T.S. Eliot writes in the third of his Four Quartets, “The Dry Salvages,” “We had the experience but missed the meaning” (II.44). In a single line, Eliot illuminates the affliction of fallen humanity: we are, in the words of St. Peter Chrysologus, “enshrouded always in darkness” (Sermon 160). We look, but the cataracts of sin cloud our perception. We listen, but we do not hear. We have the experience, but we miss the meaning.
Over the course of a lifetime, we can amass a breathtaking array of exotic experiences. We casually refer to twitter feeds, bucket lists, and upgrades. We inhabit a world awash in information, where the same scraps of news are looped on a 24-hour cycle until a new story dislodges them, casting them into the abyss of forgetfulness—where one might know more about celebrities than about one’s neighbor; where poetry, according to some literary critics, has become increasingly didactic; where in-depth analysis often means little more than getting the facts right.
So ubiquitous is the constant exchange of information that we’ve developed special terms to describe people who partially or fully opt-out: going off the grid, living under a rock. But concomitant with ease of travel and exchange of information, of technological advances and the fact that in terms of sheer quantity of information we know more now than at any other point in history, I wonder if we haven’t also become collectors, accumulating experiences and acquiring bits of information, all the while missing the meaning.
St. Peter Chrysologus observed that “in choosing to be born for us, God chose to be known by us” (Sermon 160). In becoming human, God risks becoming a collector’s item, one more piece of information among all the others in our mental display case, just something else to Google. Yet, it is only by taking this risk—the risk of being reduced to data, the risk of being disowned as mere history—that his love can be made manifest. In becoming the infant wrapped in swaddling clothes, God makes himself available to us. To gaze at him is to look upon his infant hands and perceive, to listen to his infant cries and hear. To gaze upon him, to listen to him is to risk entering into the mystery and meaning of divine love because in Christ, God does not merely provide a list attributes, qualifications, or a divine résumé. He does not merely disclose information. Indeed, in the Gospels, those who assiduously cling to what they think they know of Christ (including the disciples!) time and again reveal that they have missed the meaning. In Christ, God discloses knowledge that transforms, the experience that is meaning.
In both the East and West, the events traditionally associated with Epiphany (which has only more recently been transferred to Sunday in many Western dioceses, but is still celebrated on January 6 in the East)—the adoration of the magi and the Baptism of Christ—each disclose something of the identity of Christ, directing our gaze to his pierced hands and side and inclining our ears to his final cry of abandonment.
In the West, the Epiphany tends to lay emphasis on the universal salvation offered through this particular Child as shown through the visitation of the magi in Matthew’s Gospel. These astronomers from the East had been following the “star since his rising” and arrive at Herod’s palace in search of the “newborn king of the Jews” (Mt 2:2). Not coincidentally, Matthew invokes the Gentile title, “King of the Jews,” which will appear again on the lips of Roman soldiers (Mt 27:29) and be inscribed over the Cross of Christ (Mt 27:37). Certainly others noticed this bright star in the heavens, both astronomers in the East and people of Jerusalem, yet the magi appear to be the only ones to perceive meaning of the star. Perceiving it, they set off on the long, treacherous journey westward, where they find, “crying in a manger, the one they have followed as he shone in the sky,” where they “see clearly, in swaddling clothes, the one they have long awaited as he lay hidden among the stars” (Chrysologus, Sermon 150). They come seeking in faith, says St. Augustine, the “King, so small and so mighty, not yet speaking on earth and already issuing commands in heaven” (Sermon 199). And finding the King for whom they seek, they do not simply find more informational data, but the condition of the possibility of all knowledge—the Light himself, who has been illuminating the magi this whole time, drawing them to himself from the moment they “saw his star at its rising” (Mt 2:2).
Their joy upon entering the house of Mary and the Child is the joy of Gospel. It is, as Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI wrote in Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives, “the joy of one whose heart has received a ray of God’s light and who can now see that his hope has been realized—the joy of one who has found what he sought, and has himself been found” (106). It is the joy extended to all creation, all the nations through the newborn king of the Jews. Indeed, the late Scripture scholar Raymond Brown describes the magi in his slim volume An Adult Christ at Christmas as forerunners “of all those who would come to worship the risen Jesus proclaimed by the apostles” (14).
In the East, the Epiphany is deeply linked to Christ’s Baptism. Indeed, in the East, Epiphany remains a day for Baptism. In the waters of the Jordan, Christ takes up in his humanity the sins of Israel. There is no deeper sign of his solidarity with us than this. The one who is without sin bridges the unbridgeable gap between humanity and God.
He “blends in with the great mass of sinners waiting on the banks of the Jordan,” taking up all of history, all our wounds and suffering in order to transform them (see Joseph Ratzinger, Jesus of Nazareth: From the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration, 16). It is here that Jesus is revealed as the beloved Son of God who comes not on his own behalf but so that we might see the Word and perceive, listen to his voice and be transformed. As St. Cyril of Jerusalem writes, “the only-begotten Son receives the Spirit, but not for his own advantage, for the Spirit is his, and is given in him and through him . . . . He receives it to renew our nature in its entirety and to make it whole again” (Commentary on the Gospel of John). His unreserved yes to the Father and his unreserved yes to humanity is consummated on the Cross, where the waters of Baptism flow from his pierced side. Bathing in this water of Baptism, “the water that irrigates Paradise” (St. Hippolytus), illumines our vision so that we might perceive more than just information and opens our ears so that we might listen and understand. We are enfolded into the One who gives meaning to all experience, who is the meaning of all experience—who is love and whose love is capable of generating the light of the stars, of clothing the river in his glory, of healing the “withering of withered flowers” (Eliot, II:31).
Featured Image: Epiphany at the Jordan (Burgos Cathedral); Lawrence Lew, OP; CC-BY-NC-ND-2.0.