Sunday, January 06, 2008

The Magi: Reformed Practitioners of the Black Arts

(Epiphany 2008: This homily was given on January 6, 2008 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 2008]

In a recent issue of the National Catholic Register, there was an article entitled, “Exorcists Wanted.” It was about the increasing demand for competent exorcists in a certain section of Italy. Here are the opening paragraphs:

Bishops in northeastern Italy will create a task force of psychiatrists and doctors to help priests deal with an increasing demand for exorcisms.

According to the communiqué issued by bishops of the Triveneto region, a growing number of people are psychologically disturbed, feel victims of curses and other manifestations of what they believe is the work of the devil.

In response, bishops have decided priests must be ‘better prepared to deal with these requests for help, be able to listen and discern individual cases in order to ascertain the true nature of the complaint, provide care and, if necessary, carry out an exorcism.’

As the article indicates, not every request is legitimate; sometimes people with psychological or emotional disorders think they’re possessed or being harassed by the devil and they’re not (hence the bishops are assembling a task force of medical and mental health professionals to help evaluate individual cases). But the sheer volume of requests indicates that something strange is going on in this particular region of Italy.

But is it really that much different from what’s going on in the rest of the world?

That’s the key question.

Personally, I don’t think it is.

In this Register article a number of experts were asked to give their insights on the matter, and one of them, Fr. Gabriele Amorth—a well-known exorcist—was quoted as saying that these cases are becoming more numerous because Italians “are increasingly consulting maghi [witchdoctors], wizards and involving themselves in satanic sects.”

In other words, they’re opening the door to demonic influences in their lives by dabbling in the occult. But that kind of thing is going on everywhere—even here in the United States! And, amazingly, highly educated people are very often involved in these activities!

It’s not just the poor and uneducated who are seeking power and guidance from the world of spirits these days—it’s PhDs and CEOs as well!

Perhaps that’s because the occult has been very cleverly “mainstreamed” in recent decades with books like the “Harry Potter” series, and with TV Programs like “Charmed,” and “Ghost Whisperer,” and “Crossing Over,” and “Medium”.

National and local newspapers further the cause by publishing daily horoscopes, which many people read religiously.

If only they read their Bibles as much!

People have their palms read and their fortunes told at county fairs—and even at house parties!

Teenagers and even pre-teens play with Ouija boards.

Occult jewelry is also popular—like the so-called “Italian horn” which people of all different nationalities wear around their necks (sometimes right next to their crucifixes!).

It’s ironic isn’t it? Our modern, supposedly scientific world is turning away from the worship of the one true God and moving little by little into occultism, while the ancient Magi that we heard about in today’s Gospel reading renounced their occultism and turned to the worship of the one true God, and of his Son, Jesus Christ!

This last point is something that I learned recently from Dr. Scott Hahn of the Franciscan University of Steubenville in Ohio. On one of his tapes, Professor Hahn says that these Magi—these ancient star-gazers—were also in all likelihood "practitioners of the black arts". In other words, they were into the occult—big time! He bases that assertion on the 3 gifts they brought to Jesus: gold, frankincense and myrrh. According to Dr. Hahn, these items were some of the “tools of the trade,” so to speak, in the ancient world. People who were into the occult back then frequently used gold, frankincense and myrrh in their secret rituals.

But the key point here is that the Magi presented these items to the newborn King in the manger. They laid them down in the presence of the Son of God—which meant that they were implicitly renouncing them!

You see, they were probably familiar with passages of the Hebrew Scriptures like this one from Deuteronomy 18, where the Biblical author writes: “Let there not be found among you anyone who immolates his son or daughter in the fire, nor a fortune-teller, soothsayer, charmer, diviner, or caster of spells, nor one who consults ghosts and spirits or seeks oracles from the dead. Anyone who does such things is an abomination to the Lord . . . “

So these Magi knew that if they intended to submit themselves to the infant King of the Jews and honor him properly, they would have to renounce their past involvement with these occult activities that the Jewish religion condemned.

And so do we—lest we open the door to spiritual powers beyond our control. Let’s learn a lesson from what’s going on right now in northern Italy.

The best way, of course, for Catholics to renounce past occult practices is by bringing them into the confessional. Confessing them in the sacrament of Reconciliation normally breaks any hold they might have on us.

It’s doing explicitly what the Magi did implicitly when they gave their 3 gifts to the Christ child.

Through the intercession of St. Michael the Archangel—who is our great defender and helper against the devil; through his intercession may all those who need to hear this message today hear it, take it to heart—and then ACT upon it as soon as possible, by getting to Confession.