. It is not necessary or even wise for a husband to micromanage everything in his household; he does well to keep deep communion with his wife and often defer to her judgment. However, there are some matters that require a final decision-maker, someone to whom everyone turns for direction and for a final decision. Scripture assigns this role to the husband and father.

Scripture says, Children, obey your parents in everything, for this is pleasing to the Lord (Col 3:20). God sets a father in honor over his children; a mother’s authority he confirms over her sons (Sir 3:2). While we have already commented on these verses in terms of respect and honor, we ought to note them here in terms of hierarchy. Children are to respect the hierarchy of the family. They are not on par with their parents and should not act as if they are.

When I was growing up, my Father made sure to confirm my mother’s authority over us children; he would not tolerate us being disobedient or disrespectful toward her. A good husband and father is careful to do this. Even when we were adults, my father would not allow us to speak ill of our mother or behave disrespectfully toward her.

Thus, while all the members of the family have equal dignity before God, not all have the same role. Hierarchy is important in the family for good order and teaching. God sets it forth and it ought to be observed carefully.

Helpful virtues – The first part of the second reading today from Colossians 3 provides a veritable encyclopedia of virtues to cultivate.

Put on, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, heartfelt compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience, bearing with one another and forgiving one another… put on love, that is, the bond of perfection. And let the peace of Christ control your hearts…And be thankful (Col 3:12-15).

When I am preparing couples for marriage, I spend an entire session talking about this passage. All the virtues here are essential for good family life.

Notice how many of the virtues emphasize compassion, mercy, and forgiveness. Families are composed of sinful human beings who have issues and struggles. Day-to-day life, too, can be difficult, causing strain on marriage and family. How essential, then, to develop these virtues!

Every now and again people come to me for advice in preparing for Confession; I often refer them to this very passage. I ask them to read Colossians 3 and assure them that if they read it carefully, they’ll have plenty to confess before they’re halfway through!

So many stresses and strains could be either avoided, endured, or handle charitably if the virtues of Colossians 3 would only be cultivated.

Holy teaching – The text from Colossians goes on to say, Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, as in all wisdom you teach and admonish one another, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God (Col 3:16).

Nothing can be more essential in having a godly and holy family than having godly and holy teaching.

With rare exception, we have utterly failed in this regard. There is nothing more important than instruction for eternal life. Yet in how many families is this instruction seldom or never given?

If a child is failing math or some other subject in school, most parents react with alarm, realizing that their child’s future may be at stake. They will often spend money to secure tutors and other help. If their child knows little or nothing about God, about why they were made, about the purpose of their life, though, who cares?

Parents put bumper stickers on their car boasting that their child is on the honor roll but have little interest in whether he or she can recite the Hail Mary or the Glory Be or knows the difference between the Old and the New Testaments. Where’s the bumper sticker that says, “My child knows the Lord!” or “My child is smart enough to pray!”

Parents will spend tens of thousands of dollars so their child can get a college degree, a career, a car, a house. Yet do they even inquire as to whether their child attends Mass or is living anything close to a Christian moral life?

This is a tragic situation: the ladder of “success” is leaning up against the wrong wall. Great effort is expended on things that pass away and almost none on things that will last forever, come Heaven or Hell.

Scripture is clear: the home must be a place where godly wisdom is taught, lived, modeled, and proclaimed. Parents should read their children Bible stories every day. Children must be taught God’s law and how to walk in the holy fear and reverence of Him. Family members should not only teach one another; they must admonish as well, summoning back to what is right and true.

Parents are the principal educators of children in the ways of faith. While much is rightly said about the dearth of teaching coming from the pulpit, ten minutes a week is not going to accomplish what is necessary or called for in a text like this. Even if a particular parish lacks a good preacher, that is no excuse for failing to teach one’s children. There’s nothing to prevent parents from carefully studying the catechism and teaching their children from it or reading them stories from a children’s Bible every day and teaching them God’s Word. Holy teaching should be the hallmark of every family.

Heroic sacrifice – In this matter we look to St. Joseph in today’s Gospel reading. Through an angel, God instructs Joseph to protect his wife and child by taking them to Egypt immediately, for King Herod seeks to kill the child.

How many fathers, indeed parents in general, struggle to get their priorities right? Too often career eclipses their vocation. For many fathers, their work takes priority over their role as husband/father. While the two are not directly opposed, there are times when the focus on career can to damage the capacity to be a good husband and father.

