On the Epiphany

by Cristiana de Magistris

The journey of the Magi from the Orient to the Cradle of Bethlehem is an eloquent image of our journey from the orient of this world to the blessed port of eternity, where, even more than the Magi did on this earth, we will know God as He knows Himself and love Him as He loves Himself.

The Magi made a long earthly journey, full of dangers, difficulties, and uncertainties. Our journey too has its lights and shadows; its chiaroscuro; but the resplendent star of faith guides us unfailingly towards the blessed eternity that awaits us. If man is called viator, meaning wayfarer — a traveller on this earth — it is precisely because he is on a journey.

But this journey towards the Eternal has an entirely special character. It is not an earthly journey, like that of the Magi, but a journey of charity. St Gregory says that we advance towards God gressibus amoris — “with the steps of charity” — and, in fact, charity can always increase; this is why man is called a traveller, because he can always advance on the path of charity. And if he stops advancing; that is, if he ceases to love; he ceases also to be a traveller — ending his journey without having reached his goal.

But how does one advance in charity? Charity is a virtue infused by God into our souls with baptism and justification. It cannot increase as regards the object, which is God, and one’s neighbour for the love for God — mark well: love of neighbour, not for himself but for the love of God; not only without excepting anyone, but also without dividing the love which is due to God alone with any creature. Though charity cannot increase as to the object, it can — and must —increase in intensity; in this lies all our spiritual progress; hence, our journey “by steps of love”. How does the intensity of charity grow? Without being able to produce this growth for ourselves, we nevertheless merit it and dispose our will to receive it by our acts of charity. The more charity is rooted in the will, the more the will is inclined towards good, guarded from evil and enriched with the merits due to good works and the worthy reception of Holy Communion.

According to St Thomas, maintaining fervour in the spiritual life requires intense acts of charity; indeed, acts that are ever more intense. This means that each of our acts of charity should be more intense than the last, because the nearer we draw to God — the end of our journey of charity — the more intensely He attracts us and, consequently, the more rapidly we proceed, analagously to the law of the acceleration of bodies, which fall more rapidly the closer they get to the earth that attracts them. The spiritual journey, the journey of perfection of which St Teresa of Avila speaks, is neither uniformly relenting, nor uniformly constant, but uniformly accelerating, and therefore, according to St Thomas, “those who are in a state of grace, must grow all the more spiritually the closer they come to the end of their journey towards eternity”, especially because this charity, the increase of which we are considering, will exist forever in heaven. The degree of charity we have reached at the end of our earthly pilgrimage will remain for eternity.

But we know that charity has an enemy; that is, sin. Mortal sin completely destroys charity; venial sin diminishes it and, if habitual, predisposes us to mortal sin. St Thomas, however, reminds us that there are acts which, although they are not sins, are unfortunately “imperfect (remissi) acts of charity”, which, although they are commendable, do not obtain the increase of charity that they should, because of the lack of fervour with which they are performed. Such imperfect acts are a great danger to good Christians; and one against which the law of “acceleration” in the spiritual life protects us, if we are faithful to it.

Man’s worst enemy; that which constantly threatens to rob him of eternal life; the end for which he was made; is sin. The year just ended with Covid-19 singled out as the greatest threat to humanity, therefore, is a false perspective. The greatest evil for man is — and always will be — sin, which distances him from God, his Creator, Redeemer, and eternal reward. Covid is, if anything, a consequence of this supreme evil. “The slightest venial sin,” wrote Fr Garrigou-Lagrange, “is an evil greater than all sufferings, all disgraces, all catastrophes, all purely physical evils.” It is an evil so great,  says St Thomas, that the disorder caused, even by only venial sin, is in a certain sense greater than the disorder generated by original sin since, with venial (and, all the more, mortal) sin, we act personally against God, offend Him deliberately and merit not only His hatred, but His wrath.

If the pandemic is the consequence of sin, the solution lies not in vaccines, but in man’s conversion and return to God, the ultimate end of his existence; to be sought with ever-growing charity. This does not call for monumental acts of heroism: an insignificant action done with great charity glorifies God and increases our merits more than an act that may be heroic but is done with less charity.

We can believe that the Magi accelerated their journey to Bethlehem as they approached it, supernaturally attracted by that Divine Child Who, from His mysterious cradle as from a throne, drew their hearts and ruled the world. Let us ask these holy kings, the first fruits of the gentiles, these dear ancestors of ours, to accelerate our journey gressibus amoris — with steps of love ever more fervent, ever more decisive, ever more worthy of our one and only object, God, Whom we already see and love in the luminous darkness of Faith.