The Epiphany of Our Lord: Which Has More Merit, Following an Angel or a Star?

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The Epiphany of Our Lord: Which Has More Merit, Following an Angel or a Star?
The Epiphany of Our Lord: Which Has More Merit, Following an Angel or a Star?

Here are some comments of Dom Prosper Guéranger, Abbot of Solesmes, on the vocation and dignity of the Magi Kings:

The star foretold by Balaan having risen in the East, the three Magi, whose hearts were full of the expectation of the promised Redeemer, are immediately inflamed with the desire of going in search of Him.

The announcement of the glad coming of the King of Jews in a magnificent and silent manner; and hereby it differs to that made to the Shepherds of Bethlehem, who were invited to Jesus’ crib by the voice of an Angel.

But the mute language of the star was explained to them by God Himself, for He revealed His Son to them; and this makes their Vocation superior in dignity than that of the Jewish Shepherds, who, according to the dispensation of the Old Law, could know nothing save by the ministry of Angels.

The divine grace, which spoke, directly and by itself, to the souls of the Magi met with a faithful and unhesitating correspondence. The Magi show their simple and fervent eagerness by the words they addressed to Herod: “We have seen His star in the East,” they say, “and we have come to adore Him.”

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The Kings, then, docile to the divine inspiration, suddenly leave their country, their riches, their quiet, in order to follow a star: the power of that God, who had called them, unites them in the same path, as they are already one in faith. The star goes on before them, marking out the route they are to follow: the dangers of such a journey, the fatigues of a pilgrimage which might last for weeks or months, the fear of awakening suspicions in the Roman Empire toward which they were evidently tending—all this was nothing to them; they were told to go, and they went.

Their first stay is at Jerusalem, for the star halts there. They, Gentiles, come into this Holy City, which is soon to have God’s curse upon it, and they come to announce that Jesus Christ is come! With all the simple courage and all the calm conviction of Apostles and Martyrs, they declare their firm resolution of going to Him and adoring Him. Their earnest inquiries constrain Israel, who was the guardian of the divine prophecies, to confess one of the chief marks of the Messias: His Birth in Bethlehem. The Jewish Priesthood fulfils, though with a sinful ignorance, its sacred ministry and Herod sits restless on his throne, plotting murder. The Magi leave the unfaithful City, which has turned the presence of the Magi into a mark of its own reprobation. The Star reappears in the heavens, and invites them to resume their journey. Yet a few hours and they will be at Bethlehem, at the feet of the King of whom they are in search.

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This commentary by Dom Guéranger teems with ideas. Each deep insight would merit a lecture.

The first idea is a comparison between how the Magi Kings and the shepherds came to look for the Infant Jesus. He analyzes their behavior in face of how each received the announcement. The coming of Jesus Christ was announced to the shepherds by an angel, while the Magi Kings were guided by a star in the sky.

Regarding the Magi Kings, we must ask how did they know that this star meant the coming of the Messias? It was through an interior communication of a mystical and silent character. God’s grace worked in each of their souls so that, upon seeing the star, they knew it announced the coming of the Messias. They were touched by this inner grace and mystical movement. They were faithful to the Eternal Father’s interior voice in their souls. Their reaction was correct.  They believed in the star, and as the star moved, they followed it.

Thus, there were two processes in which the Messias was announced. The first was an outside-in announcement. The shepherds learn from a highly miraculous and extraordinary source—the angel told them. It was an external announcement that they took to heart.

On the contrary, the Magi Kings’ process was inside-out. They learned of the birth of the Messias from an inner feeling that an external star clarified a little more.

The Merit of Following the Announcement of the Angel

Dom Guéranger asks, which has more merit, following the announcement of an angel or an inner voice.

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A person of purely sentimental piety would answer that following the angel’s voice has more merit. For such sentimental people, when an angel appears to someone, it is because the person is holy. They see a proof of holiness in seeing the angel. Even more, the thrill of seeing an angel has a sanctifying effect. With the sanctifying exclamation at seeing the angel, the person immediately became holy. He’s all set! The most important proof of holiness is his receiving the angel’s announcement rather than corresponding to the angel’s message.