What Joseph has to do in going to Egypt will clearly have an impact on his career and his agenda. Scripture speaks of him as a tekton, which many think means “carpenter,” but it is more literally translated as “builder.” Joseph probably worked in the building trades. Going to Egypt in the middle if the night will certainly hurt his business. In addition, he would likely have preferred to return home than to go to a foreign land. But his child and wife need him. He is their protector; the husband, father, and head of the household.

Heroically, Joseph obeys God and immediately takes his wife and child out of harm’s way. He does not count the personal cost. This is the kind of heroic sacrifice sometimes required of parents and family members. Joseph approaches this situation as a husband and father, not a businessman.

Doing this is hard, and it is heroic; many a man’s ego is strongly linked to his work. As would most human beings, men naturally fear losing their livelihood. Joseph heroically trusts God and witnesses that his vocation as husband and father is more important than even his “paycheck.”

More than ever today we need more heroism of this sort. The pursuit of wealth and a comfortable lifestyle too often trump the essential work of being a parent and spouse. Lifestyles today are often too costly to maintain, requiring two incomes and/or long hours. But children need their parents at home more than they need a big house or nice cars. Having a vacation home may be nice but having your parents at home is better.

Too many parents today are willing to let strangers raise their children so that they can earn more money. For what? For the children? Really? If it is “for” them, why are they often pushed to the margins? Life is complicated, but every now and then it is good to re-examine our priorities and be willing to sacrifice for what is more important than what we merely desire.

Here, then, are some teachings on marriage and family from today’s feast. We do well to heed what the Lord teaches. Our families are in crisis. Individual choices have led us here and individual choices will have to lead us out.

God has a plan for marriage and family: one man and one woman in a stable, faithful, and fruitful union, raising their children in that context and bringing them up in the holy fear of the Lord. We must heed this plan or suffer the consequences.

Finally, there is a tendency when hearing teachings with which one has struggled to lash out in anger (“You’re judging me!”) or to become despondent and retreat into silence. Please do not do either. All of us, whether we have been able to keep to God’s teaching or not, ought to proclaim it. Perhaps you have not been able to get married and/or stay married. Perhaps you wanted to remain married, but your spouse was unwilling. Perhaps you had a child outside of marriage. This is all the more reason to speak clearly to your children and grandchildren and urge them to seek God’s graces early. God has a plan, and it is for our good not our ill. Teach it boldly and with courageous love!

Here is a video that describes typical family homes in Jesus’ time.

Why Do We Think of Christ’s Birth As a Nighttime Event?

O Holy night! Yes, a silent night! And it came upon a midnight clear! Christmas, it would seem, is a festival of the middle of the night. Jesus is born when it is dark, dark midnight. We are sure of it. And why shouldn’t we be?

Even though we are not told the exact hour of His birth, we are sure it must have been at night. Scripture does say that the Shepherds who heard the glad tidings were keeping watch over their flock “by night” (cf Luke 2:9). Further, the Magi sought Him by the light of a star, and stars are seen at night, deep midnight. None of this is evidence that Jesus was born at 12:00 midnight but it sets our clocks for night, deep midnight.

Add to this the fact that Christmas is celebrated at the winter solstice, the very darkest time of the year in the northern hemisphere. More specifically, Christmas comes when light is just beginning its subtle return. The darkest and shortest days of the year occur around December 21st and 22nd. But by December 23rd and 24th we notice a definite but subtle trend: the days are getting longer; the light is returning! It’s time to celebrate the return of the light. It’s going to be all right!

How fitting it is to celebrate the birth of Jesus, the true Light of the World, in deep and dark December. Jesus our light kindles a fire that never dies away. Indeed, in the dark hours of December, we notice a trend: the light is returning; the darkness is abating; the days are beginning to grow longer. It is subtle right now, but it will grow. And with the return of light, we celebrate our True Light: Jesus.

But light is best appreciated in contrast. We appreciate most the glory of light when the darkness assails us. There’s just something about Christmas Eve. As the time approaches through December and the darkness grows, we light lights. Yes, all through December we light Advent candles, more candles as it grows darker. Even the secular among us string up lights, in malls, on their houses, in their workplace. It’s as if to say, the darkness cannot win; the light conquers!

