No One Goes Away from Jesus Unchanged

blog1223The video below is a 2008 Coca-Cola commercial that takes up the theme of the star of Christmas.

Let us review the impact that the star of Christmas had on the wise men, the Magi.

  1. The star moved them to seek meaning outside themselves; it made them look out and up.
  2. The star called them beyond what was familiar in their own country and world and expanded their horizons toward Christ and His Kingdom.
  3. The star summoned them to seek Christ, and when they found Him, to worship Him.
  4. The star drew them to be generous to a poor family in Bethlehem; they made sacrifices as they lay costly gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh before the Lord.
  5. The star roused them to conversion; they “returned to their country by another route,” following the straight and narrow path rather than the wide and destructive one.

Yes, no one encounters Jesus Christ and goes away unchanged. A blind man went away able to see, the deaf to hear, the lame to walk. The hungry went away satisfied, the ignorant instructed, the guilty forgiven, sinners converted.

The call of the nations to change and to new life began with a star. The light of the star opens the way to the Light of World, Jesus. The star of my life is Jesus.

In the commercial below we see Santa (a name that means “Holy One”) sending forth a star, one that touches people and radiates a light that transforms them.

  1. A woman sees the light of that star and is able to forgive her husband and be reconciled with him.
  2. A young soccer player sees the light of that star, surrenders his pride, and steps aside to let another share in and get a shot at glory.
  3. A young girl sees the light of that star and, giving up some of her own beauty, seeks to beautify a public park for others.
  4. A museum guard sees the light of that star and shows mercy to the guard dog with him (this was a silly one).
  5. A father sees the light of that star and allows his son a moment of growth.

Yes, there is something about that star that changes everyone who looks at it. They become more forgiving, more gracious, more aware of others, more connected to others, more loving. The light of the star, and the light of the world, is Jesus. His light is meant to have that same effect—and more besides.

In the background of the commercial an old Elvis song plays: “Wise men say only fools rush in, but I can’t help falling in love with you. Shall I stay? Would it be a sin if I can’t help falling in love with you?”

Of course the love that is symbolized by the star is not the romantic love of the song but the brotherly and agape love that Christ gives. Like the Magi who found Christ by the star, no one sees the star of Jesus and encounters Him and then goes away unchanged. Indeed, if we authentically encounter Christ, we are equipped to love, just as the people in this commercial are. We are equipped to forgive, to bring healing, to help others find strength and glory in the truth, and to come to full maturity in Christ. A person who knows Jesus and has encountered Him cannot help loving others, not in some merely sentimental way, but with a strong and vigorous love rooted in the truth. This is the same love that Jesus has for us all.

At the end of the commercial is an exhortation in Spanish that translates as follows: “Give the world the best of you.” The best of me is Jesus.

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.

Was the Star that Guided the Magi a Natural or Supernatural Occurrence?

As we continue our survey of teachings on the birth of our Lord from St. Thomas Aquinas, today we consider the mysterious star that led the Magi to Christ. In recent decades there has been a strong tendency to seek a natural explanation for this phenomenon. Some speculate that it was in fact a comet or the appearance of several planets close together in the night sky. While not necessarily incorrect, these explanations are largely set aside by St. Thomas and most of the Church Fathers on whom he relies (especially St. John Chrysostom). They observe that while the manifestation is called a star, it has qualities that stars do not possess.

Before beginning, however, I would like to state that while I agree with the conclusion of St. Thomas and most of the Church Fathers, the first two of the five points they make (see below) are puzzling to me; they seem unnecessary, if not erroneous. I mean no disrespect to men far greater and holier than I, but I cannot, in my limited sensibility, see how they are accurate observations. Therefore, I will simply share my befuddlement in the commentary.

That said, the three points that follow are clear enough and make a good case that the term “star” was used by St Matthew in a generic rather than scientific sense. It was a star-like object, but one with qualities not possessed by normal stars. The full truth about this star is mysterious. Also mysterious is whether others were able to see the star. I personally think not and would see that as further evidence that the star was not merely a natural occurrence. Rather, certain people were able to see the star and others were not.

Onward, then, to St. Thomas’s teaching on the star that led the Magi to Jesus. The question that forms the basis of today’s post is taken from St. Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologica. St. Thomas’s answers are presented in italics, while my inferior commentary appears in plain, red text.

Whether the star which appeared to the Magi belonged to the heavenly system? (Summa Theologiae, Part Three, Question 36, Article 7).

As Chrysostom says (Hom. vi in Matth.), it is clear, for many reasons, that the star which appeared to the Magi did not belong to the heavenly system. First, because no other star approaches from the same quarter as this star, whose course was from north to south, these being the relative positions of Persia, whence the Magi came, and Judea.

