|Non timeo Danaos et dona ferentes|
For many years the late Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen would preach a sermon on Good Friday at the Church of Saint Agnes in New York City on the topic of the “Seven Last Words” of Jesus. (For many years I wondered, “How could they call them the 'Seven Last Words,' when the last thing Jesus said wasn’t seven words long?”) With characteristic erudition and wit, Sheen would connect Jesus’ Passion Pronouncements to other lists of seven. These were long sermons, but the time was well spent because of both the message and the messenger!
It occurred to me that today’s feast of the Epiphany could provide a regular opportunity to preach on the “Three Gifts” from the Magi. Two obstacles come to mind: first, I could not approximate the content or style of Bishop Sheen, and second, another preacher in our parish is fond of presenting three major points in his homilies. But since 2013 is as good a year as any for overcoming obstacles, here we go with a meditation on the Three Gifts of the Magi and the Three Secular Sins in the first letter of St. John (2:16).
A little background on the Secular Sins might be helpful. John writes his primary epistle to oppose the spread of Gnostic Docetism into the fledgling Church. “Gnostic Docetism” is a two-for-one heresy. The Docetists claimed that Jesus appeared as man, but didn’t actually assume human nature because that would be “coming too close” to us peons; the Gnostics considered Jesus as a mere stepping stone to higher knowledge of God as if such knowledge were an “exclusive offer not available in stores.” The antidote to spiritual poison, then and now, is twofold: right teaching and right living. If you want to know the Father, encounter the Son, specifically as one who has assumed true flesh and shed true blood. If you want to know the Son, encounter the Church, who is known by her obedience to the Commandments, loving God and loving neighbor. St. John addresses various subgroups in the community to encourage them that they do, in fact, know Christ. They don’t have to wait for any secret teachings, as the Gnostics would have them believe. Jesus’ companions know Him because, as John says, “your sins have been forgiven for His name’s sake” (2:12). But knowledge alone doesn’t guarantee right action, nor is it a one-way ticket to everlasting life. As John later relates, the awareness of being God's children, with its promise of likeness to Him, must lead to purity of life (cf. 3:1-2).
|Whatchu talkin' about, Satan?|
The evil one continues to assail us with temptations as he assailed Jesus en route to His public ministry. By His fidelity in the wilderness Jesus manifested Himself as Victor over Satan; and we share in that victory when we reject “the things of the world” (2:15)—a discordant tune that John summarizes in three notes: (1) sensual lust, (2) enticement for the eyes, and (3) a pretentious life. The offerings of the Magi are suitable substitutes for these vicious patterns.
Sensual lust may be considered more broadly as physical gratification. When pursued as an end in itself, gratification becomes a shortcut to forgetting God and neighbor. God made our bodies, so they’re good: this point can’t be emphasized enough, if only because our gainsayers accuse us of hating the flesh. It’s actually the lustful, gluttonous, and slothful persons who have a hard time giving the body due reverence and care. Consider the Magi’s gift of myrrh: a perfume, a bodily adornment. Later in the Gospel, myrrh appears once again, when the holy women bring it to the Lord’s tomb to anoint His dead body—an act of reverence and care. The body of Christ deserved such treatment and so do our bodies. Reverence, however, is not pampering, for it involves the sacrifice of one’s own desires and energies. To live this way in the world is a prophetic witness. Modesty draws attention because it seems like a judgment upon the indulgent; at the very least, it seems novel.
Enticement for the eyes refers to the bulging of the eyes and the shrinking of the heart at the sight of another’s blessings, which are viewed as a threat to one’s own. In the acquisition of goods, there are two extremes to avoid. One extreme is to claim for oneself the supreme right to get whatever one wants, by whatever means, at whoever’s expense. The Gospel parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Lk 16:19-31) assigns a bleak outcome to the person who pays no attention to the person in need. Yet we also avoid such distrust of the human person that discourages or forbids private property. The Catechism has a splendid paragraph (1884) on how God’s respect for human freedom is the model for human governance. The Magi’s gift of gold bears witness to Our Lord’s kingly state. Gold is the “wealth of nations” about which Isaiah speaks—the treasure of the Gentiles, who have now been invited to share in the promise of salvation furnished by the Holy Child of Nazareth. God’s chosen and beloved people have freely shared their wealth for the benefit of every person of every place and time.
The third worldly vice, a pretentious life, is best illustrated in the depiction of just about any celebrity’s life. But it has less to do with wealth or fame than with how people carry themselves—what rights and privileges they claim, a quick disdain for whoever doesn’t meet their qualifications, the impression of self-importance they give off, as noticeable as a cologne bath. Of course, it’s always easier to notice someone else’s more egregious displays of vanity. We may be drawn to the guilty pleasure of television shows that we can watch with the satisfaction, perhaps laced with gratitude, of knowing that “I’m not that bad.” Perhaps not, and thank God for it. But we seek the disposition that corresponds to the Magi’s offering of frankincense: a priestly, worshipful attitude, eager to observe and acclaim the virtues and achievements of others. In the seminary I had several friends who had such a disposition. As an amateur organist, I always admired the talents of the organists who would enter the seminary in the course of my nine years of study. Several of them were professionally trained. But they were often quick to compliment me when they enjoyed something I played. The lesson: “File this under your cap, Chris, so that you can ‘go and do likewise’ in your day, starting this day!” Many opportunities have indeed surfaced; sad to say, I haven’t taken them all, so I ought not be surprised about the many melancholy moments I’ve had, which tend to be quickly transformed by making a sincere and hearty compliment.
The life of virtue, marked by prompt giving and grateful receiving, is what St. John might call “the will of God.” His presentation of the secular sins concludes with aphorisms reminiscent of the prophet Isaiah and the prophet Jesus: “Yet the world and its enticement are passing away. But whoever does the will of God remains forever” (2:17). The Magi followed the will of God to its very Source, a humble stable in an out-of-the-way place. Their hearts were open to the promptings of the Holy Spirit, who led them to appreciate a light that wasn’t their own, to adopt a fresh, spiritual way of thinking and acting. That was their true gift, and it’s meant for us as well.