The Christmas Season continues for many this Sunday with the Feast of the Epiphany. This feast celebrates the revelation in Matthew’s Gospel of the adoration of the magi. This account offers an important but often overlooked detail about the scandal of Christmas—of how Christ’s birth is good news of great joy that comes at a price.
This is foretold in one of magi’s gifts to the Christ child. While gold is a gift for kings as is frankincense for priests, myrrh is an ointment used to embalm the dead. Indeed, St. John’s Gospel tells us that Nicodemus brought “myrrh and aloes” after Jesus’ crucifixion.
This foretelling by the magi of Christ’s passion begins to make known the decisive Christian proclamation: God’s coming among us is a coming to the entirety of the human condition—including suffering. The crib of Christ is connected to the cross of sacrifice because our conception and birth are the first steps taken toward death.
From Christianity’s earliest days, many resisted this talk of sacrifice and death. They would not (and do not) tolerate the proclamation that the infinite and transcendent would dwell in and among the anguished finite. Confronted over the centuries with various forms of this resistance, Christianity held true to its core proclamations, as it does today within a new age that seeks to wipeout Christianity from the public square—or, as in areas of the Middle East, Africa, and elsewhere, from the face of the planet.
And yet the Christmas message of sacrifice survives. Of the many reasons why this is so, one is that a great many find within authentic Christianity a counterintuitive hope that the world cannot offer. Like the magi, there have been in all ages those who find comfort in Christianity’s revelation about divinity’s relation with human affairs.
Pope Benedict XVI writes much about this account in his book Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives. He points out that Matthew—who was writing for a mostly Jewish audience—captured in those passages of the magi from the East an early tradition that underlined the universality of the Christian good news.
The pontiff writes that the magi “represent the journeying of humanity toward Christ […] they represent the inner aspiration of the human spirit, the dynamism of religions and human reason towards him.”
Those who reject Christianity are welcome to read those words and replace Christ with Truth, or Life, or the Way to what lies beyond human suffering. Call that beyond Love, if you will—as Christians do.
Ultimately, this search for what lies beyond suffering—this inner aspiration, as Pope Benedict refers to it—unites all humans. We are all (or should be) like the magi: seekers of truth, of life, and of love. Indeed, what Christianity proposes is that we are all made to be lovers of God and of our neighbors—all of them.
The problem for many is Christianity’s presupposition that to be a true lover, one must die to one’s self-centeredness.
This is hard to do. In large part because our evolution—which required us to seek our own ends (individually or as tribes) and wallow in the pleasures of procreation—and because of cultures, like ours, that enable these lingering urges, we moderns find any suggestion that one must “die to oneself” to be the height of folly and a cause for punishment.
But the Christian sense of death to oneself is not a self-hatred or a negation of who we are. It is the true way to love those that are not us. It is what drives us to sacrifice for friends and strangers. It is what propels us to heroism in the midst of danger. It is what transcends the urges of the human beast and brings us to the fullness of the human person.
Hence, from the Feast of the Epiphany comes a crucial truth about Christmas—a scandalous message of hope that cries out in our days’ dark news: Those who seek peace on earth must be open to sacrifice. If love is to triumph over death, then truth must first triumph over desire. And if we are to be truly human—and thus respect and nurture all life—then we must first humble ourselves for the good of others, much like God has revealed himself to us—as a helpless child whose humility and sacrifice defeated death itself.
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