Sunday, January 07, 2007

The Magi: Men of Science AND Faith!

My favorite brain surgeon, Martin, and his wife Arlean at the Vatican.

(Epiphany 2007: This homily was given on January 7, 2007 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani. Read Matthew 2: 1-12.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Epiphany 2007]

Who were they, and where did they come from?

I’m talking about the so-called “Magi”—these mysterious men who were the very first non-Jews to adore Jesus Christ. In that sense, they prefigured all those Gentiles—all those non-Jews like us—who would worship Jesus in future generations.

Here we are reminded of the fact that our Lord came into this world to save everyone—Jew and Gentile alike.

According to the Bible, these Magi were “from the east”. Now that covers a lot of ground—literally; but in all likelihood they came from ancient Persia, an area of land now known to the world as Iran.

They are not identified as “kings” in the Bible—at least not directly. That idea comes from today’s responsorial psalm—psalm 72—part of which says, “The kings of Tarshish and the Isles shall offer gifts; the kings of Arabia and Seba shall bring tribute. All kings shall pay him homage, all nations shall serve him.”

This prophecy predicts that even non-Jews (and non-Jewish leaders) will pay homage to the Messiah when he comes. And since the Magi (as I said a few moments ago) were the very first non-Jews to adore the Savior, many believe that this prophecy was fulfilled in them when they visited the baby Jesus after his birth.

But that doesn’t mean they were kings themselves, and they probably weren’t.

However, in all likelihood, the Magi were the teachers of kings—the teachers of the kings of Persia. They took on that role in their country because they were so highly educated; they were skilled in philosophy, in medicine, and in the natural sciences.

They were also star-gazers, who mixed a little science with a little astrological superstition. But that’s understandable, since this was an era of human history when most people believed in astrology.

I like the portrayal of them in the movie, “The Nativity Story”. It shows them as scholarly, intelligent, analytical men—who also had a pretty good sense of humor! And that last point is probably historically accurate, given the fact that the distance between ancient Persia and Bethlehem was somewhere between 1000 and 1200 miles. To be perfectly frank, if you’re going to ride on the back of a camel for all that time—several months at least—you’d better have a really good sense of humor! You’d better be able to laugh a lot!

Most of us have accepted the notion that there were 3 of them. However, the Bible doesn’t specify a number. The idea that there were 3 Magi comes from the fact that there were 3 gifts given: gold, frankincense and myrrh.

Neither does the Bible say that their names were Gaspar, Balthasar and Melchior. Those names only date back to about the 7th century.

As I said earlier, these Magi, in spite of their mysteriousness, represent the Gentile world; they represent God’s desire to save all humanity through Jesus Christ.

But at the same time they remind us of an important truth that many have forgotten in our technological generation: they remind us that science and theology are not natural enemies!

Please hear that, young people! I say this, because at some point in the future, you will probably be taught in school that religion and science are enemies—irreconcilable enemies! But that’s not true! It’s a lie!

The Magi were learned men who saw no contradiction whatsoever between their scientific study of the universe, and the truths of Jewish biblical prophecy! In that sense, they were men of science AND men of religion!

Today, of course, the implication is that you have to choose to live in one camp or the other. Either you have to say, “I’m a religious person, and I reject modern science”; or you have to say, “I’m a rational, scientific person who rejects anything rooted in religion.”

To this, the Catholic Church says no! The Church says this is a false dichotomy. The Church says that when it comes to religion and science, it’s not either/or, it’s both/and!

As Catholics, therefore, we should say yes to good theology (like the theology we find in the Catechism), and yes to good science!

On the other hand, we should say no to bad theology (theology, in other words, that’s not compatible with Church teaching), just as we should say no to bad science!

That last point, incidentally, is the real crux of the issue. The Church is often portrayed as the enemy of scientific inquiry, but what she’s really the enemy of is BAD SCIENCE: science, in other words, that’s used to destroy human life; science that undermines the dignity of the human person.

That’s what the Church is against—and that’s what every Catholic should be against.

People are often surprised when I tell them that some of my most devout parishioners—some of the best Catholics I know here at St. Pius X Church—are people of science: people of science who have some pretty impressive credentials.

I could give lots of examples of this phenomenon, but I’ll mention only one today. We have a parishioner with two doctorates (an MD and a PhD)—a brain surgeon (literally, a brain surgeon!)—who takes his faith extremely seriously. So much so, that one of the first things he did when he joined our parish was to request a meeting with me so that he could learn how to become a better apologist for Catholicism.

An apologist is a defender of the faith. This man wanted some good information—some good reading material—so that he could learn how to be a better defender of what we believe as Catholics!

So I happily provided it for him!

Now he wants to do some writing for various publications, so that he can put his vast medical and scientific knowledge to use in defense of the Gospel!

Obviously this man doesn’t see any contradiction between what he reads in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, and what he’s done in the operating room, working on people’s brains!

In that respect, he is a modern day descendant of the Magi! He’s a spiritual descendant of those mysterious men from the east—those great men of science and faith—who visited Jesus our Savior on the very first Epiphany.

Let’s pray at this Mass that there will be many more of these “descendants” around in the future—because our modern world desperately needs them.