Homage and Departure.
"And when they were come into the house, they saw the Young Child with Mary His mother, and fell down and worshipped Him : and when they had opened their treasures, they presented unto Him gifts; gold, and frankincense, and myrrh. And being warned of God ill a dream that they should not return to Herod, they departed into their own country another way." ST. MATT, ii, 11, 12.
We are very apt to speak of the Gospel at one time, and of the Gospels at another. Of course the Gospel considered as God's message of salvation to mankind is but one, yet the authoritative and official settings forth of it, are four. Why should there be four versions of the Gospel story differing very considerably one from another? Most obviously they were written for different classes of people and not all of them at first for the same readers. St. Matthew almost certainly wrote for the Jews. Indeed there is much reason for the opinion that his Gospel was originally written in the Hebrew language, and not in Greek as we have it now. St. Mark's Gospel is much shorter, yet very like St. Matthew's in many particulars. It was probably written for Gentile Christians, under the guidance of St. Peter. Then St. Luke's Gospel was prepared at first for the edification of a distinguished man named Theophilus, and the writer was no doubt largely influenced by his association with St. Paul. St. John wrote long after the other Evangelists, and we may well believe that he was inspired to put his Gospel into its unique shape by the needs of the Eastern Christians of his day, who were confronted by many subtle and deadly heresies. The fact that St. Matthew prepared his account of our Lord's life, under the inspiration of the Holy Ghost, especially for the Jews, explains the fact that a number of things are related by him which not even St. Mark mentions. The story of the Wise Men, who came to worship our Lord at Bethlehem, is an instance of this. For in that narrative we have the plain confirmation and fulfilment of several of the most notable prophecies of the Old Testament. The Jews were very iamiliar with their Scriptures, and they could not miss the force of the practical illustration of the striking language of those Scriptures in the case of our Lord's birth and the circumstances which attended it. For in that second chapter of St. Matthew we have the magnificent realization of the 60th chapter of Isaiah, of which the refrain is "TheGentiles shall come to Thy light, and kings to the brightness of Thy rising." There is also the marvellous solution of Balaam's prophetic mystery, "There shall come a Star out of Jacob, and a Sceptre shall rise out of Israel." There again is found the testimony by which the Jewish priests were obliged to convict themselves, for when Herod demanded of them where Christ should be born, they could only answer in Micah's words; "And thou Bethlehem, in the land of Juda; are not the least among the princes of Juda: for out of thee shall come a Governor, That shall rule my people Israel," Once again, in the homage of the Wise Men not only was the 6oth chapter of Isaiah fulfilled, but likewise the glorious words of the 72d Psalm. Isaiah said, "They shall bring gold and incense," and the psalmist's words were, "The King of Tarshish and of the isles shall bring presents: the kings of Sheba and Seba shall offer gifts." It is plain enough that the story of the Magi was an important feature in a Gospel written for the Jews. I. Yet the Church has felt it had so much wider significance than its evidential value to the Hebrew inquirer that she has made the Epiphany, or Manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles, one of her great feasts. There is the consciousness that these Wise Men were the forerunners, the advance guard, of that countless host of the Gentile people which should come to bow down themselves at the Saviour's manger throne. We are Gentiles, and thus the three kings belong in a peculiar way to the vast majority of the Christian world, to all indeed who are not of Jewish descent in the faith. One does not grow weary of meditating upon the story of those wonderful men.
Watching night after night in their own country for the mysterious star, until at last they beheld it. Then leaving all to take their journey into the land of Israel to find Him Who was born King of the Jews. We do not suppose that the star led them to Jerusalem. They went there because it was the capital of the Jewish nation, and was the natural place in which to seek the new-born King. After they had been directed to Bethlehem, and were setting out for that small town, the star which they had seen in the east reappeared, and went before them till it came and stood over where the Young Child was. They rejoiced with exceeding great joy at the sight of their celestial guide, and when they had entered the humble dwelling of the Holy Family, they worshipped, presenting their gifts, and then went home again. That is all we know from the Bible about the Wise Men. At the first reading there is something disappointing in their story. If one were composing the sacred narrative with the thought of making it very effective, he ought to introduce the Magi again later on, as followers of the Master in the days of His ministry.
