Modern Seekers

December 03 2018 | by

MATTHEW opens his Gospel with the genealogy of Jesus beginning with Abraham, the father of the Jewish race, and moving forward from generation to generation to Joseph, the husband of Mary. Matthew carefully notes that, although Joseph was the husband of Mary, he was not the father of Jesus. While Saint Luke tells of the visitation of the archangel Gabriel to Mary, to ask her if she would be the mother of the Savior, Matthew simply states that “she was found to be with child through the power of the Holy Spirit” (Mt 1:18).  “All this happened,” Matthew wrote, “to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: ‘The virgin shall be with child and give birth to a son, and they shall call him Emmanuel’ a name which means ‘God is with us’” (Mt 1:22-23).

After establishing the Jewish lineage of Jesus in Chapter 1 of his Gospel, Matthew begins Chapter 2 by introducing Jesus to the Gentile world. “In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, ‘Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage’” (Matthew 2:1-2).

These three travelers have been called ‘Wise Men’, as the translation from Matthew reads ‘magi’ which was the name for learned astrologers from Persia and other eastern lands, or kings, popularly hailed in the Christmas carol ‘We Three Kings’. In any case, the seekers were not bumpkins going on a joyride. They were pilgrims hearty enough to make their way over deserts, learned enough to interpret the meaning of an unusual star, faithful enough to believe in that meaning, and wealthy enough to carry with them expensive gifts for their sought after “newborn King of the Jews.” Therefore, despite the difficulties and the improbability of finding the one they sought, they set out.

For years Christians have embraced this search for Jesus by promoting a slogan which is true year-round: Wise Men Still Seek Him. This slogan can be found on bumper stickers, envelope stickers, lawn signs, coffee mugs, and T-shirts because it summarizes the journey of conversion. Anthony explores this theme in his sermon notes on the Epiphany, written nearly 800 years ago.


Emperor Augustus


Anthony begins his notes on the Epiphany by mentioning a snippet of possibly contested history. “It is told that Octavian Augustus saw in the sky a virgin, carrying a son and showing him to the Sybil; and from then on he forbade anyone to call him ‘Lord’, because the King of Kings and Lord of Lords [Apoc 19.16] was born. And so the poet says, ‘A new progeny is sent down from heaven above’” (Sermons for Sundays and Festivals IV, p. 75, translated by Paul Spilsbury, Edizioni Messaggero Padova).

Octavius Augustus was the first Emperor of the Roman Empire; he was still reigning at the time of Jesus’ birth.  Sibyls were prophetesses in ancient Greece. When the term is capitalized as Anthony used it, Sybil refers to the priestess presiding over the Apollonian oracle at Cumae, a Greek colony located near Naples, Italy. As a guide to the underworld, the Sybil was the bridge between the world of the living and the world of the dead. By implication, the Blessed Mother showed the infant Jesus to the Sybil because Jesus was the bridge between those living on the earth and those living in heaven. It is as if the Blessed Mother is saying to the Sybil, “This child, come down from heaven, will bring the dead into eternal life in heaven.” If Octavius Augustus had indeed intuited this, then he had understood that both he and the Sibyl were subject to the greatest Lord.


Worldly people


Octavius Augustus and other political and worldly leaders would have been Magi according to St. Anthony’s definition. “The Magi are the worldly wise” who give “convenient counsel.” “Foolish, then, is the counsel of those wise men who advise people to gather what is not theirs, and which they cannot take with them; and to burden themselves with what they cannot carry through the narrow gateway” (Sermons IV, p. 77). Worldly people look to worldly wealth and power as goals. Anthony reminds such people that all these temporal goods are left behind. “The gate of death is so narrow that the soul itself can barely pass through, naked and alone. When we come to the passage, we must put away all earthly weight; yet because ‘sins have no substance,’ they easily pass through with the soul” (Sermons IV, p. 77).

St Matthew says that “there came wise men from the east.” Anthony identifies the east as “worldly vanity or prosperity.” He makes this connection from Ezekiel 8 which says, “I saw, and behold, men having their backs towards the Temple of the Lord and their faces toward the east.” Anthony goes on to explain: “The Temple is Christ’s humanity, or the life of any just man. Those who turn their backs on the Lord’s Temple, and their faces towards the east, are those who forget the Passion and Death of Christ, and direct all their knowledge and taste towards the vanity of the world… [they] despise the poverty, humility and affliction of the just, and reckon happy those who abound in pleasures and riches” (Sermons IV, pp. 77-78).


Newness of life


However, while the worldly wise turn their backs on Christ to pursue worldly vanities, the Magi who came seeking Jesus came from the east to Jerusalem. Anthony likens Jerusalem to “newness of life, that is, penitence… Just as the star drew the Magi from the east to Jerusalem, so divine grace draws sinners from the vanity of the world to penitence, to seek the new-born King, and seeking to find him, and finding him to adore him… They seek the King of penitents, born in them, who bids them do penance. They say, We have seen his star in the east (that is, we have come to know his grace amid the vanity of the world), and so by him we have come to worship him” (Sermons IV, p. 78).

Those who are spiritually wise act on their desire to worship the true God. They enter into their inner self where the Lord dwells. “Because they enter, they find; and because they find, they fall down and worship. In the child and Mary we see innocence and purity; in their falling down, self-contempt; in their adoration, the devotion of faith. Penitents should enter, then, the house of their own conscience, and find innocence towards their neighbors and purity as to themselves. And they should not be proud because of this, but fall on their faces and adore, devoutly and faithfully, him who gave these gifts” (Sermons IV, p. 82).


An invitation


Now that the reader or listener has understood that ‘Wise Men Still Seek Him’ in penance (that is, conversion), Anthony issues an invitation. “You too, beloved, should bring your gifts with the three Magi: the gold of contrition, the incense of confession and the myrrh of satisfaction, so that you may receive the gift of glory from Jesus Christ himself in heaven. May he grant this, who is blessed forever. Amen” (Sermons IV, p. 91).

Updated on December 03 2018