Today’s very special feast has often been understood as the Christmas of the Gentiles. In a certain way, all the events surrounding Christmas itself as the birthday of our Savior seem to have more to do with the fulfillment of the promises made to Israel than the fulfillment of the promises made to the Gentiles. Clearly the shepherds represent the Anawim of God’s chosen people, the poor ones, the little ones who depend most on God and who remain faithful to God in spite of all the difficulties in their lives. Properly understanding the prophets, it should not be totally surprising that the those called to witness to the birth of the Savior, as the representatives of Israel, would not be the powerful elites, but the humble and poor who have a special place in God’s love.
But today we celebrate the arrival of the witnesses chosen by God to represent the whole Gentile world. And they are not poor and simple, but the more wealthy and powerful, in striking contrast to the shepherds. Nonetheless, they are religious men who come from the East and not political representatives from the Western world ruled by Rome. They follow a star in search of the great prodigy whose arrival they detected in the heavens. Their religion was natural, and lacking in so many ways, but their hearts were right, and God led them to the One who would be their Savior also. Whatever kind of prodigy they were expecting to find during their journey, they “went home by another route,” not just in a geographical sense but in a spiritual sense, because after encountering the child and his parents they understood that this child had a great religious significance and destiny for them as well as for the Jews.
It’s really quite strange that following Vatican II, when many theologians and clergy uncritically discovered historical criticism, it was just such things like the star, and the Angels, and the wise men or kings that they found historically bothering and untenable. Of course, all this was destined to lead to an equally uncritical denial of the historicity of Jesus himself for many people, who above all wanted to be exempt from being considered as literalists or fundamentalists when it came to their understanding of the Scriptures.
All this reminds me of a rather humorous but insightful passage from Evelyn Waugh in his great novel Brideshead Revisited. A skeptical Protestant friend of the rather strange Catholic character, Sebastian, quizzes him at one point about his (Sebastian’s) faith. It goes like this:
“But, my dear Sebastian, you can’t seriously believe it all.”
“I mean about Christmas and the star and the three kings and the ox and the ass.”
“Oh yes, I believe that. It’s a lovely idea.”
“But you can’t believe things because they’re a lovely idea.”
“But I do. That’s how I believe.”
I wonder how many people would agree with the skeptic that one can’t believe in something simply because it’s a lovely idea. Is Sebastian, and more importantly Waugh himself, the author, to be understood as superficial simpletons and expressing such an idea? Perhaps, or is there something deeper here, that what Sebastian is talking about is not simply a lovely idea, but love itself, and specifically the Love of God, Divine Love, that is, that Sebastian believes all this Christmas history because he believes that God does such beautiful things simply out of His Love for man.
I don’t know if Waugh ever read Romano Guardini, the great German theologian, but if he did, he might’ve taken this peculiar apologetics for the historicity of the gospel Christmas accounts from this text of Guardini:
“Once at this point a friend gave me a clue that helped my understanding more than any measure of bare reason. He said: ‘But love does such things!’ … When it is the depth and power of God that stirs, is there anything of which love is incapable?”
“Love does such things” is the apologetic behind Sebastian’s words perhaps. What reason doesn’t grasp so easily, love often does, even when it comes to the mysteries of human life. The heart understands that God does whatever he does out of Love. God delights in doing things which men find delightful. And if men find some ideas delightful, religious men find reality even more delightful. The idea of three kings showing up at the birth of Christ is certainly a delightful idea, lovely idea, but the fact that they actually showed up in real life is far more delightful, and especially for those who actually witnessed their arrival.
Who could have been more delighted than Mary and Joseph themselves? Do we really appreciate the hardship that surrounded the events of Christ’s birth? It was a difficult journey; their need for shelter was met by rejection; the child was born in a stable and wrapped in swaddling clothes. When the shepherds appeared with their account of the Angels announcing his birth and sending them to Bethlehem, imagine how that must’ve filled the hearts of Mary and Joseph with love and delight. And when these three representatives of the Gentiles arrived, having traveled a far greater distance, physically and spiritually, than the shepherds, just imagine the delight of Mary and Joseph which more than offset the trials and hardships of his birth.
The son of God was not born in a palace and wrapped in royal garments, but these three representatives of the Gentiles, rather wealthy and powerful men from the East, were clearly a divine indication that Jesus’ mission would indeed not be limited to the salvation of the Jews but would reach out to the whole world. The fact that they were not political figures but men of a religious nature who were searching for the truth again was indication of the purpose of Jesus’ coming into the world.
If these were just lovely ideas, myths with no foundation in reality, they would have ceased to so delight men long ago. But believers, including Sebastian and his creator Waugh, are moved to faith because of the apologetics of the heart. Love does such things, and when you understand that, the facts recorded in the infancy narratives become truly delightful on a scale that no mere idea can match. Love does such things, not simply in a world of ideas, a Gnostic world so alien to Christianity, but in the real world, where things like this that are so marvelous are believable because our God is a God of love, and His Love does such things, not just does ideas. Perhaps Mary pondered this too in her Heart.