The Guéranger Blog

Welcome to the Gueranger Blog! You have stumbled across the notebook I use to record my thoughts as I read through Dom Prosper Gueranger's 15-volume set, The Liturgical Year. I do not have any special expertise in liturgy, but I have some general knowledge of Catholic theology and an enthusiasm for Gueranger's magnum opus. Think of it as the Liturgical Year fan site!

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The Journey of the Magi's Faith

Canisius | 11 January, 2006 17:09

The Church at large has entered ordinary time now, but for those in traditional communities and those who read Gueranger we are still within the Octave of the Epiphany, and this week is devoted to meditation on the magi.

Gueranger's meditations have struck me as particularly fine this week (excepting his hostility toward Israel), and especially his emphasis on seeing the magi as the fathers in faith of all us gentiles. What follows are a few thoughts inspired by his example.

There are three possible positions one can take about the star's role in the whole magi business: (1) it did not guide the magi at all; (2) it guided the magi through their whole journey; (3) it guided the magi for one part of their journey and not for the other part.

The first position is obviously incompatible with Matthew's account, which describes the star coming to rest over the place where Jesus was, but both ancient and modern readers of Matthew's Gospel have pointed out that one can't really locate a house that way. The stars are so far away in the sky that one can't really figure out exactly what house or even what town a star is over. Some modern authors have sought to explain the star in terms of a coincidence of several planets, or a comet, or some other remarkable astronomical phenomenon, and then have dismissed Matthew's claim about the star leading the magi as pious fiction.

The second position seems to be the most common among older authors. Hence we see commentators asking why it is that the star guided the magi first to Jerusalem instead of straight to Bethlehem, and why the star vanished when they reached Jerusalem only to reappear when they set out again. While not directly contrary to Matthew's text, it does not seem to me that it fits well: the magi say that they have seen the star "at its rising" (or "in the east", depending on your translation); they do not say that they have been in hot pursuit of a heavenly body all the way to Jerusalem. If we did not know the second half of Matthew's story, we would assume that they had seen the star in the east, interpreted it to mean that the king of the Jews was born, and set out for the royal city in Jerusalem. No special guidance needed.

While I can't recall at the moment having seen the third position in any commentator, it seems to me the most likely. As I just said, one gets the impression from Matthew's story that the star did not guide the magi to Jerusalem. When they leave Jerusalem, Matthew's text says, "And behold! the star which they had seen in the East went before them, until it came to rest over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced greatly with a great joy." The word "behold!" seems to indicate that something remarkable has happened, as does their tremendous joy at seeing it. Certainly their joy is explained in part by the fact that the star has pointed out the newborn king to them, but it fits together with the word "Behold!" to indicate that they were overcome by what they saw the star doing. While they came to Jerusalem on the basis of their own interpretation of the star's significance, they went to Bethlehem under the direct and miraculous visual guidance of the star.

Taking this third position as true, we can see an interesting drama take place in the magi's faith.

They see a new star rise (or perhaps an old star in a new position) and deduce that the prophecies have been fulfilled: the new king is about to come who will rule the world. They set out to Jerusalem to see the king.

There they find Herod, who is baffled and bothered by all this talk of a new king, and they in turn are baffled by the fact that no one in the royal city is aware of the king. It must have been a rather disheartening moment for them.

Herod consults the chief priest and scribes of the people to find out that Bethlehem is the predicted birth site of the messiah. He relays this news to them, with the instruction, "Go and search diligently for the child...." Search diligenly indeed, they must have thought: what will they say in Bethlehem? "Excuse me, have you seen a male child with anything unusual about him?" "Ma'am, would that infant you are holding be the king of the Jews, by any chance?" It was supposed to be easy--just go to the royal city, and there is the royal child. Instead they are now off on an improbable search through a village full of obscure and more-or-less homogenous peasants. There spirits must have sank even lower here, but they put enough faith in the odd prophecy about Bethlehem to proceed.

But when they set out on the way--glory to God, a miracle! And the problem is solved! The star they had interpreted comes down from heaven and points directly to a particular house! Originally they had expected a palace and proper pomp, and have only just barely held on to this improbable mission to Bethlehem, but now they are overwhelmed and overjoyed and ready to believe whatever they find in the house. They enter, and there is a peasant woman with her peasant infant; no matter, they know now that this is indeed the king who is to come.

It must have given them food for thought on the way home. What Herod had and was so eager to protect was so different from what the new king had. He is not only a new king, but a new kind of king. Somehow palaces and pomp have been relativized.

They could not know that this infant would later be offered all the glory of all the kingdoms of the world--or that the one to offer it would be Satan. What Herod had is what Satan has to offer. What the new king will offer is: Blessed are the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the pure in heart....

They could not know it, but the miracle of the star had led them to accept on faith something they knew they did not fully understand. Because of it, they had not just paid homage to a new earthly king but had, in however obscure a way, recognized and paid homage to the king of heaven.

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