Opening the Word: Seeking wisdom

What is wisdom? To many people, wisdom is knowledge — the possession of information and facts. But we also recognize that the so-called “information age” has not apparently resulted in a wealth of wisdom. Thomas à Kempis, in his classic work of spirituality, “The Imitation of Christ,” wrote, “There is a great difference between the wisdom of an illuminated and devout man, and the knowledge of a learned and studious scholar.” This reflects an ancient theme with rich roots in the Old Testament, especially in the Wisdom literature. In those works, wisdom is found in knowing, understanding and obeying God’s law and being true to the covenant. In short, wisdom is revealed in humble and true worship of God. 

The Magi — the wise men — were mysterious figures. Much has been written about them, but there will always be questions about their exact identity.  

The Greek word magoi (Magi in Latin) is the root for the word “magician.” But that word, noted historian Sandra Miesel, “had multiple meanings in biblical times. A magus could be a Zoroastrian priest from Persia, an occultist, a magician, or a charlatan. Because the New Testament Magi study the stars, their mystic wisdom presumably includes astrology. Hence some recent Bible translations call them ‘astrologers’ … ” 

Pope Benedict XVI, in Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives">“Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives” (Image, $20), notes there is an “ambivalence” about the “concept of Magi that … illustrates the ambivalence of religion in general.” What does he mean? Religion, the pope goes on to note, “can become a path to true knowledge, the path to Jesus Christ.” But it can also fail, and it can result in opposition to the “one God and Savior” and even become “demonic and destructive.”  

This is startling language, but it is a helpful reminder that while the Catholic Church recognizes all that is good and true in other religions, it also has a duty to identify what is lacking, flawed and even destructive. 

Pope Benedict points out there are two types of Magi in the New Testament: the wise men we are all familiar with (and hear about in today’s Gospel) and the Magus — Simon the magician — found in the Acts of the Apostles (Acts 8:9-25). The Magi from Persia use their religious and philosophical wisdom “to set off in the right direction”; they are open to the directives of God, even if it involves the difficulty of a long journey to a foreign land. Simon, who was from Samaria, is altogether different, for he viewed the Gospel, as preached by the apostles, as a means to power, wealth and coercion. 

The feast of the Epiphany celebrates the epiphaneia — the appearance and manifestation — of God in the form of a man, Jesus of Nazareth. The Magi eventually found the Christ Child not because of cleverness or sophistication, but because, the pope wrote, they were “people of hope, people on the lookout for the true star of salvation.” While they possessed intellectual knowledge and were, in a sense, the scientists of the ancient world, they did not pit reason against faith. They were open to divine revelation and pursued it with both reason and faith, for they loved truth.  

Throughout the season of Advent, we anticipated the King. Today’s great feast marks the fulfillment of that anticipation. The glimmer of light on the edge of the Advent sky has broken forth in the glory of Emmanuel, “God with us!”  

Carl E. Olson is the editor of

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