It is not clear to me why this should be so. At its height, Persia had regions to the south (into modern-day Egypt) and even west toward Greece; but it extended even more to the east from Judea and all the more so at the time of Christ’s birth. It seems possible—even likely—that the Magi would have come from the east rather then the south, and that the trajectory of the star would then have followed the usual course of moving from east to west.

Indeed, the Greek text says rather plainly that the magi arrived ἀπὸ ἀνατολῶν (from the east). It is not clear to me why Chrysostom (Thomas simply quoted him) presumed that the Magi came up from the south. While it is certainly possible, it is not necessarily so, and if anything seems contraindicated.

Secondly, from the time [at which it was seen]. For it appeared not only at night, but also at midday: and no star can do this, not even the moon.

Here, too, I am somewhat confused. The biblical text does not seem to say clearly that the star also appeared during the day. Perhaps St. John Chrysostom presumed that the Magi could not reasonably have traveled at night and thus needed to be able to see the star by day. Without the bright light of the moon, nighttime travel was certainly difficult if not impossible. Further, the comings and goings of the Magi (visiting Herod and going into the house where Jesus and Mary were) are not things that would typically have been done in the dark of night, but rather during the day. Still, the presumption that the star appeared during the day is not proven.

Thirdly, because it was visible at one time and hidden at another. For when they entered Jerusalem it hid itself: then, when they had left Herod, it showed itself again.

This is a detail that escapes many readers: Namely, that upon the arrival of the Magi in Jerusalem, the star either became invisible or at least gave out ambiguous clues as to its location. This is not the nature of normal stars, which are stably present and visible on a clear night. The star had led the Magi this far with clarity and accuracy and yet suddenly was strangely gone from view, requiring them to ask for directions.

St. John Chrysostom saw in this a pastoral purpose of rousing the Jewish people to faith. He spoke of the star now halting and now rousing up the camp of the Jews, when it was needful (Homily 6 on Matthew). Sadly, the Jewish leaders and scholars whom Herod consulted seemed rather disinterested, despite prophecies being fulfilled before their very eyes: Kings from the East following a star and bearing gifts (see Psalm 72:10, Numbers 24:17, Isaiah 60:6).

The point here is that ordinary stars do not appear and disappear.

Fourthly, because its movement was not continuous, but when the Magi had to continue their journey the star moved on; when they had to stop the star stood still; as happened to the pillar of a cloud in the desert.

The text describes unusual movements that normal stars do not make: the star they had seen … went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was.

Fifthly, because it indicated the virginal Birth, not by remaining aloft, but by coming down below. For it is written (Matthew 2:9) that “the star which they had seen in the east went before them, until it came and stood over where the child was.” … But it could not have indicated the house distinctly, unless it were near the earth. And, as he [Chrysostom] observes, this does not seem fitting to a star, but “of some power endowed with reason.”

The need for the star to be lower in the sky than any normal star is explained well here. Even the moon, a relatively closer object, is still too high in the sky to indicate a specific place. If I were to go out and look at the moon, I might perceive it as being directly over my house, but it would also appear to be directly over thousands of other houses for hundreds of miles around. In order to indicate a specific house in Bethlehem, the star must somehow have been lower in the sky or must have pointed to the house with some sort of light ray.

Consequently “it seems that this was some invisible force made visible under the form of a star.”

It seems reasonable to conclude that the star that led the Magi was not a natural star in the usual sense. Rather, the star here had some of the properties of a natural star, yet was something different, and was controlled by a power endowed with reason and a purpose to lead certain men to Christ.

St. Thomas goes on to cite a few other teachings from the Fathers and then includes his own opinion:

Wherefore some say that, as the Holy Ghost, after our Lord’s Baptism, came down on Him under the form of a dove, so did He appear to the Magi under the form of a star. While others say that the angel who, under a human form, appeared to the shepherds, under the form of a star, appeared to the Magi. But it seems more probable that it was a newly created star, not in the heavens, but in the air near the earth, and that its movement varied according to God’s will. Wherefore Pope Leo says in a sermon on the Epiphany (xxxi): “A star of unusual brightness appeared to the three Magi in the east, which, through being more brilliant and more beautiful than the other stars, drew men’s gaze and attention: so that they understood at once that such an unwonted event could not be devoid of purpose.”

Thus we can reasonably conclude that the star was not merely a natural occurrence. While there is no official Church interpretation to which we must adhere, St. Thomas and the ancient Fathers saw the star as a mysterious and miraculous work of God, not simply as a natural phenomenon that He permitted and then used to indicate the whereabouts of Christ.

Tomorrow we will continue this thread and ponder more about the Magi themselves.