Plough My Account Sign Out
My Account
    View Cart

    Subtotal: $

    painting of the magi showing their gifts to Jesus

    The Epiphany

    What can we learn from the Magi?

    By Evelyn Underhill

    January 8, 2023
    • davee ceniceros

      Such a wonderfully imaginative use of insightful meanings, not just words, thoroughly unpacked for the mind. Appreciating Plough.

    Let us take as our first point the story of the Magi. You know how sometimes on a pitch-black night in the country, you see far off one glimmer of light and you follow it and it turns out to be just a candle in a cottage window – but it was enough to assure you of life ahead, to give you the lead you wanted in the dark. In the same way, when the Magi turned from their abstruse calculations in search of heaven and followed a star, they did not arrive at a great mathematical result or revelation of the cosmic mind. They found a poor little family party and were brought to their knees – because, like the truly wise, they were really humble-minded – before a baby born under most unfortunate circumstances, a mystery of human life, a little living growing thing. What a paradox! The apparently rich Magi coming to the apparently poor child. There they laid down their intellectual treasures – all pure gold to them – and, better than that, offered the spirit of adoration, the incense which alone consecrates the intellectual life and quest of truth, and that reverent acceptance of pain, mental suffering and sacrifice, that death to self which, like myrrh, hallows the dedicated life in all its forms.

    painting of the magi showing their gifts to Jesus

    Salomon Koninck, Adoration of the Magi

    The utmost man can achieve on his own here capitulates before the unspeakable simplicity of the methods of God. After all the shepherds got there long before the Magi and even so, the animals were already in position when the shepherds arrived. He came to his own: the God of nature and of our natural life makes that natural life the material of revelation. The animal world and the natural world have their own rights and their own place within the thought of God. His light, his smile, kindle the whole universe. He is the light of the world – all of it. He does not only want or illuminate spiritual things. His hallowing touch is for the ox and the ass, as afterwards for the sparrows and the flowers. There never was a less high-brow religion or one more deeply in touch with natural life than Christianity, although it is infinite in its scope. Whosoever shall humble himself as this little child, the same shall be greatest in the kingdom of heaven.

    It is no use being too clever about life. Only so far as we find God in it do we find any meaning in it. Without him it is a tissue of fugitive and untrustworthy pleasures, conflicts, ambitions, desires, frustrations, intolerable pain.

    Now to accept historical Christianity as God’s supreme self-revelation does not mean some elaborate philosophy of the spirit. It means accepting the gospel story as touching our lives significantly at every point, because it is conveying God. If we are ever to learn all that this record can mean for us, we must never forget that these, beyond all other facts of history, are indwelt, molded, brought into being by the living spirit of God, while plastic to his creative thought. And if we thus feel God within these events, some so strange and some so homely, inspiring this action and record, then we also accept all these incidents as conveying something of his overruling will and thought, having something in them for each of us. Nothing is there by accident. Everything is there because it conveys spiritual truth, gives us the supernatural. It all “speaks to our condition” as Fox would say. The Synoptic Gospels may not always have the accuracy of a photograph but they have a higher reality, they are charged with God. That is the reason why meditation on the Gospels, chewing the evangelical cud, is so nourishing to the soul and so inexhaustible as a basis of prayer. In that sense every word of the gospel is sacramental; and like some great work of art gives us more and more light and food, revealing greater depths of significance as we grow in the wisdom which is the child of humility and love. The Magi came away from Bethlehem much wiser than they were before.

    There never was a less high-brow religion or one more deeply in touch with natural life than Christianity, although it is infinite in its scope.

    Now take another point. The Christmas mystery has two parts: the nativity and the epiphany. A deep instinct made the Church separate these two feasts. In the first we commemorate God’s humble entrance into human life, the emergence and birth of the Holy, and in the second its manifestation to the world, the revelation of the Supernatural made in that life. And the two phases concern our inner lives very closely too. The first only happens in order that the second may happen, and the second cannot happen without the first. Christ is a light to lighten the Gentiles as well as the glory of his people Israel. Think of what the Gentile was when these words were written – an absolute outsider. All cozy religious exclusiveness falls before that thought. The Light of the world is not the sanctuary lamp in your favorite church. It is easy for the devout to join up with the shepherds and fall into place at the crib and look out into the surrounding night and say, “Look at those extraordinary intellectuals wandering about after a star, with no religious sense at all! Look at that clumsy camel, what an unspiritual animal it is! We know the ox and the ass are the right animals to have! Look what queer gifts and odd types of self-consecration they are bringing; not the sort of people who come to church!” But remember that the Child who began by receiving these very unexpected pilgrims had a woman of the streets for his faithful friend and two thieves for his comrades at the end: and looking at these two extremes let us try to learn a little of the height and breadth and depth of his love – and then apply it to our own lives.

    It was said of Father Wainwright that he cared above all for scamps and drunkards and unbelievers – least for those who came regularly to church – and no man of our time was fuller of the spirit of Christ. The first point about Epiphany is that all are called and welcomed and accepted. Our own loving adoration and deep certitude, if God in his mercy gives us that, is never to break our brotherhood with those who come longer journeys by other paths, led by a different star. The Magi took more trouble than the shepherds. The intellectual virtues and intellectual longings of men are all blessed in Christ.

    And the second point, which every window will bring before us, is that beholding his glory is only half our job. In our souls too the mysteries must be brought forth; we are not really Christians till that has been done. “The Eternal Birth,” says Eckhart, “must take place in you.” And another mystic says human nature is like a stable inhabited by the ox of passion and the ass of prejudice; animals which take up a lot of room and which I suppose most of us are feeding on the quiet. And it is there between them, pushing them out, that Christ must be born and in their very manger he must be laid – and they will be the first to fall on their knees before him. Sometimes Christians seem far nearer to those animals than to Christ in his simple poverty, self-abandoned to God.

    The birth of Christ in our souls is for a purpose beyond ourselves: it is because his manifestation in the world must be through us. Every Christian is, as it were, part of the dust-laden air which shall radiate the glowing Epiphany of God, catch and reflect his golden light. Ye are the light of the world – but only because you are enkindled, made radiant by the One Light of the world. And being kindled, we have got to get on with it, be useful. As Christ said in one of his ironical flashes, “Do not light a candle in order to stick it under the bed!” Some people make a virtue of religious skulking.

    From Evelyn Underhill, Light of Christ: Addresses Given at the House of Retreat, Pleshey, in May 1932 (London: Longmans, Green, 1944).

    Contributed By portrait of Evelyn Underhill Evelyn Underhill

    Evelyn Underhill (1875–1941) was a prolific English writer known for her works on religion and spiritual practice, especially Christian mysticism.

    Learn More
    You have ${x} free ${w} remaining. This is your last free article this month. We hope you've enjoyed your free articles. This article is reserved for subscribers.

      Already a subscriber? Sign in

    Try 3 months of unlimited access. Start your FREE TRIAL today. Cancel anytime.

    Start free trial now