2:7-12. Then Herod called the magi secretly, and inquired precisely of them the time of the star’s appearing. And, sending them to Bethlehem, he said, “Go, and search carefully for the child; and when you have found him, bring word back to me, that I too may come and worship him.” And having heard the king they went away, and, behold, the star which they saw in the east went before them, until, having arrived, it stopped over the place where the child was. Upon seeing the star, the magi rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. And when they entered the house, they found the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down before him and worshiped him; and, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they withdrew by another route into their own country.
Herod sets a trap for the newborn Christ by sending the magi to Bethlehem and instructing them, “when you have found him bring me word, that I too may come and worship him.” But as they go on their way, all the devious tactics of Herod are left by the wayside as Matthew allows himself to be caught up with the magi in the joy of finding the Child, the king of the Jews, the newborn Messiah. Indeed, we find here a beautiful example of faith, teaching a deep lesson to us. For the text says, to our surprise, that the magi “rejoiced exceedingly with great joy,”* not yet upon seeing the Child, but upon seeing the star. What is the significance of this? It means that they believed without seeing, as if having seen. Indeed, we may feel less privileged than they because they were allowed to behold Christ in the flesh; but, without underestimating the importance of the body and of history, we can affirm that they were invited to have faith without seeing just as we are, and that we are invited to behold Christ manifest as they did.
“You have believed because you have seen me,” Jesus says to Thomas after his Resurrection, as the latter puts his fingers in the nail-marks in his hands and his hand into his wounded side, “blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe” (Jn 20:29). And Saint Paul, too, speaks of this faith under the aspect of hope: “For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience” (Rom 8:24-25). Finally, Saint Peter has something beautiful to say about this, tying in this faith with love: “Without having seen him you love him; though you do not now see him you believe in him and rejoice with unutterable and exalted joy. As the outcome of your faith you obtain the salvation of your souls” (1 Pet 1:8-9). Again, all the same realities are manifest for us: faith, love, contact with God in mystery, an unspeakable joy that is filled with God’s glory,* and the ultimate fruit of it all, unmediated vision of God in eternity: the gift of definitive salvation.
What does all of this mean? It means that faith is always a matter of adhering to a mystery that is unseen, and that can be embraced and beheld only through faith. Even in beholding the earthly body of Jesus Christ, in whom “the whole fullness of divinity dwelt bodily,” the disciples were invited to have faith, to look at and through the earthly appearance to behold and adhere to the divine mystery, which shall be fully seen—unveiled with direct vision—only in eternity. So too, Jesus’ words, “He who sees me sees the Father,” are an invitation to faith-filled surrender to the mystery that lives within him, the mystery that he is as the only-begotten Son of the Father.
This is not some kind of dualism, as if the flesh is an obstacle to sight, as if the body is to be disregarded in order to pass into a purely spiritual way of seeing, as if by some kind of gnostic initiation. Rather, it is a matter of the purification of the heart, so that in all things and through all things—and, yes, ultimately beyond all things, in direct, unmediated vision—the heart may behold God. We will see all of this much more when we come to the words of the Beatitudes. Let us only say the following for now. As in the Sacraments, faith consists not in a negation of created reality or what is tangible to the senses, but in the capacity to reverence and love the divine that communicates itself to us through them. It establishes a living communion between God and ourselves that persists and grows in every moment through the mutual surrender of persons, through God’s gift to us, which we receive, and our reciprocal gift of ourselves to him, which he welcome into his inmost being without reserve.
As Thomas rejoiced in the divinity of Christ through the tangible reality of his Risen Body, and as the magi rejoiced in the light of God through the light of the star, and as faith-filled hearts rejoice to behold and receive the fullness of Christ, indeed of the entire Trinity, in the Bread and Wine of the Eucharist, so too does God unceasingly come to us, so that “without having seen him, we may love him, and may rejoice with an unspeakable joy filled with glory.”
In the star, the magi glimpse already the fulfillment of their hopes, and by entrusting themselves to this mystery that draws them, they allow themselves to be led to the fullness that awaits them, yes, unto the very mystery of direct vision, beholding the Messiah face to face, in the arms of his Mother. Thus we can undestand the star as symbolizing anything that speaks of God and leads us on a journey back to him, or deeper into unity with him in the receptive beholding of humble faith. Yes, and thi journey is buoyed up by faith even as it leads to faith; it is born of the sensitivity of the heart to beholding in all things a mystery that surpasses them while also making itself radiantly present within them, and magnetizing hearts towards itself. This is the rich and beautiful tension that lies at the heart of all created beauty, in the midst of the vivid sacramentality of the created universe: God is fully present within each and every single thing, living within it as its inmost truth and as the source of its unique being; and yet he also surpasses everything in his infinite, all-transcending mystery, drawing hearts from the created to the Uncreated, from the image to the Reality, from the mediated contact via created things to the unmediated contact born of the gift of faith and, ultimately, of the beatific vision of eternal life.
And created reality is not a concession on God’s part, eventually to be done away with as no longer important, and certainly not as getting in the way of our communion with God. It is true, of course, that, due to the disordered tendencies of original sin, human hearts are inclined to grasp for created realities in opposition to the Giver, and to seek not his face within them, but rather the pleasure, possession, and pride that exclude and reject him. But it is precisely faith—joined to hope and love—which purifies our hearts to begin to relate to created things authentically again, since it teaches us to relate to God in truth, in the disposition of trust-filled receptivity, of hope-filled surrender, for which he created us as his precious and beloved children. Yes, it is precisely reconciliation with God that heals our relation to created things, and the pursuit of God himself which teaches us to see creation as it truly is, bathed in his own light and permeated by his presence, even as it aspires—along with us—to find its definitive consummation in the heart of his eternal embrace.
*Echaresan charan megalen sphodra: it is like Matthew is stretching the capacities of language in order to express the boundless depth of the joy of the magi upon drawing near to the Savior of the world, the Son of God incarnate. “They rejoiced with a great joy that was exceedingly great,” or, “they rejoiced in exceeding measure with an immense joy.”
*The phrase of joy here is agalliasthe chara aneklaleto kai dedoxasmene: “You exult with joy unspeakable and are filled with glory.”