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Single-Minded Magi

By Fr. Jerry Pokorsky ( bio - articles - email ) | Jan 08, 2024

The three wise men had their priorities right. They followed the star to Bethlehem to worship the newborn King. Representing all nations, they fulfilled the Old Testament prophecy: “May the kings of Sheba and Seba bring gifts! May all kings fall down before him, all nations serve him!” (Ps. 72:10-11) Their single-mindedness, driven by conscience, teaches us to do the same.

The celebration of their visit to Bethlehem is another manifestation (“epiphany”) of the glory of Jesus. Various commentators identified the three wise men as “kings,” “astrologists,” “Persian priests,” and “the Magi.” The Church’s Epiphany blessing provides their names: Gaspar, Balthasar, and Melchior. According to pious tradition, St. Thomas the Apostle baptized them forty years later in India. In any case, the wise men traversed afar for a purpose that unnerved Herod the Great: “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the East and have come to worship him.” (Mt. 2:2)

The wise men followed the star, and it settled over the “manger” of Bethlehem. Just as the ministry of St. John the Baptist prepared the way for Jesus, the wise men—likely Persian priests (cf. Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives)—prepared the way for the Catholic priesthood. The wise men worshipped the Child but, like John the Baptist, could not yet enter into the mystery of the Mass.

The wise men bring us to the door of the Liturgy of the Eucharist as they present their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, the customary offering to kings. The gifts symbolize royalty (gold), prayer (frankincense), and the priesthood (the priestly anointing of myrrh). Like bread and wine, their gifts are the “work of human hands” and prepare us to participate in the one Sacrifice of Jesus. Indeed, Bethlehem means “House of Bread”—the house of the Real Presence of Jesus, Mary’s Child.

Every Mass (and every tabernacle) is a “House of Bread.” Mary’s Child comes to us again under the appearance of bread and wine. We may piously suggest the Magi are the patron saints of Eucharistic adoration. The wiles of Herod would not deter the wise men from worship. And the Magi would protect Jesus from Herod’s murderous rage by obeying the dictates they received in a dream, directing them not to return to Herod. Their single-minded devotion and conscience are examples for every priest.

Herod the Great also had a single purpose: to protect his monopoly on power. Upon hearing the news, he consulted the chief priests and scribes. Scriptures prophesized that the Messiah would come from Bethlehem. Herod and “all Jerusalem” were troubled by the news. Perhaps an untimely messiah would disrupt the hard-earned cosmopolitan comforts of that great city under Herod’s competent (if brutal) rule.

Not every exercise of power is an act of tyranny. The burden of office includes the exercise of power guided by justice in service of the common good. But tyrants use their power for unjust purposes. Every big organization harbors leaders who fit somewhere on the broad spectrum of tyranny. Tyrants range from petty office managers to modern totalitarian monsters.

As tyrants go, Herod had his strengths and weaknesses. He maintained peace with the Romans, built the Temple of Worship in Jerusalem, and judiciously slaughtered his enemies. During a famine, Herod graciously fed essential taxpayers. Although Herod claimed religiosity, he demonstrated a familiar grotesque capacity for the slaughter of babies to maintain his political base. But compared to the brutality of modern tyrants, Herod is a kindly gent. Many of our leaders—including self-identified Catholics—are complicit in the murder of far more (unborn) babies.

We admire opposition to tyranny and injustice. It is satisfying to learn of the downfall of tyrants, from the Soviet empire to the demotion of that annoying office manager. But tyrants usually retain the upper hand at least for a time.

The tyrannical intimidation of priests also takes place on a spectrum: petty bureaucratic interdiction, removal, imprisonment, and even execution. During the French Revolution and the years of Soviet tyranny, the faithful could not worship God at Mass in freedom because tyrants executed most of the priests.

The virus of tyranny even infects the bureaucracy of the Church. News reports in recent years reveal a disturbing number of petty ecclesiastical acts of tyranny and too many Church programs complicit with a lawless culture. So, it isn’t uncommon for the faithful to demand “leadership” from their priests in support of faith, morality, and common sense.

The primary duty of a priest is that of the Magi: to worship God in the House of Bread. The Mass is the “source and summit” of the Catholic Faith. The dictates of conscience require the fidelity of every priest to Catholic faith and morals. Ecclesiastical authorities determine the scope of a priest’s governance. Like the wise men, priests must remain single-minded in worship in obedience to the first Three Commandments. So we expect priests to remain faithful to the Gospel and Church teaching, regardless of the cost.

But when should a priest confront tyrants within and outside the Church? Consider the cost. Tyrants are, by definition, vindictive. When is a priest expendable? The Magi were wise men. They were not acting as cowards when they avoided Herod. A priest is not a coward when he protects his sacred ministry by evading unnecessary confrontation. But a priest is a coward if he refuses to guard his flock and identify threats to salvation. Indeed, some mortal sins are so loathsome they cry out to heaven for God’s vengeance: murder, sodomy, oppression of the poor, and defrauding workers of their just wages (cf. CCC 1867). [

Alas, prudence is a virtue that cannot be delegated. Perhaps Jesus had the Magi in mind, too, when He said, “Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.” (Mt. 10:16) In a tumultuous and treacherous world, like the wise men, we must fortify our single-minded devotion to the worship of Jesus.

Fr. Jerry Pokorsky is a priest of the Diocese of Arlington who has also served as a financial administrator in the Diocese of Lincoln. Trained in business and accounting, he also holds a Master of Divinity and a Master’s in moral theology. Father Pokorsky co-founded both CREDO and Adoremus, two organizations deeply engaged in authentic liturgical renewal. He writes regularly for a number of Catholic websites and magazines. See full bio.

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