To the modern reader, the visit of the Wise Men can only be one more improbable detail in an already impossible story. And yet, every Christmas, no matter how secularized the season has become, the tableau of a caravan, crossing a desert and following a star, survives. What is it about these Wise Men, these kings, that still appeals to an un-Christian world? Perhaps one reason is that, in our day, reading the signs of nature has again come into vogue. But, although modern science can track trends in the weather, the wild predictions of “global warming science” are little more sophisticated than the prophecies of augurs and about as accurate.
The words of Luke’s Gospel seem to be meant more for us than for their original audience: “You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?” (Lk 13:56) Unlike our environmental Jeremiahs, the three Wise Men knew that nature is savage in its fecundity and immortal in its endurance.
They knew then the human being is the only animal that really dies – and, therefore, man is the only animal that can truly be born. The arc of human life interrupts the endless cycle of nature; in the words of Augustine: “That a beginning be made, man was created, before whom nobody was.” Thus, they interpreted the new star they saw in the heavens as a signal: it was a metaphor for the miracle of a human birth.
And, in a way, it was the last such sign; the new star signals the beginning of a new epoch. As St. Paul puts it, “Long ago, God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days, He has spoken to us by a Son.” (Heb 1:1-2) The star is the last mediating sign for the Messiah who has become im-mediate, for the Emanuel, “God with us.” No longer thundering from Heaven, God has become a child. At Christmas, fear of the Lord becomes fear for the Lord: concern for that child, exposed to the cold of the season, but even more, to the cold hearts of his countrymen. For even as a defenceless baby, the newborn king causes fear. Indeed, when Herod heard the news of the miraculous birth, “he was frightened and all Jerusalem with him” (Mt 2:3).
Of course, new Herods rise up in every age. The indecent fear of this child is echoed every time an unborn baby is put to death for the crime of being new. The Gospel says it so gently, “He came unto his own and his own received him not” (Jn 1:11). But every child comes unto his own, in the fullest meaning of those words and too often, his own do not receive him.
But, like the child adored by the Magi, new generations will survive every meaningless act of selfishness and horror, no matter how brutal or how desperate. And, no matter how often the miracle of human procreation is neglected or rejected, the meaning of the miracle endures. For hope is the very essence of the act of birth. It is the promise of a new beginning, the fulfillment of every true love’s hope.
It is not nature, but man, that guarantees the continuation of life; it is the child, the meek one, who inherits the earth. The Wise Men interpreted natural signs and gleaned this subtle truth. Their faith in the supreme dignity of human life guided each of them to the same point. By following their star, they found man. Indeed, the Epiphany reveals the meaning of nature and the Nativity the meaning of birth.
We at The Interimwish you and your family a very Merry Christmas and a New Year full of joy.