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Sermon for the Feast of the Epiphany

On the wise men.

From the Gospel of Saint Matthew: “We have observed his star at its rising and have come to pay him homage.”

There in that verse is the credo of science, or better still, the credo of the scientist, what makes science go, what makes it relevant, what makes it real. And these words come from the scientists of Jesus’ time, the Magi, the Wise Men. Of course, they have little to do with that experimental science that has become since the Enlightenment what science now is, that dispassionate observation of a phenomenon followed by analysis and formation of a theory. Most scientists today would be offended by being put into the same category as the Magi, but that is their problem, for they have lost the focus of science.

The root of the word science comes from the Latin verb, scio, which means to know, and thus knowledge is at the heart of science: the scientist wants to know. But modern science, with some important exceptions such as Einstein, has forgotten that knowledge is not an end in itself. Nor is knowledge limited to the physical world. Nor is the quest for knowledge a dispassionate enterprise, as if objectivity defines science. There can be no doubt that the modern scientific method has resulted in a great increase in knowledge about the universe and the physical world, both on a macro and an atomic scale. There can be no doubt that modern science has contributed greatly to a higher quality of life for so many people. There can be no doubt that modern science has been successful in fighting disease and finding cures and in increasing the ordinary life span of men and women.

But scientists have forgotten, with increasingly disastrous results, the relationship between knowledge and wisdom, and the ultimate goal that is truth. A science that believes its own myth of total objectivity, which narrowly and prejudicially limits reality to a narrow band on the whole spectrum and that confuses facts with truth, produces baleful results. This results in a world in which morality is relativized and banished to the arcane sphere of religious systems, a world in which the fragility and wonder of being human is bludgeoned by doctors dreaming of the brave new world of designer embryos.

“We have observed his star at its rising and have come to pay him homage.” There is the statement of a true scientist. Unlike the nervous machinations of Herod, who resents the intrusion of the supernatural into his petty life, the Magi take a more cosmic, a more all-encompassing view of things. They do not limit reality, these magoi from the East, these strange men that come from “pagan” lands. They show a docility, an openness and readiness to obey the truth that we saw twelve days ago in our Christmas celebration in the persons of Mary and Joseph. We saw and we came. There it is. There is a wonderful directness, a linear speed leading without hesitation from insight to action: they saw the King’s star and immediately came to adore him. In these “pagans” we see a perfect unity between patient science and moral justice that is an example for all Christians, and especially for those of us who call ourselves scientists. The scientist who really seeks truth is a wise man who when he finds the truth does not hesitate to subject himself to that truth. When one encounters truth, when God gives us the grace to encounter truth, the only possible response is to give oneself to that truth. And this act of giving oneself to truth, this encounter with truth, this demands worship and adoration.

This for me is why I know that Catholic faith to be true and why the Catholic Church is the Church founded by Jesus Christ. The heart of the practice of the Catholic faith is not figuring out what biblical passages mean by pseudo-scientific rationalism. It is not fiery sermons. It is in fact never words. It is worship, it is adoration. What goes on here in the Mass, what goes on in the chanting of the daily Office in monasteries, what goes on when the Holy Eucharist is adored: this is the goal of science. For this is the response to that encounter with the infinite truth of God in the living person of Jesus Christ, this person who is not outside of the subject of scientific inquiry in the physical world but rather is the very center of the physical world. That is what we forget, we Christians who are so in awe of the scientist who performs his brand of magic by forcing us to live in a petty and narrow band of reality. We forget the shocking claim that God became flesh, and therefore that all science, all seeking after knowledge must and does lead to the Word through whom all was created and who took flesh and was born of a Virgin.

We can hear the outcry to all of this from those who would bind us all by the shackles of the self-named Enlightenment. They say: “You are mixing up science and religion.” And by this what they mean is that we are mixing up reality with wishful thinking. So many Christians cower under this attack from the so called scientific, rational world, a world that includes not only many scientists but also the world typified by the “liberal” media that pride themselves on being beacons of sense and sensibility and tolerance and having a sure sense of what the future should look like. How many Catholics are embarrassed by their religion and try so hard to fit in better to what everyone else seems to think and act? How many Catholics, when faced with the American steamroller of secularism, willingly lie down in its path and come up again as two-dimensional caricatures of the Catholic faith, the dimensions of which are truly infinite? How many Christian clergy spend time in their Epiphany sermon explaining the star as a myth in which the Magi are the lead actors, as just a good story that has a moral lesson, and in so doing close out for their people the meaning and wonder of the Epiphany? The Child born in a stable in humility and weakness is already present in the constellation of the stars by his splendor and glory. “The heavens declare the glory of God and the firmament showeth his handiwork.” Either that is true or it is not. Christ is always a cause of rejoicing for the wise and a cause of consternation and fear for the obstinately foolish. Listen to the answer of the Wise Men to Herod that the liturgy sings in the antiphon on the Magnificat in Epiphanytide: Interrogabat Magos Herodes: Herod questioned the Magi: What sign did you see about the king who has been born? We saw a dazzling star, whose splendor illumines the world.” Whose splendor illumines the world. This light cannot be holed up in a box, even in a religious box. It cannot be extinguished by the lies and darkness of the world of anxious Herods. For it is the light of God.

So we come here, we come together in a world that is defined by the advances and limitations of modern science. But we come here, you and I, as true scientists, scientists as defined the Magi, the Wise Men. Graham Greene said once: “I do not believe in God. I touch God, I eat God.” We by the grace of God know the Truth, and we come here to embrace that Truth, to subject ourselves to that Truth, by this act of worship and adoration. Oh, how important to this world are places like this church where true science flourishes, where worship and adoration are the constant responses to truth! Just as the monasteries were vital to keeping the light alive in the dark days of the barbarian invasions after the fall of the Roman empire, so in our time, when the barbarians of secularism threaten to plunge us once again into darkness, are places like this this church—where the traditional Mass is celebrated in all of its solemn beauty, the supreme act of worship and adoration—precisely where the light of the star of Bethlehem will be seen and where the glory of the Lord will illumine the darkness of the night:

Angels and archangels may have gathered there,
Cherubim and Seraphim thronged the air.
But only his Mother in her maiden bliss
Worshipped the beloved with a kiss.
What can I give him, poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd I would bring a lamb.
If I were a wise man, I would do my part;
Yet what I can I give Him, give Him my heart.