Lights show their true glory when contrasted with darkness. Who sees the stars in the middle of the day? Who appreciates the full beauty of light until he has experienced darkness? Yes, Christmas is a feast of the light. We confront the darkness of December and declare to it, “Your deepest days are over. The light is returning.” And we of faith say to a world in ever deeper darkness, “Your darkness cannot prevail. It will be overcome and replaced.” For although darkness has its season, it is always conquered by the light.

An atheist recently scoffed at me in the comments of this blog that our day is over; the world has rejected faith. Sorry, dear atheist friend, the light always wins. On December 22nd, the darkness begins to recede and the light begins to return. The light returns subtly at first, but it always does; the darkness cannot last.

Light has a way of simply replacing the darkness. In three months the equinox occurs and in six months the summer solstice, when we have the most light. Then the darkness will once again seek to conquer. But it always loses! The light will return. Jesus is always born at the hour of darkness’ greatest moment. Just when the darkness is celebrating most, its hour is over; the light dawns again.

We celebrate after sundown on December 24th, in accordance with a tradition going back to Jewish times (feasts begin at sundown the night before). Christmas morning is almost an afterthought. Most pastors know that the majority of their people come to Mass the “night before.” In a deep and dark December, a light comes forth. A star shines in the heavens.

We gather together in and on a dark night. We smile. We are moved by the cry of a small infant, by whose voice the heavens were made.

His little cry lights up the night. The darkness must go; the light has come; day is at hand.

We celebrate at night so as to bid farewell to the darkness. It cannot prevail. It is destined to be scattered by a Light far more powerful than it is, a Light it must obey, a Light that overwhelms and replaces it. Farewell to darkness; the Light of the World has come!

Jesus is the Light of the World.

The video below is a celebration of light. As a Christmas gift to myself I took the afternoon of December 22nd (the darkest day of the year) off so that I could photograph the triumph of light over darkness. I went to a mausoleum, a place where thousands are buried in the walls. But also in those walls are windows, glorious windows where light breaks through and Christ shines forth. Some of the most beautiful stained glass in the city of Washington, D.C. resides in that place of death and darkness. The light breaks through and it speaks of Christ.

This video shows only some of those stained glass windows (I am putting together a video of other windows to be shown later). The text of the music in this video is from Taizé, and it says, Christe lux mundi, qui sequitur te, habebit lumen vitae, lumen vitae (Christ, Light of the World, who follows you has the light of life, the light of life).

As you view this video depicting the Life of Christ, ponder that although stained glass begins as opaque sand, when subjected to and purified by fire it radiates the glory of the light which can now shine through it. So it is for us. Born in darkness but purified by Christ and the fire of the Spirit, we begin to radiate His many splendored Light shining through us to a dark world.

The Light wins. He always wins.

A Meditation on the Bloody Octave of Christmas

Many are shocked to walk into daily Mass on December 26 and instead of hearing more of the “Baby Jesus” we are confronted with Martyrdom, “The Feast of Stephen” is ancient on the Church’s calendar. More ancient than the Christmas cycle and hence it was not removed to another time.

Bu the martyrdom does not stop there. We are in the midst of the Christmas Octave, an Octave filled with blood as we shall see.

What is an Octave? But first, there may be some of you who wonder what is meant by and “Octave.” An Octave is a period of eight days wherein a feast of the Church is celebrated for that whole period as though it were all the same day. In the modern liturgical calendar we only observe two octaves explicitly: Christmas and Easter.

During the week following Christmas many of the prayers speak of each day as though it were still Christmas. For example some of the prayers and antiphons say, “Today is born our savior, Christ the Lord.” A purist might say, but it is NOT today that he is born, it was back on Saturday the 25th that he was born. But, in certain sense this IS still Christmas day. Christmas Day is one long day of eight days from Saturday the 25th to Saturday January 1st.

It is the same with Easter where for one whole week we announce: “This is the day the Lord has made…”

Why eight days? Some say it is a reference to the eighth day on which Christ rose. I know, you thought it was the third day. But it was also the eighth day! For God made the world in seven days, resting on the seventh (Sabbath or Saturday). But Christ rose on the 8th day (Sunday). So resurrection morning is both the third day AND the eighth day! Others say the practice of the octave goes to Jewish times where some of the feasts (e.g. Dedication and Tabernacles (Booths)) were celebrated over 8 days.

