January 5, 2006
On the southern slope of Mt. Parnassus stands Delphi. For the ancient Greeks, this was the center of the world. Here stood the beautiful temple to Apollo, the sun god. According to the Greek poet Hesiod (
Theogony, 918-20), Apollo was the son of the Olympian Zeus. Unlike Dionysius, the popular god of wine and women, Apollo represented order, harmony and rationality. On the doors of his temple at Delphi were inscribed these famous words:
"Gnothi se auton" ("Know Thyself"). The inscription at Delphi challenged visitors to explore the mystery of their human identity. To be fully human, we need to know ourselves. We are part of this world. Yet different. We are created. Yet with an insatiable desire for the infinite.
Who are we? Where do we come from? What is the purpose of our life? Homer and Euripides probed these questions about human nature as did Plato and Aristotle. The quest for the meaning of human life stirs deep within the human heart. St. Augustine voiced this quest when he prayed: “
You have made us for Yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you” (
Confessions, Book I). Questions which have their common source in the quest for meaning are universal. The way individuals answer these questions sets the direction of their lives.
In the narrative of Jesus’ birth, the magi represent this common search for meaning. They are pagans. Deep within them stirs the universal longing for truth. They do not have the light of revelation. But, in their spiritual quest as human, they already enjoy the guiding light of reason. Rightly do they search nature. For across the canvas of creation, the divine Artist has traced truths about our world that reason can discover (cf Wisdom 13: 1-9; Acts 17: 27).
Matthew is the most Jewish of all the gospels. Yet he is the evangelist who delights to tell us of these pagan magi. They are in search of authentic human life. They follow the light they have been given. The extraordinary star in the heavens leads them to Jerusalem. One questions leads to another. Their humility as scholars makes them docile to the truth of revelation given to the Chosen People. When the chief priests and scribes tell the magi that the prophet Micah predicted Bethlehem as the birthplace of the Messiah, they set out to find him. Once again the star goes before them. God’s self-disclosure through nature moved the magi to search for truth. But it is revelation that brings them to Jesus, who is the fullness of God’s truth.
Matthew’s story of the magi (Mt 2: 1-12) “suggests the close relationship between faith and reason, the two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth” (Homily of Pope John Paul II, January 6, 1999). Nature and revelation together. Reason and faith are not enemies. Science and religion can be friends. But there is more.
In our search for the meaning of life, we can be easily misled and lose our way. That is why God did not leave us to grope in darkness and ignorance. “In his goodness and wisdom, God chose to reveal himself and to make known to us the hidden purpose of his will (cf.
Eph 1:9), by which, through Christ, the Word made flesh, man has access to the Father in the Holy Spirit and comes to share in the divine nature”(
Dei Verbum, 2). Christ is the answer to the deepest questions of the human heart. As the Second Vatican Council teaches, Jesus “reveals man to man” (
et Spes, 22).
God reveals himself to us completely in the Incarnation of the eternal Word of truth. God takes the initiative. His revelation is completely gratuitous. God loves us and chose to make us know him in the mystery of his love for us. And this “knowledge which the human being has of God perfects all that the human mind can know of the meaning of life” (
Fides et Ratio, 7).
Christ is the epiphany of God and man. He is the revelation of the intimate mystery of God who is love. In accepting him, each person discovers the truth about themselves and comes to know real freedom. That is why, in the story of the magi, once the magi have paid homage to the child Jesus, they exercise true freedom. They disobey the orders of King Herod anxious to kill the child. They return, instead, to their homeland—evangelizers and protectors of life.
The mystery of Christ as Epiphany graces the Church with a universal, missionary vocation. She is called to spread throughout the world the light of the Good News. For Jesus is the source of life and renewal for every person. In the mystery of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, "the way, the truth, and the life" (
Jn 14:6), we have been given the full revelation of divine truth. Instead of separating us from others who do not believe, this truth of faith impels us to be evangelizers.
We readily enter serious dialogue with philosophers and poets, with scientists and doctors. We are partners with them in the search for truth. Dialogue with them enriches us. The
Summa theologiae owes much to Thomas Aquinas’ critical dialogue with Arabic philosophers such as Maiomonides, Avicenna, and Averroes.
Nonetheless, as believers, we have a certitude about life and God and the human person. When our faith is alive, we want to share the truths we know so that others may come to Him who is Truth and Love Incarnate. For knowing Jesus is knowing God and knowing ourselves. Thus, the imperative of the Greek admonition
"Gnothi se auton" ("Know Thyself") ultimately finds true fulfillment in the indicative of the Johannine statement: “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us”(Jn 1:14).