Perspectives on Epiphany

On this Solemnity of the Epiphany, a few perspectives on the events of the day:

Biblical Reading: Mt. 2:1-12

Local Cultural Recommendations: Visit the National Gallery of Art to see the artwork below.  Also stop in at Epiphany Parish in Georgetown… a gem of a parish with a growing parish life… a wonderful quiet place to pray during the day.

Botticelli, Adoration of the Magi
Botticelli, Adoration of the Magi

They came from “the East.”  The arrival of the magi in Bethlehem is one of the most touching moments in the Gospel.  One of the deep roots of our joy on this feast is locked up in that very general phrase, “the East.”  The magi – whose number, by the way, is never limited to three though only three types of gifts were brought – represent the every man.  They are the first of the gentiles to worship Christ.  To quote, Pope St. Leo the Great, “they are the first harvest of the gentiles,” and the fulfillment of God’s promise to make Abraham the father of many nations.  Yes, with the arrival of the magi, hope is offered to all the nations.  Because they came from everywhere, no kingdom is excluded from God’s Kingdom.  Because they came from every circumstance, no circumstance is excluded from God’s sympathy.  Because they were sinners, no sin is excluded from his mercy.  …And as a result of all this expansive welcoming of the nations, I have hope because it means I am not excluded from God’s love either.

They were guided by a star… these magi were astronomers, observers of the natural world.  Careful study of the natural world, careful use of human reason led them to the divine.  For God is the Father of all Creation.  The magi remind us that we need not fear responsible science, because it will lead us to a better comprehension of Christ in the end.

The magi were intimidated by Herod.  When he tells them to bring back news of Jesus, you can almost imagine him using air quotes around the phrase, “that I too might do him homage.”  Political intrigue hanging over them, the magi continued on their journey to proclaim Christ.  Leaving by “another way,” their lives would never be the same, and neither would those who received the Good News from the magi in their homelands.  Has my life been changed by Christ in concrete, observable ways?  Can I overcome the discomfort of speaking about Jesus with others?  If I perceive a threat hanging over me as a result of my Christian faith, do I pray for courage?

Fra Angelico and Fra Filippo Lippi, The Adoration of the Magi, Italian, c. 1395 - 1455, c. 1440/1460, tempera on panel, Samuel H. Kress Collection
Fra Angelico and Fra Filippo Lippi, The Adoration of the Magi

The answer to some of these questions, and really an encapsulating moment for this entire reflection, must be the moment of encounter between the magi and Mary.  For weeks we’ve heard how Mary “kept all these things in he heart.”  She is the first Christian contemplative.  And while it’s not explicitly outlined in the Gospel, I’d like to think that like most mother’s, Mary shared something of her maternal experience with those who had come to meet  Christ.  While showing these scientists from the East how to hold the child, “aways support the neck,” did she share with them the fruits of her contemplation?  I’d like to think so.  Learning from her who loved Christ perfectly and shared him perfectly, we can do likewise in our own lives.

 

What Guides the Law

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The bronze above is a beautiful piece on display at the Freer Gallery on the National Mall.  Cast by Augustus Saint-Gaudens its title is “Law Supported by Strength and Love.”  Saint-Gardens was an American sculptor of the 19th century who engaged in serious study in Paris before returning to the U.S. to memorialize great achievements of the Civil War.  He was part of an entire American movement to bring knowledge of the arts and sciences from Paris to our still-new Republic (see David McCullough’s “The Greater Journey”) .  Over the course of the late 18th-19th centuries, both the U.S. and France underwent revolutionary changes that were taken by the rest of the western world to be shining lights of what government of, by and for the people could achieve.  Neither experiment was perfect.  But at their best these two newly democratic states discovered important truths. One of them is above.  “Law Supported by Strength and Love” shows a critical part of democratic government.  Most people can deduce that the coercive power of strength is essential to governance… but just as necessary, especially in a democratic system, is LOVE.

The concept isn’t new… it dates back to the earliest recollection of the Romans.  In his History of the Republic, Titus Livius (Livy) describes the camaraderie of the early settlers of Rome, their concern for each other overthrew the Tarquinian monarchy to establish the Republic.  It was founded on a love of country, concern for neighbor, service of family and piety before heaven.  The Romans discovered that such love is the basis of the self-regulating civil society essential to the functioning of a republic.  Why?  Because citizens inevitably tire of and rebel against coercive power.  States shouldn’t be in the business of intimidating their people, but rather inspiring them.  Likewise, citizens shouldn’t have to call on the power of the state to regulate their relations with each other, but rather they should serve each other.  Love has the power to move a nation without whipping it into submission.

This great advance in political thinking was not however the unique preserve of enlightenment philosophers.  In fact many of them would’ve readily discounted such a sentimental approach to democracy (Hobbs, Hume, even our own Alexander Hamilton, for example).  Nonetheless, mutual respect for human dignity became the basis of western democratic thought.  How?  Here we have to look with eyes of faith.  Faithful people (at that time of an almost entirely Christian background) exercising their religions brought New Testament LOVE and compassion to the nascent French and American democracies.  As a result the greatest achievements of those democracies (the American Constitution / Bill of Rights and the post-Napoleonic French Republic) liberated both countries’ citizens for the pursuit of happiness.

Stop in at the Freer and visit Saint-Gaudens’ sculpture in the central court.  It’ll make you think… it might even inspire you to love your neighbor… for his good, for your own, and for the good of our country.