In the old calendar there were more Octaves such as: Epiphany, Pentecost, All Saints, Immaculate Conception, Ascension Sacred Heart and others). Not all of these were privileged Octaves in which no other feasts could be celebrated. Easter and Pentecost were really the only two that blocked out all other feasts entirely. Others, like the Christmas Octave, allowed the celebration of other feasts but still referred to the feast of the octave as well.

So here we are in the Christmas Octave and, in a strong sense it is thus still Christmas Day. TODAY is born our savior Christ the Lord. This feast is so important that we stretch its observance a completed week and into the eighth day.

Bloody Octave – But one of the striking things about the Christmas octave is its bloodiness. It is one of the bloodiest weeks of the Church’s years. Thus, on December 26th, when we have hardly digested our Christmas dinner, we celebrate the Feast of St. Stephen, the Martyr who was stoned to death. On December 28th we celebrate the Feast of the Holy Innocents, the young and infant boys who were murdered by Herod seeking to kill Christ. On December 29th we celebrate the feast of St. Thomas Becket who was murdered in Canterbury Cathedral. Even St. (King) Wenceslaus of whom we happily sing “on the Feast of Stephen” was brutally killed by his brother.

Why all this blood, why this martyrdom? It is almost as though the red poinsettias that we put out in festive Christmas spirit look back to us in testimony. For it is clear that Jesus came to this world, ultimately to die. His crib (likely of wood) in which he was laid, arms and feet bound by swaddling clothes, points inevitably to the wood of his cross where, once again, his arms and legs were bound by nails and, after dying, he was wrapped tightly in a linen shroud.

The blood of the Christmas octave also reminds us that many of us too will share in Christ’s lot. This world hated Christ and had “no room for him.” Neither does this world have room for true Christians and the blood of martyrs stretches down through the centuries in testimony to the world’s hatred for authentic disciples of Christ and the truth they propose.

From this bloody octave the words of Christ ring out: If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you (Jn 15:19). The martyrs of the Christmas Octave say, Amen.

And even St. John the Apostle, whose feast also occurs in the Octave (Dec 27), also says Amen. For, though he did not suffer martyrdom he proclaimed his Amen also from his prison cell on Patmos: I, John, your brother and companion in the suffering and kingdom and patient endurance that are ours in Jesus, was on the island of Patmos because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus (Rev 1:9).

Victory – But all these martyrs and sufferers (St. Stephen, St. John, the Holy Innocents, St. Thomas Becket, and St Wenceslaus) proclaim too the victory that is theirs with Jesus Christ who also said, In the world ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world (Jn 16:33). And again, Do not be afraid of what you are about to suffer. I tell you, the devil will put some of you in prison to test you, and you will suffer persecution for ten days. Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you life as your victor’s crown. (Rev 2:10) Yes, Lord, the Spirit and the Bride say, Amen.

Did I wish you a merry Christmas?

The fourth verse of this carol says, 

Myrrh is mine; its bitter perfume
    Breathes a life of gathering gloom;—
               Sorrowing, sighing,
               Bleeding, dying,
    Sealed in the stone-cold tomb.

Lessons in Humility from The First Christmas – A Homily For Christmas

Feature-122413The Christmas Gospel from Luke provides us with many teachings. One thing that surely stands out, however, is the permeating theme of humility. Throughout the account, God confounds our prideful expectations and insists on being found in the lowest of places.

The newborn Christ is not found where we expect Him to be nor does His birth conform to any script we would design. Right from the start, He gives us many lessons in humility and begins His saving work of healing our wound of pride. Let’s look at these lessons in four stages.

I. The Procession to the Place In those days, a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that the whole world should be enrolled. This was the first enrollment, when Quirinius was governor of Syria. So, all went to be enrolled, each to his own town. And Joseph too went up from Galilee from the town of Nazareth to Judea, to the city of David that is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and family of David, to be enrolled with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child.

There is a sort of “cast of thousands” that leads Mary, Joseph, and Jesus to be in Bethlehem. The distant Caesar Augustus sends out a decree affecting millions. He wants a census taken in order to update his tax rolls. He also likely wants to measure his power and may have military deployments and a draft in mind. Soon enough, dozens of governors deploy thousands of troops to enforce the edict. Even in the small town of Nazareth, a town of barely 300 people, Roman troops enforce the decree. Mary is nine months pregnant, but there will be no exceptions.

