Guide Us to Thy Perfect Light
Jan 4, 2022
Rev. Mr. Aaron J. Kelly, Ph.L.
The story of the magi, the men who traveled a great distance following the light of the star, is one that is perplexing and worth considering. St. Matthew recounts their story and tells us that when they encountered King Herod, the magi explained: “We saw his star at its rising and have come to do him homage” (Mt. 2:2). I think it is worth asking: what about this star led these men to get up and follow it to distant lands? What led the men to come and offer costly gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh to the newborn king? While I do not want to say that Christmas carols are a strong theological authority, I would like to propose that the refrain of the nineteenth century Christmas carol, “We Three Kings,” can provide some insight into the mystery of the wisemen and why they followed the star.
John Henry Hopkins, Jr., the episcopal priest who authored “We Three Kings,” wrote in his lyrics: “O star of wonder, star of light, / star with royal beauty bright, / westward leading, still proceeding, / guide us to thy perfect light.” There was something beautiful about the star that caught the attention of the magi and required them to respond. Then, when the magi finally arrived at the place where the Christ child lay they were overcome by the truly beautiful one, the true light of the world that draws all people to himself. Matthew recounts: “And behold, the star that they had seen at its rising preceded them, until it came and stopped over the place where the child was. They were overjoyed at seeing the star, and on entering the house they saw the child with Mary his mother. They prostrated themselves and did him homage. Then they opened their treasures and offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh” (Mt. 2:9–11). The beauty of the star led the magi out of themselves into a deeper encounter with Beauty himself. Then, having encountered Beauty, they could only respond with homage and worship.
Dietrich Von Hildebrand (1889–1977), the German Catholic philosopher known for his work in ethics and aesthetics, has written extensively on the importance and power of beauty. Three of his essays on beauty, art, and truth are published under the title Beauty in the Light of the Redemption (Hildebrand Press 2019). For Hildebrand, the truly beautiful is that which, when seen, draws us into an experience of the spiritual and brings us into contact with God. It raises us above the merely corporeal and sensual to the thought of God who is the one that is the source of beauty. Hildebrand gives numerous examples of this sort of beauty: whether it is seeing the city of Rome and the distant mountains from the Janiculum Hill in Rome (something I get to see with great frequency), or Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam in the Sistine Chapel, or the beauty of a musical masterpiece like Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, all these experiences lift the hearts of persons into the life and things of God. Hildebrand writes: “It is not true that this beauty distracts us from God and is specifically mundane. On the contrary, it contains a summons; in it there dwells a sursum corda; it awakens awe in us; it elevates us above that which is base; it fills our hearts with a longing for the eternal beauty of God.”
There is something of this reality in the story of the magi. The beauty of the star captured the attention of the magi and led them to a supernatural reality. The magi would have seen in the star the fulfillment of the prophecy of Balaam, of which we read in Numbers: “A star shall come forth out of Jacob, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel” (24:17). There was something supernatural, then, about the star’s appearance and that contained a summons for the magi to follow. Balaam’s prophecy explains why upon arriving in Jerusalem, the magi ask Herod where the king was born, and they are answered with Micah’s prophecy, “But you, O Bethlehem Eph′rathah, who are little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel” (5:2).
The magi followed the star and found the newborn infant. They were led to an encounter with Incarnate Beauty himself. With the Incarnation, all of creation, the entire cosmos, is transformed, and with it, beauty is transformed. Hildebrand notes that because of the Incarnation our relationship with beauty “becomes something different and something new in Christ and through Christ.” Every truly beautiful thing should draw a person closer to Christ. Hildebrand writes: “[Persons] will, indeed, seek and find in all the sublime beauty of the visible and audible world the Countenance and the Voice of the God-Man, Christ.” The one that recognizes that he has been redeemed and views all of reality through the lens of the Incarnation, sees that God is glorified in all beautiful things, and that all beautiful things serve to “speak to us of God, to lead us to God, to glorify God.” Again, the magi, upon seeing the Christ child, could only respond with worship. Matthew tells us: “They prostrated themselves and did him homage. Then they opened their treasures and offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh” (Mt. 2:11). The one who has encountered Beauty, who has been transformed by Beauty, and has been redeemed cannot live otherwise, he must respond. Every aspect of one’s life must be transformed.
This is the transformative power of Beauty. This is the transformative power of the Incarnation. Just as the magi returned to their country by another way, once we have experienced the truly Beautiful, we cannot go about living the same way. Hildebrand writes:
Here we come upon a mysterious paradox: the more we give ourselves entirely to God, the more we love God above all else, the deeper and truer is our love for all created things that really deserve our love. . . . The love of creatures, whether it be father, friend, or wife, can reach its full measure only in Christ, only by loving them in Christ and with Christ, indeed, only by partaking of the same love with which Christ loves them.
Our work, our relationships, and our leisure are all transformed because of the Incarnation. We must learn to see God in our work, our relationships, and our leisure. We must allow the beautiful things we encounter to elevate our minds to God and the things of God.
The annual celebration of Christmas and Epiphany provides us with an opportunity to marvel again at the beauty of the Incarnation and recommit to living as those who have been redeemed. In the collect for Epiphany, we will pray: “grant in your mercy, that we, who know you already by faith, may be brought to behold the beauty of your sublime glory.” May we take the magi as our example, so that, with the magi, we may be captured by the beauty of the star and led to behold the beauty of the Incarnate Lord and offer authentic worship to the all-Beautiful one; and that like the magi, these celebrations may transform our lives, requiring us to depart differently, not going back the way we came – seeing God at work in all things, in all those we meet, and in all that we do.