Posted January 6, 2014
Think of the story of the magi as a historical event, if you like. Probably most Christians do. Others, however, have treated it as a kind of parable. T. S. Eliot in his poem The Journey of the Magi used it as a parable of his own painful conversion to Christianity. Today I wish to consider the story as a parable of the human heart in quest of meaning and fulfilment.
We all of us follow a star, whether one provided by God or one created by ourselves. For our hearts are always restless, dreaming, yearning – for happiness, if you like, though that is a very shallow way of expressing it. We are looking, rather, for ultimate meaning and fulfilment. The point of the story of the magi is that Jesus satisfies the yearning of every human heart: that he is not just the realization of Jewish messianic hopes. He is the key to the meaning of our humanity. He is the ‘joy of man‘s desiring’.
Wishful thinking, perhaps? Pie in the sky? Whistling in the dark? For is it not possible, after all, that while the heart has its dreams, any hope for their fulfilment is illusory? That this world is all there is? That life has no ultimate meaning? That there is no star of Bethlehem?
Journey of the Magi, mosaic, Basilica Sant’Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna, ca. 6th c.
You think that, if you like: or rather, you think that if you can. But can you? You can only think with your mind. But the mind is made for meaning. It demands meaning, as the eye demands light. Just as the eye ceases to function when surrounded by darkness, so the mind ceases to function when confronted with meaninglessness. And it would, surely, be altogether meaningless for our minds and hearts to yearn for fulfilment, and for such fulfilment to be illusory. The mind could not cope with that, even if the heart could bear it.
The story of the magi is a proclamation that our deepest longings, our most sublime aspirations, are not only capable of fulfilment, but are fulfilled in this child of Bethlehem. Our capacity for heaven is not an illusion. The star of Bethlehem points us to a transcendent destiny beyond the horizons of this world, where alone mind and heart can find meaning and fulfilment. In simple terms, stripped of anything specifically Christian, the star of Bethlehem points to the truth of the poet’s words: ‘In the depth of your hopes and desires lies your silent knowledge of the beyond; And like seeds dreaming beneath the snow, your heart dreams of spring. Trust the dreams, for in them is hidden the gate to eternity.’
In an age dominated by the belief that the world is all there is, this message will be met with ridicule. It is pre-scientific, we will be told. And yet the alternative to this message is meaninglessness. And since the mind cannot cope with meaninglessness, it will devise strategies for suppressing our need for ultimate meaning, for denying any dimension of our being that points beyond this world; in a word, for denying the need, or even the attraction, of any star of Bethlehem.
And that seems to me to be the agenda of a very large part of the world’s population. The post-Christian mind is in denial. It denies the reality of our deepest longings and must therefore deny the relevance of a star that brings meaning to them. It is positively hell-bent on creating strategies of denial. What kind of strategies? I hear you ask. The most common one is to engross oneself in the din and the distraction of popular culture: the culture that surrounds us at all times, which we ingest like toxic spores in a confined space. The most sublime longings of the human heart are smothered over by inane entertainment, sickening frivolity, an obsession with celebrities, quick satisfaction; the glamorization of violence; endless, debased, loveless sex; crass exploitation of the human body – anything to destroy noble values, stifle profound emotions, ignore the soul’s quest for higher things. As St Paul put it: ‘They became futile in their thinking and their senseless minds were darkened.’
True, that is not the whole picture. There are serious people too who feel no need of the star of Bethlehem or of any other star that points beyond this world. I mean: good people – humanists and atheists who seek meaning and fulfilment in the more sublime pursuits of this life: science, art, literature, music, all kinds of wonderful creativity; or who dedicate their lives to the relief of human distress and the betterment of society; to education and medicine and the elimination of poverty and hunger and injustice from this world; or even your ordinary people who look for no further meaning in life than friendship, affection, the love of their families, duty, personal integrity. You do not need the star of Bethlehem to live a noble life, to embrace the best values of life while it lasts, without further quest or further questioning.
But can a mind that looks for meaning as the eye looks for light tolerate even this more noble alternative to the star that leads to Bethlehem? Can the mind ever tolerate the thought that at the moment of death the most precious things in life fall to the ground like autumn leaves, to be lost forever in an endless winter – with no promise of spring? In the last analysis, that is just as meaningless as the frivolity of popular culture, just as intolerable to a mind that was made for meaning. ‘We are born for no reason and die by accident’, the philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre once said, in his wisdom. The star of Bethlehem proclaims a different sort of wisdom, namely, that we were made for God and our hearts will never find rest until they come to rest in him. At its very least, the Feast of the Epiphany is a massive, jubilant protest from the universal Church throughout the centuries against the hopelessness of the view that this world is all there is.
We should celebrate this feast by making this protest our own, and first of all by bringing it to bear upon ourselves, for we ourselves are often tempted to immerse ourselves in a meaningless world. And, secondly, we should have the confidence to preach a message of meaning and optimism to a world in denial. We must show by our words and our actions that something immensely beautiful beckons us beyond our self-imposed horizons. Each of us is called to be the star of Bethlehem in the vast wilderness of this world. May the way we live in the coming year make us better fitted for that role.
Fr Tom Deidun