For many of us, this offends our sense of what should justly happen. Jesus, who is Lord and Savior, should be born in comfort; Mary should be surrounded by loving family and in the care of midwives.

The first lesson in humility is our surprise and even indignation at the events surrounding Jesus’ birth.

God, however, is neither surprised nor stymied. All this fits into His plan to get Jesus, Mary, Joseph, and all of us to the place of blessing. Whatever evil the Emperor intends, God intends it for good (see Genesis 50:20). The Messiah, it was prophesied, would be called a Nazarene (Matt 2:23), be born in Bethlehem (Micah 5:2), and die in Jerusalem (Lk 13:33). God is setting things in place for the blessing.

And here is the second lesson in humility: Your life is not just about you. You and I are part of something far larger. Just as millions were set on the move at the birth of Christ, so you and I are part of the larger plan and providence of God involving billions of people now living, countless others who have lived, and still others who will live in the future. God sees the bigger picture, yet not one detail is lost to Him. Humility! God has more in mind than our comfort and personal agendas. We are part of something bigger as well.

The third lesson in humility is that God must get us to certain places in order to bless us. And they may be strange places, ones we would not choose. Getting us there may involve hardship for us: disappointment that our own plans have not come through, and the painful loss of places, things, and people we love. Yes, God has blessings waiting for us in strange places, involving circumstances we never imagined.

For Joseph and Mary, the procession to the place called Bethlehem involved hardship. But this procession is necessary for them and for us. Bethlehem was where the blessing would be found—there and no other place. And the same is true for us in so many ways.

God has been good to me and blessed me in ways and in places I never expected or planned. God must get us to certain places in order to bless us. I am and have been blessed; I am a witness.

Don’t miss the procession to the place that opens this Gospel. It is a paradigm for our lives. Where is your Bethlehem? Where does God need to get you in order to unlock your blessings? Are you humble and teachable enough to go there?

Remain humble and don’t quickly despair when the surprises and vicissitudes of life emerge. God may be up to something. He can make a way out of no way and write straight with crooked lines.

II. The Paradox of His PovertyWhile they were there, the time came for her to have her child, and she gave birth to her firstborn son. She wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.

Don’t miss the poverty that is manifest here—it is a chosen poverty. St. John Chrysostom said,

Surely if [the Lord] had so willed it, He might have come moving the heavens, making the earth to shake, and shooting forth His thunderbolts; but such was not the way of His going forth; His desire was not to destroy, but to save… And, to trample upon human pride from its very birth, therefore He is not only man, but a poor man, and has chosen a poor mother, who had not even a cradle where she might lay her new born Child; as it follows, and she laid him in the manger (Quoted in the Catena Aurea – Lection 2 ad Luc 2:6).

The paradox of poverty is the fourth lesson in humility! We who are worldly think that poverty is the worst thing, but it is not—pride is the worst thing. And thus the Lord teaches us from the start that greatness and blessings are not found merely in what is high, mighty, pleasant, or pleasing. Blessings are often found in unusual ways and under unexpected circumstances.

The greatest blessing ever bestowed is not found in a palace, or in Bloomindales, or on beachfront property; He is not even found in a cheap Bethlehem inn. He is found in a lowly manger underneath an inn. It is poor and smelly and He rests in a feeding trough. But there He is, in the least expected place, the lowest imaginable circumstances. In this way He confounds our pride and our values.

Are we humble enough to admit this and to stop being so resentful and crestfallen when things don’t measure up exactly to our standards?

He chooses this poverty. Whatever its unpleasant realities, poverty brings a sort of freedom if it is embraced. The poor have less to lose and thus the world has less of a hold on them. What does a poor man have to lose by leaving everything and following Jesus? Wealth has many spiritual risks. It is hard for the rich to inherit the Kingdom of Heaven. Wealth is too easily distracting and enslaving. And even knowing all this, we still want it. In choosing poverty, Jesus confounds our pride, greed, lust, and gluttony.

The Lord does not just confound us; He also chooses this to bless us. St. Paul said,

For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich (2 Cor 8:9).

He also said,

Christ Jesus, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be clung to, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross (Phil 2:5).