Moreover, seeing an angel is more spectacular than hearing an inner voice. Many people imagine they hear inner voices telling them something. However, how do they know these voices are true? It is easy to doubt the authenticity of these voices.

However, there can be no doubts about the appearance of an angel! Such a vision is proven, certain and guaranteed. It is no small thing for God to send an angel to speak with someone. He also sent an angel to talk to Our Lady!

For people with sentimental piety, extraordinary events like seeing an angel determine their importance. Anyone can have an inner voice. Such things happen all the time. They can be dull faded affairs. It is so much more to receive an announcement by an angel. He who follows an announcement given by an angel is much more faithful than that of inner voices.

The Merit of Inner Voices

Dom Guéranger shows that this sentimental perspective is false. He is a great theologian and specialist on these topics. He shows how the internal operation of grace in a soul is worth more than any external fact. Indeed, fidelity to an inner voice is worth more than fidelity to an outward announcement.

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First, it must be clear what we mean by an inner voice. It is evidently not something like a whisper telling a person something directly. It is a movement of grace inside a soul, whereby the person perceives, discerns and ponders something communicated to him. Illuminated by grace, the person reaches conclusions imbued with the spirit of the Faith. This action is directly a fruit of the Holy Ghost. Fidelity to this inner voice is more arduous, yet more meritorious, than the fidelity of the shepherds upon hearing the voices of an angel.

Someone might object that these inner voices sometimes are deceitful. Yes, they can be deceitful but does that make them all bad as a consequence? Does God act badly by speaking to us through an inner voice? Who would dare to blame God for acting badly? If God does us no harm by speaking to us thus, then should we not listen to what He has to say? There is a phrase from Scripture that says, “If today you hear His voice, harden not your hearts.” Therefore, we should not turn a deaf ear to the inner action of grace, but know how to discern it.

How can we learn to discern? With the help that God Himself provides for this end.

From the doctrine of Dom Guéranger, it is obviously much more worthwhile to believe in this way than through an external miracle. The words of Our Lord to Saint Thomas the Apostle apply well: “Thomas, you have believed because you saw, blessed are those who have not seen but have believed.” This thought is very fruitful.

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The Decadence of the Chosen People

I will briefly cover one final thought of lesser interest. It is about the decadence of the Chosen People at the time. Under normal circumstances, the Chosen People should have received the notice that the Messias was born directly from God at the Temple in Jerusalem.

Had the people been faithful, we could imagine all the priests gathered and a golden cloud entering the Temple. Then, angelic songs would confirm that which their souls were already sensing. For they would perceive that the times were ripe, the prophecies were being fulfilled and all was ready for the Messias to be born.

However, nothing like this happened! Those who announced the Birth of the Messias were Gentiles, pagans and children of reprobates and condemned peoples—the Magi Kings. They came from afar to Jerusalem to announce that the Messias had been born. To Jerusalem, this is the height of decadence. Jerusalem was still not the Deicide city, but nothing was missing for it to be so.

An interesting point is the reaction of the priests to the Magi. They confirmed that the Messias was to be born in Bethlehem. Thus, they affirmed one of the characteristics by which the Magi might know He was indeed the Messias. They unwittingly bore witness that the birth soon to happen there fulfilled the conditions laid down by the prophecies. The priests involuntarily served the cause of Jesus Christ.

The rest of their role is sheer misery. Herod ordered the slaughter of the Holy Innocents, seeking to eliminate the Child. No one in the Synagogue is said to have rebelled against this measure.

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Nor do I believe that the then non-pacifist Synagogue would bother with the shedding of innocent blood. It is like similar people in our days who only bother with the shedding of communist blood, is it not? At that time, they would only be concerned with shedding the blood of pagans!

Thus began the Synagogue’s struggle with Our Lord Jesus Christ. He was in the crib and was already causing division, stirring up controversy and serving as the pretext for a massacre. During His circumcision, He first shed His Blood while still a baby in the crib. He was a rock of scandal for revealing the thoughts of many souls and for the edification and perdition of many, as the Prophet Simeon later said.

The preceding article is taken from an informal lecture Professor Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira gave on January 6, 1966. It has been translated and adapted for publication without his revision. –Ed.

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