In recommending Brent Landau’s Revelation of the Magi to others, I have called it “a fast read that makes the heart soar,” and the book is certainly that; the illustrations are fascinating and enlightening, and the prose-voice praising God is not just lyrical, it is hypnotically joyful. It is joyful in the language of ancient prophecy, joyful at a depth even the New Testament only glimpses; it is the sort of skin-tingling joyfulness one sometimes experiences in a flash-fleeting instant of prayerful understanding that defies expression, and that makes the tale seem utterly authentic. We want to believe what is being shared in this manuscript, so long languished within the Vatican archives, because we love the light, and–in the image of the (unnamed) Christ as the very Star that Guides–the Revelation of the Magi harkens the reader repeatedly to a first antiphon of Lauds, “in your light, we see light itself.”
Apart from the engaging story and the excellent background provided by Landau, it is for the sheer beauty of this Adoration that I have already returned to this work several times. Landau’s translated text exposes the reader to the depths of a soul whose mystical acquaintance with the All Holy pulls one into the great gift of wide-open wonder. And, as Saint Gregory of Nyssa is credited as saying, “only wonder leads to knowing.”
Perhaps it is because I am a lay Catholic without scholarly credentials in biblical studies of any kind, but I didn’t find the absence of the name of Jesus Christ in the earliest texts to be as provocatively challenging to Christian understanding of itself or its evangelical mission as Landau appears to.
A second consequence of the Revelation of the Magi’s [seeming news] about Christ’s all-encompassing revelation is that it renders the traditional model of Christian expansion completely pointless . . . why could not Christ himself have been the principal agent of Christian expansion? If Christ existed before Jesus of Nazareth did, (as the first verses of the Gospel of John claim) and could even visit people after his ascension (as Acts of the Apostles claims that he did to the Apostle Paul), then what would prevent Christ from appearing to anyone, at any place, at any time? This appears to have been a question asked by the author of the Revelation of the Magi, and his answer was, “Nothing.” Christ appears to the Magi before he assumed human flesh, and what is more, he apparently felt no need to identify himself as Christ. The author, to be sure, is very concerned that the Christian revelation be spread to all the people of the world, but in his estimation, human missionaries are in no way essential to this task.
Well, of course they’re not. Christ, who is the All-in-All, who Is, Was, and Ever Shall Be has always had the ability to reveal Himself to anyone he wished, but–if scripture is to be believed–he appears to have wanted the formation of a community of believers and the foundation of a church. He could have foregone His crucifixion and death, but He seems to have understood us better than we do ourselves; we needed an event, and a lasting memorial and Presence.
Nor is the absence of the name of Jesus Christ in the earliest part of the text, or its frequent use in the additional writing concerning the arrival of Thomas to the Magi of Shir, particularly tantalizing to me. Again, I’m not a scholar, but people write what they know. The addendum to the Revelation was written decades after the first writing. The writer who did not know the name of this Light–who revealed Itself to so many Magi as so many parts of Jesus of Nazareth–did not name Him. The writer who later learned the name of the One within that Light, did.
Occam’s Razor suggests that the simplest answer is often the correct one. Unencumbered as I am with scholarship in this area, this seems as simple as an explanation can get. God condescends to humanity in astonishing ways, but He never names himself. Jesus did not go through His ministry saying, “hey, I’m Jesus…the Christ…” to a humanity incapable of grasping even an infinitesimal sense of what that would mean, God does not give his name to Moses, either. He IS, and as IS, God is not as hung-up on names as the rest of us tend to be which is why, perhaps, He so frequently calls us by name, and then changes it.
There is a wonderful little exchange in the recently published book Light of the World. In this conversation between Pope Benedict XVI and journalist Peter Seewald, the pontiff is asked about a controversial petition for the conversion of the Jews, which is prayed specifically within the Good Friday liturgy of the “old” Mass. Benedict explains that he altered the text in such a way “. . .as to express our faith that Christ is the Savior for all, that there are not two channels of salvation . . . [the new formulation] shifts the focus from a direct petition for the conversion of the Jews in a missionary sense, to a plea that the Lord might bring about the hour of history when we all may be united.”
This speaks in a small way to Landau’s excitement in discovering Christ’s prerogative. Benedict succinctly states the mystery as fact without niggling: Christ is the Savior for all. As God, Creator of All, He can be nothing else.
Landau is fascinated by the notion that the unstuck-in-time Christ of the Revelation of the Magi potentially renders Christian evangelism irrelevant, but the truth is Christ does not need us; He wants us, and he uses each of us to continually draw us to Himself, as he draws all things. When spun down to its logical conclusion, that truth holds through the whole pageant of God’s interactions with humanity, until we arrive back at Eden, where God didn’t need to, but most confoundingly Willed us forth.
And how funny and right, then, that the Magi’s most ancient gleanings begin with Adam’s words to Seth, right outside of Paradise.