Homily for the Solemnity of the Epiphany of the Lord
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.”…
And behold, the star that they had seen at its rising preceded them,
until it came and stopped over the place where the child was.
They were overjoyed at seeing the star,
and on entering the house
they saw the child with Mary his mother.
They prostrated themselves and did him homage.
Then they opened their treasures
and offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod,
they departed for their country by another way.
Magic? Star gazing? Dream interpretation? Aren’t these things that Catholics are forbidden to practice? The Catechism is clear in its interpretation of the first commandment. All forms of magic and divination, that is, of foretelling the future from physical bodies or controlling others by them, are contrary to the commandment.
So how is it that the Savior’s birth is accompanied by Persian magi who seem to have been professional practitioners of all these things? Not only this, but the magi are venerated as saints by Holy Church. Their stunningly beautiful thirteenth-century shrine is in the cathedral of Cologne in Germany. The prayers of the sacred liturgy for the Solemnity of the Epiphany clearly teach that we should follow their example. How are we to think about all this?
The answer is very simple. Just as not every image of a created thing is an idol, so is not every use of physical signs an example of fortune-telling or having recourse to demons. In fact, there is a true sense in which every thing created by God is a sign of his mind and intentions. God can use the things he has made to express his will, and the scriptures are accordingly full of divinely established signs.
For God, both the things he has made and human words are signs of intentions. The Lord himself tells us that various signs in the heavens will accompany his coming at the end of time. We have the super-symbolic Apocalypse of St. John to direct our minds in the consideration of the course of human history.
The holy sacraments are sensible signs that bring about their effects by a true spiritual power bestowed on the Church by Christ. The Church requires two miracles to confirm the holiness of the saints she canonizes. Holy water and blessed candles drive away the power of the demons. Our Lady has promised signs in the heavens in her apparitions at Fatima, approved by the Church. The list could go on. In fact, if one were to look into the matter more deeply, Doctors of the Church St. Albert the Great, St. Thomas Aquinas, and St. Alphonsus Liguori allow birth-hour horoscopes, and they all accept the possible efficacy of magic spells.
The opposition of our faith is to divination and magic, not to the seeking of signs of God’s will or of our advantage or disadvantage in created signs. A natal horoscope may not be legitimate science as it was before modern astronomy, but as long as it does not attribute the power of determining human fate to the stars, it is at least permissible. No confessor will blame a penitent for using the Farmer’s Almanac to plant his vegetable garden or for putting his sun sign in his online profile!
Spells and magic are not dangerous because they are bogus or unscientific; rather their danger is in having recourse to demons to accomplish their effects—which must brought about by the spirits of evil since they are disproportionate to the powers of the physical things used to bring them about. The good angels do not cooperate in magic spells.
The evil of divination by the stars is that it denies free will and attributes to mere physical things a power over human affairs. But it is not sinful magic to use this or that herb to make you calm or amorous or attentive, as long as you have a good intention. Some of these folk remedies may work, some may not, but our coffee is proof that some of them do!
Likewise it is not divination to avoid going out on a full moon. After all, the moon can move the tides, so there is a proportion of cause and effect. Just don’t blame the moon for your “lunacy” since you are always free. Even so, there is such a thing as seasonal depression, which is triggered by the relation of sun and earth. The ancients may have attributed too much to the stars, but there is obviously something to some of their intuitions.
What is scientifically verifiable and what is morally permissible are not identical. Our Catholic faith teaches us to use prudence in our judgments, but we are free to have our own opinions about things that do not touch on the rule of faith. Indeed, we all understand that there are many phenomena and many folk traditions that have real value even if they are scientifically inexplicable.
The star of Bethlehem followed by the magi has been the object of some “scientific” rationalizations that miss the point. The star described in the Gospel is obviously not an identifiable heavenly body, some supernova or conjunction. Its behavior is clearly preternatural. What kind of star rests over a particular house, and moves to lead its gazers on?
We don’t do credit to the sacred account of the Savior’s birth if we try to find natural explanations for it. The story will always be a scandal to rationalists and skeptics. The fact is, the simple faithful who easily see signs of God’s power in creation have a “magic” far more deep than any pretensions of science without God.
The holy magi were truly “wise men” who left home and country to find the truth which they had always been seeking as they scanned the heavens. May their intercession obtain for us a deep faith and gratitude for the signs of God’s presence and providence around us. And may these signs lead us to the Holy Child and his Blessed Mother beyond the stars!