There is an appropriateness, of course, in the introduction of any of God's creatures upon the stage of the incarnate life of the eternal Word to bear witness to His glory, His grace and truth. It were honour enough for the Wise Men to have been permitted to come to Bethlehem, and to offer their gold and frankincense and myrrh, though they were never afterwards vouchsafed any further knowledge of our Lord Christ upon earth. The consciousness of a fact like this reconciles us to the tragic fate of the little children of Bethlehem, the holy Innocents, slain by cruel Herod in his mad dread of the Christ Child. People were constantly moved by the Spirit to bear their witness concerning our Lord during the days of His humiliation. Even the devils were compelled to acknowledge Him the Son of God. There could be no fault found with the Gospel story if we knew that the Magi never were permitted to hear anything more of our Lord in this world. Nevertheless we feel the strongest sympathy for and interest in them as individuals. It appears to us a remarkable thing that they should be thus dramatically brought upon the stage for a moment and then lost to view ever afterwards. Besides--and it is in a way a greater difficulty-- their wonderful testimony seems to have been without any effect. As a stage spectacle their entrance is superb, but then the incident was quite barren of results. The cavalcade was a nine days wonder in Jerusalem, perhaps, with its startling inquiry, "Where is He That is born King of the Jews?" There is no reason to think that it made any of the rulers undertake a pilgrimage-- and it needed not to be a long one--to Bethlehem to verify their tale. Nobody cared one way or the other, so far as one can gather from the Bible story, except that suspicious tyrant Herod, who ordered all the babies to be slain. The Wise Men might as well have stayed at home for any apparent good their journey did. We do not find the story of their coming anywhere made use of in the preaching of the Apostles, nor indeed is it so much as alluded to in evidence of our Lord's messiahship. If one were not restrained by his reverence for everything in Holy Writ he might reasonably characterize the visit of the Magi to the manger as an interesting but valueless episode of the Nativity. It could not even have had much effect upon the men of Bethlehem,because the Holy Family almost immediately left there, and after their return from Eygpt settled far away in Galilee.
II. Every one is prone to theorize, and I suppose we do so more in religious matters than in any others. Each man has his own notion about what is essential and what is non-essential in the faith; each man has his private opinion about duty and morals. There are some human theories however which seem to find common acceptance. One of them is that worship, that is outward observance generally, is useless unless accompanied by practical piety. The life, in other words, must be conformed to the profession if true religion is to be acknowledged.
i. If one were to theorize about the Wise Men he certainly would have had them act very differently from that which is recorded of them. They might naturally have settled down in Bethlehem to watch the Divine Child, and the manner of His growth to man's estate. They might have offered their services to the Blessed Virgin and St. Joseph as patrons and protectors of the Holy Family. When the removal was made to Nazareth they would have also gone there. If duty had called them back to their own land, one would picture them going in and out among their friends and endeavouring to arouse enthusiasm for the Redeemer born into the world, and then to lead a great company to Palestine to be His disciples all their days. Certainly when we consider the greatness of the revelation vouchsafed these holy men such conduct would not have been extravagant on their part.
2. Then, if in the same vein, one were to give rein to his imaginations about the influence which knowledge of the Incarnation ought to have upon men's lives, it were easy to declare that all true believers now in the world ought to embrace the religious life, or in some sort of way give themselves up wholly, in body, soul and mind, to follow Christ and Him alone. The ideal which the Master set in His burning words to that rich young man, whom we are told He loved, " Go thy way, sell whatsoever thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shall have treasure in heaven: and come, take up the cross, and follow me"--that ought to be the type of life which all true lovers of the Lord should lead. You can hardly find fault with such a theory. Certainly the thought of discipleship under Christ ought so to fire the heart that all other things in life should cease to attract. As a matter of fact we know that this is not the way in which the larger part of the Christian world is called to live, any more than the Wise Men were expected to conform themselves to any theory we might frame concerning them. As a matter of fact the Magi paid their homage and departed into their own country. As a matter of fact the greater number of Christian folk give a certain amount of time to God in daily prayer, worship Him to greater or less extent on Sundays, and devote a small portion of their lives to heavenly concerns, while the rest of their attention is absorbed by temporal interests. One finds one's self asking whether this is not wrong, whether it does not indicate a degeneration in modern Christianity from a pure and original type.
III. There is a difference of course between the case of the Wise Men and our own. They paid their homage once for all, so far as the Bible tells us, and departed, never again to worship the Saviour outwardly in this world. We have His abiding presence, and His ordinances perpetually with us, and are called upon daily and weekly to do Him honour. Yet it is not hard to perceive a certain similarity of underlying principle in both cases. It is to offer homage and to depart.
i. Many Christians feel that there is an unreality about the homage rendered under such circumstances. It approaches superstition perhaps. There is no reason, as it appears to them, why one should go to Church merely or chiefly with the notion of worshipping God, that is doing in principle what we are told the Wise Men did in the presence of the Infant Saviour. They fell down and worshipped Him; and when they had opened their treasures, they presented unto Him gifts; gold, and frankincense and myrrh. There is no reason now, say some, to think of our Lord as so present in His Church that He ought to be outwardly adored and presented with gifts of homage as in the manger at Bethlehem. Indeed so far as the Magi are concerned it may be said it is rather a singular thing that they should have prostrated themselves in this lowly manner of worship before an unconscious, perhaps sleeping infant, only twelve days old. To worship so was the manner of their time no doubt, and the Oriental peoples are accustomed to such elaborate reverences, but one questions whether there is not an element of superstition in profoundly prostrating one's self before Deity, revealing Himself in an unresponsive manner of presence.
