Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The Powerful Witness of Worship

"The Christmas Star"
When Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, in the days of King Herod, behold, magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem, saying, "Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We saw his star at its rising and have come to do him homage" (Matthew 2:1-2).

The identities and origins of the mysterious visiting magi in Matthew's Gospel have always been subjects of much speculation and debate. Many have reasoned, because their gifts given to the child Jesus are three in number, namely, "gold, frankincense and myrrh" (Matthew 2:11), that it is likely there were three magi. They are also commonly referred to as "wise men," with historical writings asserting the possibility that these men were representative of a pagan priestly caste of the Medes or of an ancient Iranian people, who, in studying the natural order of creation, were of the belief that there was great meaning to be found in the "reading" of the stars and in the interpretation of dreams. Certain traditions further maintain that they were actually kings, and that their names were Melchior, Balthazar and Caspar. But the Gospel account itself is silent on all these matters.

In presenting these foreign travelers who have come to worship the Messiah of Israel anonymously and undefined in number, it is widely accepted among exegetes that perhaps Scripture is foreshadowing and representing here the future preaching of the Gospel to the gentile nations. But Scripture also does not tell us who these men were because the narrative is not about them. For the sacred writer, such information would contribute nothing important to his focus and sole purpose: which was, in the case of Matthew's Gospel, to present Jesus to the Jewish people as the Messiah—that is, as the foretold “ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel” (Matthew 2:6; Numbers 24:17).

As the Catholic Church teaches, one telling characteristic of all Scripture, as sacred and divinely-inspired writing, is that there is no extraneous information, and at the same time, what does appear in the text is certainly significant. What is written is only written in obedience to God as inspired by the Holy Spirit, and in service to His intended purposes, which He accomplishes through each chosen author: 

In composing the sacred books, God chose men and while employed by Him they made use of their powers and abilities, so that with Him acting in them and through them, they, as true authors, consigned to writing everything and only those things which He wanted (Dei Verbum III.11).

But what is found in the text, and therefore what is of importance to the writer's purpose in Matthew's Gospel account, that is, as evidence that Jesus is the One whose coming was foretold, is the obvious manner in which the magi regard Jesus. As shown through their words and actions, they publicly proclaim Jesus as the Messiah, "the newborn king of the Jews," and also state just as publicly that they specifically "have come to do Him homage;" that is, to worship Him.

 James Tissot, "The Magi in the House of Herod." 1886-1894
The magi's public profession of faith in Jesus as the Jewish Messiah, and even further, as King of kings, as He was also deemed worthy of their worship, caused quite a stir in Jerusalem, or, more precisely, in the hearts of King Herod and all the people as well (cf. Matthew 2:3). How was it that these pagan foreigners knew the Messiah had come, but yet the very people who awaited and longed for Him-- and in the case of Herod, feared Him-- knew nothing of His birth?

How was this possible? What convinced the Magi that the Child was "the King of the Jews" and the King of the peoples? There is no doubt that they were persuaded by the sign of the star that they had seen "in its rising" and which had come to rest precisely over the place where the Child was found (cf. Mt 2:9). But even the star would not have sufficed had the Magi not been people inwardly open to the truth. 
--Pope Benedict XVI, "Homily for the Solemnity of Epiphany," 6 January 2007.

The star, symbolic of the light of truth provided by God, and which calls out to everyone through His creation, guided the magi at all times. Their knowledge of the star's significance brought them from the east as far as Jerusalem, but yet as we see, they were still unable to locate the Child Jesus. With all of their learning, as pagans from the east, they are not well-versed in the Jewish Scriptures. Following his own agenda, Herod meets with the magi in secret, telling them to go to Bethlehem, from where the Scriptures foretold the Messiah would come (2:4-6), and urges them to "go and search diligently for the child (2:8)." But as we read, once they know what God Himself had revealed about His Messiah, once they have been fully enlightened by Scripture, in setting out towards Bethlehem, it seems that perhaps their guiding light shines even more brightly for them; they now become "overjoyed at seeing the star," and their search becomes easy and swift, with the star preceding them and coming to rest over the place where the Child Jesus dwelt (cf. 2:9-10). 

Velázquez, "Adoration of the Magi." 1619
The magi's witness to the true identity of Jesus had such a profound effect upon, one might even say, held power over, King Herod and the people, because these men had literally changed the course of their lives, having left everything behind, just as Jesus' disciples would do, in exchange for the mere opportunity to follow and to worship Him. This tells us that they had already humbled themselves before the Lord in their hearts long before they would physically fall to their knees in His presence.  And when they "entered the house" and "opened their treasures" to offer the Child their costly gifts, we sense that the "treasures" being opened also represent those same hearts, which were ready to both give of themselves and to receive Him even from the outset, when they had first decided to seek Him. In this joy-filled journey to find the King of kings, which culminates when the magi finally behold Him face to face, through them, we also come to understand that the reward for worshiping God is nothing less than union with God Himself.

Among the truths that we should take to heart from the Gospel's account of the magi is that, like theirs, our worship, our seeking of God and our relationship with Him, should be the focus of our journey in life, not just for our own sakes, but for the benefit of "all the people" as well. How we pray, how we participate in the Mass, how we partake of the Blessed Sacrament, are clear and true indications of what place we give God in our hearts and in our lives. Lex orandi, lex credendi, lex vivendi, is an axiom of ancient Christianity, meaning, "the rule of worship is the rule of belief is the rule of life." And like the magi, the power of our worship as a witness to the Lord as the one true God, to the truth in all of Scripture and to the Gospel particularly, also should not be underestimated.

Let us continually be deliberate and devout whenever we gather to pray, and especially in our public worship at Mass.  Does our presence there say to all, "We have come to do Him homage?" We never know who will walk through the doors of our churches at any time during our assembly.  When they come in, what will they see? Will they find us as a people at prayer, in obvious worship of the Lord, who obviously believe that He has come, that He is truly present in the Eucharist?  Or will they merely see a gathering of groups of friends, engaged in idle chatter and distracted thoughts, and leave unmoved-- perhaps never to return, never to encounter the Lord, because we failed to witness to the faith we profess? 

It is not just our words, but also our worship that tells the world who Jesus is. Let us not just sing these words of worship during this Christmas season, but let us live them, so we might testify year-round to His coming, and to Our King's continued, living and transforming presence among us: Venite adoremus Dominum! Let us also never go to worship the Lord empty-handed, as, no matter who we are, we each possess the only gift He truly desires and treasures:

What can I give him,
poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd, 
I would bring a lamb;
if I were a wise man, 
I would do my part;
yet what I can I give him--
give my heart.

From the Christmas Carol, "In the Bleak Midwinter"
Words by poet Christina Rossetti (1872)
Music composed by Gustav Holst (1906)
Recorded performance of the entire Carol below,
by Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, Michael George and the Choirs of Coventry and Lichfield Cathedrals