The Magi and Modern Times
Once upon a time, angels directed shepherds to the Christ Child’s manger; how much harder it seems to find God in our midst today.
Have the processes of intellectual evolution rendered faith impracticable—obsolete? One contemporary writer considers just a few of the difficulties that Christianity poses to the modern mind:
The difficulty begins with the very first page of the Bible. The concept presented there of how the world came to be is in direct contradiction of all that we know today about the origins of the universe . . . And what of paradise? Long before man existed, pain and death were in the world . . . all the miraculous stories of the Old Testament are . . . the expression of a cosmology that regards the universe as ruled by all manner of spirits . . . [in the New Testament] a single man is supposed to be the center of all history . . . is this not the naïve claim of an age that was simply incapable of penetrating the vastness of the universe, the greatness of history and of the world?
The contemporary writer who raises these questions is Pope Benedict XVI. How would you answer them?
The Catechism affirms that “there can never be any real discrepancy between faith and reason.” But Pope Benedict also cautions that our thinking “can never completely integrate faith and knowledge, and we must never, from a very understandable impatience, allow ourselves to press on to immature syntheses” that actually compromise the faith. Discussions about, for example, the Biblical account of the seven days of creation can be interesting. But they can also tempt believers to give convoluted explanations—or evasions—that contort faith and reason. The resulting arguments go round and round in circles without moving anyone closer to Christ.
In his book Faith and the Future, Pope Benedict addresses the root assumptions from which questions like those listed above stem. He clarifies that faith is neither “a diluted form of natural science, an ancient or medieval preparatory stage that must vanish when the real thing turns up” nor some “colossal edifice of supernatural facts” teetering beside all our empirical knowledge. “Rather,” he says, faith “is something essentially different.” The shepherd of Rome concludes that “faith is, not a system of knowledge, but trust;” it is an assent to God who gives us hope and confidence.
This assent can be—must be—made without comprehending every last detail of the separate facets of faith. This is not easy. And maybe it is especially hard for us who live in an age that so emphasizes measurable realities and empirical investigation and reproducible experiments. How can we, knowing all we know, ever run like those simple shepherds, at the urging of angels (angels?), to kneel before a man who is also supposed to be our Lord and our God?
One mistake we make, I think, is about the simplicity of those shepherds and about the simple or childlike faith of all who would follow Christ after them. As Dietrich Von Hildebrand has observed, it is not a simple thing to have true simplicity. Spiritual simplicity is not the same thing as primitivity, or platitude, or stupidity, or poverty of meaning.
Maybe it is harder for us in modern times to understand and experience true spiritual simplicity. But as we struggle and pray for the grace and the confidence to run like the shepherds straight to our Lord, perhaps we can also recognize kindred spirits in the Magi and see something familiar about the longer road they took to Christ.
In a beautiful novella titled Helena, author and convert Evelyn Waugh dramatizes the life and conversion of St. Helena, mother of Emperor Constantine and finder of the true cross. Her pilgrimage to the Holy Land coincided with the Feast of Epiphany, and so Waugh imagines Helena reflecting on the Magi’s journey. Through the character of Helena, Waugh offers this humbling prayer for our own times:
“This is my day,” she thought, “and these are my kind.” [. . . ]
“Like me,” she said to them, “you were late in coming. The shepherds were here long before; even the cattle. They had joined the chorus of angels before you were on your way. For you the primordial discipline of the heavens was relaxed and a new defiant light blazed amid the disconcerted stars.
“How laboriously you came, taking sights and calculating, where the shepherds had run barefoot! How odd you looked on the road, attended by what outlandish liveries, laden with such preposterous gifts!
“You came at length to the final stage of your pilgrimage and the great star stood still above you. What did you do? You stopped to call on King Herod. Deadly exchange of compliments in which there began that unended war of mobs and magistrates against the innocent!
“Yet you came, and were not turned away. You too found room before the manger. Your gifts were not needed, but they were accepted and put carefully by, for they were brought with love. In that new order of charity that had just come to life, there was room for you, too. You were not lower in the eyes of the holy family than the ox or the ass.
“You are my especial patrons,” said Helena, “and for my poor overloaded son. May he, too, before the end find kneeling-space in the straw. Pray for the great, lest they perish utterly. [. . .]
“For His sake who did not reject your curious gifts, pray always for all the learned, the oblique, the delicate. Let them not be quite forgotten at the Throne of God when the simple come into their kingdom.”