The humility of the Epiphany

A better world will always require self-sacrifice

I wrote this four years ago for my local daily. It's about our world, our culture, and what the Feast of the Epiphany has to teach us. While not overtly about ecology, it does have a lot to say about that topic.

The Christmas season continues for many through Sunday, with the Feast of the Epiphany. This celebrates the revelation in St. Matthew’s Gospel of the adoration of the magi. This account offers an important but often overlooked detail about the scandal of Christmas — how Christ’s birth is good news of great joy that comes at a price.

This is foretold in one of the 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’s crucifixion.

This foretelling by the magi of Christ’s passion begins to make known a 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 toward death.

From Christianity’s earliest days, many resisted this talk of sacrifice and death. Such voices would not (and do not) tolerate the notion 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 wipe out 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 — like the magi — a great many find within authentic Christianity a counterintuitive hope that the world cannot offer.

Pope Benedict XVI writes much about this account in his book “Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives.” He points out that St. Matthew — who was writing for a mostly Jewish audience — captured in his passages about the magi from the East an early tradition that underlines the universality of the Christian good news.
The pontiff writes that the magi “represent the journeying of humanity toward Christ. . . .[T]hey represent the inner aspiration of the human spirit, the dynamism of religions and human reason toward 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. One might call that reality beyond suffering Love — as Christians do.

Hence, from the Feast of the Epiphany come crucial truths about Christmas — scandalous messages of hope that cry out in our days’ dark news: Those who seek peace on Earth must be open to the crosses of sacrifice.

Ultimately, this search for what lies beyond suffering — this inner aspiration, as Pope Benedict calls it — unites us all. 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 first die to one’s self-centeredness.

This is hard to do. In large part because of our evolution — which required us to seek our own ends (individually or as tribes) and relish the pleasures of procreation — and because of cultures, like ours, that empower 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 way to love those who 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 come crucial truths about Christmas — scandalous messages of hope that cry out in our days’ dark news: Those who seek peace on Earth must be open to the crosses of 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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About the Blog

Catholic Ecology posts my regular column in the Rhode Island Catholic, as well as scientific and theological commentary about the latest eco-news, both within and outside of the Catholic Church. What is contained herein is but one person's attempt to teach and defend the Church's teachings - ecological and otherwise. As such, I offer all contents of this blog for approval of the bishops of the Church. It is my hope that nothing herein will lead anyone astray from truth.