You hard-shelled materialists were all balanced on the very edge of belief - of belief in almost anything. ["The Miracle of Moon Crescent” by G.K. Chesterton]
Although we do not know the exact beliefs of King Herod, he was probably not much different than the cultural elite of the Roman Empire. They tended to view the official religion with skepticism, often cynically saying things the common people wanted to hear, but ridiculing them in private.* We do know that Herod conducted his life with a total disregard for moral values. In a practical sense he was a materialist. He would not have welcomed the idea of waking up after death – and finding himself face to face with God.
The Wise Men, on the other hand, were earnest seekers. They are sometimes called astrologers because they searched the heavens for signs. In Greek they are designated as magoi from which we derive our word magician. Though involved in occult practices, when they finally found the Christ Child, they worshipped him.
Herod and the Magi represent two powerful forces which continue today: secularism and the occult. As the quote from Chesterton indicates, secularists have no real ability to resist the occult.** Since their only interest is power (“whatever works”) their own ears perk up when they hear about the possibilities of magic. This atmosphere has been captured quite well by the Harry Potter books. He studies magic at a place called Hogwarts as if he were studying biology or medicine. What counts is getting the right results.***
When a society becomes secularized, it becomes easy prey for the occult. Fr. Gabriele Amorth, official exorcist for the diocese of Rome, has first hand experience of this phenomenon. In spite of its magnificent Christian heritage, Italy has been rapidly sliding into secularism. Since hedonism cannot fill the spiritual gap, many modern Romans have turned to the occult: astrology, psychics, witchcraft, fortunetellers, spells, curses, etc. I encourage you to read Fr. Amorth’s book An Exorcist Tells his Story if you doubt that malevolent powers exist.
The picture is slightly different in the United States. In spite of having the most advanced technology, we continue to be a deeply religious people. Someone said that if India is the most religious country in the world and Sweden the most secular, the United States is nation of Indians governed by a small group of Swedes.**** My Scandinavian heritage notwithstanding, I am glad to be an “Indian,” not a “Swede.” But our problem is that our innate religiosity can degenerate into a vague “spirituality.”
Often this spirituality kicks in on Sunday morning. “I don’t need to go to church - all that phony religion. What matters to me is spirituality.” I know guys for whom spirituality means an extra hour between the sheets and then whatever appears on Sunday morning TV – or in the Sunday paper.
If spirituality only meant sloth and timidity, it would not be a huge problem. However, there are spirits and there are spirits. Some are from God and therefore, good. Others desire our complete destruction. And in the middle, each of us is a spirit bound up in a nature with a strong downward tendency. For that reason John tells us not to trust every spirit, but to discern the spirits. (1 Jn 4:1) Is that voice from God, from my own self or from the enemy?
The Wise Men show us the path. Astrology and magic can sometimes bring a person to the stable. However, everything changes when they step inside and encounter the Child - together with his mother. Epiphany Sunday challenges us, like them, to place at His feet those things we most treasure.
*Writing in the first century B.C., the Roman poet Lucretius expressed the prevailing cynicism: "All religions are equally sublime to the ignorant, useful to the politician, and ridiculous to the philosopher."
**Secularism (materialism) has slid into what is called postmodernism which posits that all truth is relative. It rejects (one is tempted to say "absolutely rejects") any claim to absolute truth. Although science commands great respect in our culture, a postmodernist would not ascribe more "truth" to it than to Wicca or alien abduction reports.
***Emblematic of this mixture of science and the occult is the UFO sect which claims to have cloned the first human baby. One curious aspect of the cloning report was the person who made the announcement to the media. Her name is Brigitte Boisselier and she is scientific director of the cloning company Clonaid and "bishop" of the Raelian sect. They believe life on Earth was created by extraterrestrials through genetic engineering and that cloning is the path to immortality, a chance to live forever. According to the Clonaid website: “Once we can clone exact replicas of ourselves, the next step will be to transfer our memory and personality into our newly cloned brains, which will allow us to truly live forever. Since we will be able to remember all our past, we will be able to accumulate knowledge ad infinitum.” They are using the same logic as “therapeutic cloning” – create exact replicas (which in fact are separate human beings like identical twins) and then kill one so that the other can have a replacement part - and thus live a little longer. Clonaid is simply taking the logic to its ultimate conclusion - and in the process revealing clearly the diabolical element behind the manipulation of human embryos.
****Not that we elect so many outright secularists, but they dominate major insitutions: education, media, law, etc. The best response of course is to encourage young Christians to get involved in these areas, become competent and gradually transform the culture.
Seapadre Homilies: Cycle A, Cycle B, Cycle C
Bulletin (Animal Rights & Human Rights; Reflection on Cloning, 30th Anniversary of Roe v. Wade)
Simple Catholicism (New! Thanks to my niece Sara Bloom)