Bede, the 7th century Church Father, wrote,

He who sits at His Father’s right hand, finds no room in an inn, that He might prepare for us in His Father’s house many mansions; He is born not in His Father’s house, but [under] an inn and by the way side, because through the mystery of the incarnation He was made the way [for us back to our Father’s House] [Catena, Ibidem].

Thank you, Jesus, for the paradoxical perfection of your poverty. Through it you confound our human ways and bless us more richly than we could ever expect! Thank for this lesson in humility.

III. Proclamation to the People Now there were shepherds in that region living in the fields and keeping the night watch over their flock. The angel of the Lord appeared to them and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were struck with great fear. The angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for behold, I proclaim to you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For today in the city of David a savior has been born for you who is Christ and Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.”

The fifth lesson in humility throws into question our overemphasis on politics and worldly power. This section of the nativity narrative serves to strongly remind us that our salvation is not to be found in the statehouse, the courthouse, or the White House. We are not to put our trust in princes. Our salvation is in Jesus, only in Jesus. Are we humble enough to admit this and stop exalting worldly power?

Note that in this Gospel, lots of “emperor words” are used to describe this newborn infant, Jesus. Yet here He is in a lowly manger!

Emperors had heralds that preceded their arrival and summoned their subjects. The infant Jesus has the angel of the Lord to announce Him. Later, this heralding angel will be joined by a “host” of angels. The Emperor Augustus has his Legions, but Jesus has His myriad angels.

The angel also uses words appropriate for an emperor. He says, “I proclaim to you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.” This is how the declarations of emperors began. The Greek text makes this even clearer: the angel uses the word εὐαγγελίζομαι (evaggelizomai), which means “I evangelize you,” “I announce good or life changing news.” This word for “evangelize” was associated especially with an edict or announcement from the Emperor. But what the emperors questionably claimed for their edicts is really true with Jesus!

The emperors also claimed the titles “savior” and “lord.” The angel calls Jesus Savior (σωτὴρ – Soter) and Lord (κύριος – Kyrios), and He alone deserves these titles.

Here is the irony that we must humbly accept: this true Lord and Savior, this God of Armies with plenary authority, is not in some palace drinking from goblets and being fanned by slaves. He is lying in a lowly feed box, attended to by animals.

It is a divine comedy. One can almost imagine the shepherds wrinkling their noses or scratching their heads as they hear this great announcement of a King, Savior, Lord and Messiah, and then hearing that He is to be found in a stable, lying in a feeding trough. Perhaps one shepherd said to the other, “Did that angel say ‘manger’?” And another replying, “Yup, a feeding trough.”

It’s a bit anticlimactic! But thank the Lord, they humbly accept the procession that they must now make to the place of true blessing. It is an unexpected place to be sure, but that is where He is to be found. He is King and Lord to be sure, but He is humble and comes to serve and to save. He will wash the feet of the worst sinners and die for the love of them.

Humility!

IV. Praise that is Perfect And suddenly there was a multitude of the heavenly host with the angel, praising God and saying: “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”

Note the praises of the angels! Who or what could ever match them? They are a multitude. They are perfected in their glory and acclaim God’s praises more gloriously than any human choir could ever hope to do.

Yet even here there is a humility to consider. For the Lord has taken a human nature to Himself, not an angelic one. In the order of creation, angels are far higher and more noble than we are. Their mere appearance overwhelms us and strikes fear in us. Yet to none of these did God ever say, “You are my Son. This day I have begotten you” (See Hebrews 1:5).

God humbly takes up our human nature and bestows on us an astonishing dignity that comes only from Him. It is due to His choice, not our merits. And though the angels can surely praise the Lord in far more glorious way than we, they cannot say, “One of us is God.”

And glorious though the angel’s praise is, there is a perfect praise that only we can give to God. It was beautifully expressed by the poet Christina Rossetti:

Angels and Archangels may have gathered there.
Cherubim and Seraphim thronged the air.
But only his mother in her maiden bliss
could worship the beloved with a kiss.

And thus, our final lesson in humility is to accept that it is our lowliness which the Lord embraced. We have no glory to give that is even close to what the Lord deserves, but a simple kiss will do, a simple act of love. It is our lowly and sinful hearts that the Lord seeks, so as to heal and exalt them. Our palaces, honors, and titles are of no interest or value to Him. It is our humility that pleases Him most, and He desires to meet us there.