2. We cannot but recall in this connection that splendid narrative of Elijah and the prophets of Baal at Mount Carmel. The false prophets builded their altar and offered their sacrifice. Then they prayed and entreated their god to hear and show by a sign his consciousness of their worship. Very expressively the Scripture says, "There was neither voice, nor any to answer, nor any that regarded." But when Jehovah was invoked by Elijah, He quickly gave tremendous sign of His interest by sending down fire from on high to consume the sacrifice. Why should one in these days continually sacrifice to a Deity Who gives us no response of any sort by voice and sign, that He hears and cares? It may be urged, of course, that all earnest Christians believe that God answers prayers and interposes in many ways to bless and help His people who call upon Him. That is a good argument for prayer, and all denominations still retain prayer in their public services as well as in their private devotional life. The Catholic Church however makes a great point of offering worship, acts of adoration, and gifts of homage, with which prayer may indeed be associated but not as the prominent feature of the service. The Holy Child certainly beheld and blessed the Wise Men as they knelt in adoration before Him, yet there is no reason to believe that He showed any outward evidence of so doing. One might quite well fancy that He slept calmly on His mother's knees during the interview; nevertheless we do not on that account think that their worship was uncalled for or unacceptable. The Lord vouchsafing His presence in the Blessed Sacrament upon Christian altars, gives no outward sign of hearing and receiving the praises which we offer Him, yet we do not doubt that He cares for and has pleasure in those praises when they are heartfelt and devout. The story of the Wise Men may teach us that there is something more in religion than the mere approach to the Almighty to obtain favours from Him, or to deprecate His anger because of our sins. Prayer is edifying, and preaching may be edifying, but something more than the offering of prayer and the hearkening to preaching belongs to Christ's religion if we may be guided by the example of the holy Magi, who adored and gave gifts to the infant Christ.
IV. For from acts of homage a loftier edification should be wrought in the soul than the mere consciousness of God's fatherly care, and the staying of the spirit upon exceeding great and precious promises. It may not be our calling, it is not the calling of most people to forsake all, as the rich young man was told to do, and to embrace the life of religion under the three vows; yet every true-hearted Christian may find in loyal worship two root principles which effectually characterize and distinguish the system of the Catholic Church.
i. The first of these is obedience. It is a cardinal conception of the Gospel that Christ is our gracious Master Who is to be absolutely and unhesitatingly obeyed. The notion of sovereignty as vested in an individual, holding authority over his subjects by divine right, may not be acceptable to many in political systems, but in religion it must be allowed the only possible one; and nothing fosters and perpetuates the thought of sovereign authority, which calls for obedience even unto death, as acts of homage, reverent ceremonies of worship. It is for this reason that the tyrants of the world exact constant worship and acts of obeisance from their subjects in order that their majesty may not be lost sight of. In religion as in the other affairs of life, human nature does not like to acknowledge authority which must be obeyed. We would ever be our own masters. We boast that no human being can coerce our hearts and minds. Some unhappily boast that no supernatural authority can exact obedience of them in their beliefs and affections. Yet God demands this sort of submission on the part of His creatures to His blessed will. I do not believe there is anything that can bring home to us constantly so practically and forcibly the truth of our subjection to the divine will and our obligation to loyally obey it, as frequent acts of worship. The very bending down of the body before the altar, the reverent language of adoration, the gifts offered as the tribute justly due our divine Master, these things keep the believer from forgetting that he may not live for himself, to do his own will; but only for his Lord, fulfilling that Lord's gracious purpose for him. You see it makes the whole principle of life different when one's mind is pervaded with the spirit of worship. He offers his homage and departs into the ways of the world, but he cannot forget Whose he is and Whom he must serve.
2. The second principle of the true Christian life which worship brings home to us is the consciousness of our own littleness, the lesson of humility. It was the opinion held by many in old time that the sin of Lucifer, which caused his miserable fall, was refusing to bow down before the Son of God revealed to the angelic hosts as in the Incarnation, a human babe. The fiat was "Let all the angels of God worship Him." But Lucifer would not. If God had been pleased to reveal Himself as He will at the last day in awful majesty and overwhelming glory, it would be no exercise of man's humility to bend before Him, all would perforce worship. In the weakness of human infancy, or as He now reveals Himself to us, under the sacramental forms of bread and wine, our souls realize no compulsion of worship. The world scorns such homage as the Catholic pays to the Blessed Sacrament, accounting it puerile and superstitious. Nevertheless when one does prostrate himself before the sacred Host, with hearty appreciation of what he is doing, he cannot but feel his own littleness and God's greatness. In that consciousness of personal littleness lies the secret of true Christ-likeness. When we acknowledge our unworthiness and our utter dependence, we are in a condition to be taken up by His grace and made strong with unearthly strength. We offer our homage and pass out of the church to our manifold world duties, but the spirit of our worship remains upon us, and we cannot assert ourselves haughtily or act with selfishness and unfeeling hardness towards our neighbours. We cannot be tenacious of our rights and aflame with human ambitions. Like the Wise Men we have adored and departed, yet like the Wise Men we have so adored that the spirit of our homage remains upon our lives, and the Master Whom we have had apparently to leave for a little while, in reality goes with us, and so ineffably unites Himself to us that we may not be separated from Him for evermore.