It is not unknown for Norbertines to have slightly unusual pious devotions. One of my own lesser devotions is to the Star of Bethlehem, that is commemorated this week at the end of the Twelve Days, when Christ manifested himself to the world through the Three Kings that were led to his crib by the miraculous star.
The Magi were, of course, real people; it is a catch-all term for the wise men, astrologers, sorcerers and priests of the cultic religions of central Asia and the middle east, but although references to such people are found as far away as China, they are generally associated with Persia. As with all learned men of the ancient world, they would have a great knowledge of astrology and astronomy. Although the prophets of Israel point towards the mystery of the Incarnation more perfectly, the attraction that the universe experiences towards its Creator and Redeemer is so strong that the ancients of other cultures pointed a shadowy finger in the direction of Christ, too. They may be Roman poets, Greek philosophers, Persian priests, Chinese logicians, American shamans: if there is goodness to be found in these places, it is because they were laying the foundations for the proclamation of the Gospel in their lands.
These pointers exist in nature, too (I won’t bore you with my opinion about fractal patterns). Healthy legend tells us that the forbidden fruit eaten by our first parents in the Garden was an apple. Even this piece of fruit contains within it a star-shaped pointer towards their Redeemer. Cut an apple in half along its equator, and you will see what I mean. The splendour of creation, in cosmic nebulae or in apple pips declares God’s goodness and light, revealed perfectly in the pearly flesh of the Christchild, the Light welling from Light, Lumen de Lumine.
‘Lift up your eyes, whoe’er ye be that fare the new-born Christ to see: for yonder is the shining sign of grace perennial and divine’ (Quicumque Christum quaeritis)
Given my own amateur interest in astronomy, I feel somewhat of an affinity with the Magi who, like many ancients, whiled away their evenings gazing up at the stars. In my opinion, the cosmos (on its grand scale at least), is the most aesthetically beautiful part of the created order. Because of the Magi’s study of the universe and their love of wisdom, they were captivated by this light which shone in the dark skies, the light which led them to the crib at Bethlehem.* It is right, too, I think, to call them kings. In our post-feudal mindset (remembering that ‘modern’ feudalism and aristocracy is the invention the pagan emperor Diocletian), we tend to think of kings and queens with crowns on. Their kingship is derived not from an army or from heredity, but from their attraction to Truth, which is Christ, since those who kneel before God, no matter how low or mighty they are by worldly judgements, are truly sharers in Christ’s kingship.
‘To greet His birth the Wise Men went, led by the star before them sent; called on by light, towards Light they pressed, and by their gifts their God confessed’ (Hostis Herodes impie)
The sacred scriptures call these men the wise men from the east, and they are buried in Cologne Cathedral. Historical accident has meant that many of the great saints have ended up in Western Europe, but this is particularly fortuitous, since, as we know, St Norbert was ordained at Cologne after his conversion experience.
On the road to Freden, where St Norbert was struck down with lightening, he was presented with his own star from God. Because of this very direct call, like the call of God to the Shepherd and the Magi, Norbert was able to quickly discern his vocation and act upon it. In the lightening bolt, he saw the star in the east, and he followed it to the crib. There he slaked his thirst with the Blood of his Saviour.
But what about the rest of us, who, in all likelihood, are neither going to have a star flashing above our heads, now a divine bolt to bring us to our senses? Is God less interested in us?
“Doubtless, the star that calls men to the Christian faith is not the same for all; it shines differently; but its lustre is sufficiently visible for hearts of good will to be able to recognise it and see in it the sign of a divine call.” (Blessed Columba Marmion)
We do not see the same star of the Magi, but we have our own individual stars, that shine in ways that we, if we open our eyes, are able to discern. The Magi were probably not looking for what they found, but they were vigilant, and had their hearts open to divine possibilities. If we shut our hearts and our eyes, then we will not be able to see what God wants for us. When we shut out hearts, God has to strike us down with lightening in order for us to hear him. And even then, we often feign ignorance. If these great and wise men can humble themselves before the little crib, then so can we.
“The Heavenly Father calls us to His Son through the inspiration of His grace; but He wishes that we, like the Magi, as soon as the star shines in our hearts shall leave all on the instant: our sins, the occasions of sin, bad habits, infidelities, imperfections, attachments to what is merely created. He wishes that, taking no account of either the criticism or opinions of men or the difficulties of the work to be done, we set ourselves at once to seek Jesus – whether we have lost Him through one mortal sin, or whether, possessing Him through sanctifying grace, we are called to a closer and more intimate union with Him.
“Vidimus stellam: ‘Lord, I have seen your star, and I come to you. What will you have me do?’ (Blessed Columba Marmion)
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* There are not a huge number of important (or famous) Norbertines in the arena of the modern sciences, but perhaps, given our illuminating subject, it is fitting to pluck out one name from the history books, since he had a particular interest in looking at the stars. Father Johann Zahn was a Norbertine canon of Klosteroberzell in Bavaria, and is credited with the invention of the light projector (a one-time favourite of school teachers), as well as the conceptual invention of the camera. He was, in fact, a noted scientist who had a particular interest in light and its uses, and made important contributions to the application of lens technology. Although a camera obscura can be traced back as early as ancient China, Zahn’s was the first to facilitate – in principle – the ‘capture’ of an image, since his camera had separate light and dark chambers. Since Zahn died 1707, his invention did not prove useful for many decades. Norbertines have always been ahead of their time.