Humility!

Paradoxes of Christmas

j-and-m-and-jIn the ancient Church and up until rather recently, one genuflected at the two references to the Incarnation during the Mass: during the Creed and in the Last Gospel (John 1). Why was this done? It was explained to me that the mystery of the Incarnation is so deep, one can only fall in silent reverence.

There are many paradoxes and seeming impossibilities in the Incarnation. They cannot be fully solved, so they claim our reverence. We genuflected in the past, and today we bow at the mention of the Incarnation in the Creed, for it is a deep mystery.

As we continue to celebrate Christmas, I would like to list some of the paradoxes of Christmas. I want to say as little about them as possible—just enough to make the paradox clear. This paucity of words (not common with me) is in reverence for the mystery and also to invite your reflection.

  1. The Infinite One becomes an infant.
  2. An antiphon for the Christmas season says, How can we find words to praise your dignity O Virgin Mary, for he whom the very heavens cannot contain, you carried in your womb.
  3. An old Latin carol (in Dulci Jublio) says, Alpha et O, Matris in Gremio (Alpha and Omega, sitting in Mommy’s lap).
  4. He who looks down on all creation looks up to see His Mother. The most high looks up from a cradle. Of this moment, even the pagans wrote with longing and tenderness: Incipe, parve puer, risu cognoscere matrem … ipsa tibi blandos fundent cunabula flores, occidet et serpens, et fallax herba veneni occidet (Begin, little boy, to recognize the face of your mother with a smile … for you, your own cradle will bear delightful flowers; the serpent will die and the plant that hides its venom) – Virgil 4th Eclogue.
  5. He who indwells all creation is born in homelessness, no place to dwell.
  6. He, to whom all things in Heaven and on earth belong, is born in poverty and neediness.
  7. He is the mighty Word through whom all things were made. He is the very utterance of God, the Voice which summons all creation into existence. Of this Word, this Utterance, this Voice, Scripture says, The voice of the LORD is upon the waters; the God of glory thunders, the LORD, upon many waters. The voice of the LORD is powerful, the voice of the LORD is full of majesty … The voice of the LORD flashes forth flames of fire. The voice of the LORD shakes the wilderness … The voice of the LORD makes the oaks to whirl, and strips the forests bare; and in his temple all cry, “Glory!” (Ps. 29) Yet this voice is now heard as the cooing and crying of an infant.
  8. His infant hand squeezes His mother’s finger. From that infant hand, the universe tumbled into existence. That same hand is steering the stars in their courses.
  9. He who holds all creation together in Himself (Col 1:17) is now held by His Mother.
  10. He who is the Bread of Life is born in Bethlehem (House of Bread) and lies in a feeding trough (manger).
  11. He who is our sustainer and our food is now hungry and fed by His Mother.
  12. Angels and Archangels may have gathered there, Cherubim and Seraphim thronged the air! But only his mother in her maiden bliss, could worship the beloved with a kiss (Christina Rosetti “In the Bleak Midwinter”).

Each of these is meant to be a meditation on the great mystery of the Incarnation. Please chime in with your additions to this list!

A paradox is something that defies intuition or challenges the common way of thinking. It unsettles us or startles us into thinking more deeply. The word paradox comes from the Greek para (beside, off to the side, or above) and dokein (to think or to seem). Hence a paradox is something “off to the side” of the usual way of seeing or thinking about things. If you’re going to relate to God you’re going to deal with a lot of paradox, because God’s ways and His thinking often defy those of humans. God is not irrational but He often acts in ways that do not conform to worldly expectations.

This Christmas, consider these paradoxes and learn from them. Remember, though, that mysteries are to be lived more so than solved. Reverence is a more proper response to mystery than is excessive curiosity. More is learned in silence than by many words.

Who Were the Magi?

The Gospel of Matthew says, After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem (Mat 2:1). Matthew uses the Greek term μάγοι, (magoi) and notes simply that they came from the east.

Exactly what “Magi” are is debated. The Greeks of antiquity (ca. 450 B.C.) used the term to refer to a priestly class of men among the Medes and later the Persians, but in later centuries it was used in a wider sense; it came to be applied to men skilled in hidden knowledge and magic. By 200 B.C., its meaning would include men skilled in astronomy and those given to visons and the interpretation of dreams. This expanded definition continued into New Testament times.

What is interesting is that Matthew presents these Magi as men of great dignity while other references to magi in the New Testament are generally negative. For example, in the Acts the Apostles there is a man named Simon, a man described as μαγεύων (mageoun), practicing magic:

But there was a man named Simon, who had previously practiced magic in the city and amazed the people of Samaria, saying that he himself was somebody great. They all paid attention to him, from the least to the greatest, saying, “This man is the power of God that is called Great.” And they paid attention to him because for a long time he had amazed them with his magic. But when they believed Philip as he preached good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptized, both men and women. Even Simon himself believed, and after being baptized he continued with Philip. And seeing signs and great miracles performed, he was amazed.

Now when the apostles at Jerusalem heard that Samaria had received the word of God, they sent to them Peter and John, who came down and prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit, for he had not yet fallen on any of them, but they had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. Then they laid their hands on them and they received the Holy Spirit. Now when Simon saw that the Spirit was given through the laying on of the apostles’ hands, he offered them money, saying, “Give me this power also, so that anyone on whom I lay my hands may receive the Holy Spirit.” But Peter said to him, “May your silver perish with you, because you thought you could obtain the gift of God with money! You have neither part nor lot in this matter, for your heart is not right before God. Repent, therefore, of this wickedness of yours, and pray to the Lord that, if possible, the intent of your heart may be forgiven you. For I see that you are in the gall of bitterness and in the bond of iniquity.” And Simon answered, “Pray for me to the Lord, that nothing of what you have said may come upon me” (Acts 8: 9-24).

Thus, Simon, a magos and therefore likely among the magoi (or magi), while presented in a sympathetic light, is in need of conversion precisely because of his past as a magician or magos.

The Didache also says, you shall not practice magic (μαγεύσεις (mageuseis)) (Didache 2.2).

Thus, in the time of the New Testament, being among the magoi was generally not considered a good thing at all. Matthew’s description of the Magi is a significant exception. He presents them as noble, wise, and persistent in their pursuit of the truth. They are morally upstanding in the face of Herod and more zealous than the Jewish scribes whom they consult. In the end, they worship Christ and offer him fitting sacrifices, whereas Jesus’ own people did not even offer Him a room in the inn. The situation drips with irony.

Given that the Magi are following a star, in using that term, Matthew likely has in mind their role as astronomers. He may not have intended significant references to magic, dream interpretation, or fortune-telling.

So, it is likely that they are wise men, ancient astronomers in particular.

We often think of the Magi as Kings, although the text does not call them that. This mischaracterization may be a result of conflating two Old Testament texts that are read at Epiphany:

The kings of Arabia and Seba shall bring tribute.
All kings shall pay him homage,
all nations shall serve him
(Psalm 72:10-11).

The wealth of nations shall be brought to you.
Caravans of camels shall fill you,
dromedaries from Midian and Ephah;
all from Sheba shall come
bearing gold and frankincense,
and proclaiming the praises of the LORD
(Is 60:5-6).

For the record, the text in today’s Gospel does not call them kings, but Magi. And although they offer gold and frankincense, they do so in fulfillment of Isaiah 60 as Magoi not as kings.

St. Thomas, in his Summa Theologica, sidesteps these questions about the exact identity of the magi and instead emphasizes their role. He writes,

The Magi are the “first-fruits of the Gentiles” that believed in Christ; because their faith was a presage of the faith and devotion of the nations who were to come to Christ from afar. And therefore … the Magi, inspired by the Holy Ghost, did wisely in paying homage to Christ (Summa Theologiae, III, Q 36, art 8).

So, their key identity is that they are Gentiles and have been called. Up to this point in the Christmas story, Jesus was manifest only to Jews in Bethlehem—but now the Gentiles come. This detail cannot be overlooked; it is clear that the gospel will be going out to all the world. St. Paul rejoices in this fact when he speaks of

the mystery made known to me by revelation.
It was not made known to people in other generations
as it has now been revealed
to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit:
that the Gentiles are coheirs, members of the same body,
and copartners in the promise in Christ Jesus through the
gospel (Ephesians 3:4-6).

Rejoice, fellow Christians, especially if you are of Gentile origin. The truest identity of the Magi is you. You are among the magi who seek him. Yes, wise men still seek the Lord.