Rorate Caeli

Sermon for the Epiphany: The Star and the Flame - and Christian Civilization

"For we have seen his star in the East, and we have come to worship him." (Matthew 2:2)

Once again the candles are lit, the last time in this Christmastide, and today are lit for the feast of the Epiphany, the end and the climax of Christmas.  And today amidst the light of the candles and the redolence of incense we hear that unforgettable story of the three Magi, the Three Kings of Tradition, who come to the child Jesus to pay him homage.  There are many images here, the Wise Men from the East, the fear and deception of King Herod that will lead to terrible violence,  the frankincense, the gold, the myrrh.  But the greatest of these images is the star, for it is the star that lies at the heart of this feast.  It is the star that brings these three strange men to Bethlehem.  It is the star that calls them, it is the star that leads them, it is the star over the place where the child and his mother lay that brings them to the end of their journey.  And it is by the light of that same star that they see, they see not merely a child and his mother and father, but more deeply and wonderfully they see in that place God-with-us.  And so they do the only thing they can do, what they must do:  they kneel before him in homage, bathed in the light of that star, the star of faith, the star of understanding, the star that enables them to see what is truly real, that star whose light pierces through the veil of the world to reveal the truth, the light of God himself.

That light of that star did not vanish from sight forever, for the light of that star must shine forth wherever there is the truth, the goodness, the beauty, the reality of the God who became man in order that man might become divine.  There was a time in history that some historians called the Dark Ages.  Perhaps this name came about because those historians were in the dark.  Rome had fallen, the barbarians were everywhere.  Civilization itself, that is, the great civilization based on Greece and Rome, crumbled before the hordes of Goths, of Picts, of Jutes, of Burgunds, of Huns, of Vandals.  There were those who saw this as the end of civilization, and so it seemed, as the very foundations of culture seemed to be destroyed.  But if one looked into the night and scanned the sky, the sky in what would become France, Germany, England, Italy, Spain, one could see the star, that star with its light, hovering over those stone buildings, buildings with towers silhouetted against the sky, from which, if you listened closely, came two sounds: the sound of singing and the sound of quills scratching against parchment.  And it was there in those monasteries that the heritage that formed Western civilization was preserved and recast, was preserved by the light of that star, was recast by the light of that star of wonder, the star of night, the star of faith.

But this was no mere copying down of tradition, this was no mere saving of Plato and Aristotle and Vergil and Catullus for future generations. For the Western tradition was not being merely copied, but it was being distilled, it was being purified, it was being renewed, it was being recast and deepened and expanded.  And what better place for this to happen than that place whose very heart was the darkened church, dark except for the light of the sanctuary lamp in front of the tabernacle in which dwelt the Truth and the Light. 

Ah, yes, they give the monks credit for the preservation of the Western intellectual tradition, but those inventors of the Dark Ages who go on to disdain the Middle Ages do not realize that the preservation of truth and beauty was accomplished not by some slavish copying of Greek and Roman texts, but rather in the context of the singing, the chant, the worship, the rhythm of a life based on prayer, prayer not to the ideal God of Plato, not to the empty God of the Stoics, nor to the altar of aestheticism, but rather to the God who became flesh and who died and rose again.  And in this way, not only was the heritage of Western civilization preserved by Christian monks, but also the truth of that heritage was put to the service of the God who is truth.  And so the star hovered over those paces and people came to those places, drawn by that star, seeking for the truth and beauty that the star promised.

The Huns are gone, as are the Franks and the Visigoths.  They became what we know as Europe, as Germany, as France, as Spain.  The Angles and Saxons no longer pillage and burn the countryside.  They have long since become the civilization that gave us the Magna Carta.  But the barbarians have not gone away.  They are still among us.  But now they do not threaten us merely with sacking and burning libraries or with pillaging and destroying centers of civilization.  The barbarians of today threaten us in much deeper ways, for the barbarities of this age are spiritual, the barbarians of this age threaten to kill the soul itself, for the barbarians of this age worship the body and deny the soul, for the existence of the soul, the soul that is drawn to God as the moth is to the flame, the flame of love, is a threat to the night, the night in which barbarism lives and flourishes.

This millennium of only fifteen years is in so many ways an echo of the end of the second millennium, whose end was marked by two World Wars that eclipsed in their carnage the rest of human history.  And human carnage in the form of constant wars and brutal assassinations of so many kinds and the threat of terrorism:  all of this is so much a part of the world we live in.  This is the age in which the barbarians drink at the trough of hedonism and call it style and beauty.  This is the age in which the barbarians have so debased human sexuality in the name of a perverse understanding of freedom so that so many believe that they are like animals with no control over their drives and emotions.  This is the age that has deliberately re-spelled the word love, from love to luv and thereby has ripped out the heart of this basic human response to the love of God and to each other  This is the age of the barbarians who use speech to lie and who undermine the basis of morality by appealing to a relativism based on whatever I happen to want to be or do, with no use for the common good, but rather the good of freedom of choice in the context of aborting a child, so debasing language itself that the very words like “choice” and “freedom” become lies.  This is the age of the barbarians who have taught us to love mediocrity and to fear the excellent, the beautiful and the true, to the extent that no one dares to say that the emperor has no clothes.

And so he asked himself this question:  in this dark age, looking out into this night, where is the star?  I am not in the Middle Ages, and this is not Europe but the United States in 2015, and I am here here in Fairfield County in the State of Connecticut.  But where is the star?  It must be somewhere, for it is said that the star of Bethlehem did not vanish.  It can never be destroyed by the fear and rage of Herod or by destruction of any barbarians of any age.  For that light is the light of God who came into the darkness of the world as a child born in a manger, a light that cannot be extinguished.  But where should I look for that star, where should I expect to find it? Where is the place in this time and place where the barbarism of the age is opposed and exposed, where that moral order and the conscience of Christian civilization are preserved, where the truth is taught and practiced?  These questions:  do they have an answer? 

There was one part of the house I had not yet visited, and I went there now.  The chapel showed no ill-effects of its long neglect; the art-nouveau paint was as fresh and bright as ever; the art-nouveau lamp burned once more before the altar. I said a prayer, an ancient, newly learned form of words, and left, turning towards the camp; and as I walked back, and the cook-house bugle sounded ahead of me, I thought:--

The builders did not know the uses to which their work would descend; they made a new house with the stones of the old castle; year by year, generation after generation, they enriched and extended it; year by year the great harvest of timber in the park grew to ripeness; until in sudden frost came the age of Hooper; the place was desolate and the work all brought to nothing: Quomodo sedet sola civitas.  Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.

And yet, I thought stepping out more briskly towards the camp, where the bugles after a pause had taken up the second call and were sounding Pick-em-up, Pick-em-up, hot potatoes—and yet that is not the last word; it is not even an apt word; it is a dead word from ten years back.

Something quite remote from anything the builders intended has come out of their work, and out of the fierce little human tragedy in which I played: something none of us thought about at the time: a small red flame—a beaten-copper lamp of deplorable design, relit before the beaten-copper doors of a tabernacle; the flame which the old knights saw from the tombs, which they saw put out; that flame burns again for other soldiers far from home, farther, in heart, than Acre or Jerusalem. It could not have been lit but for the builders and the tragedians, and there I found it this morning, burning anew among the old stones.

Evelyn Waugh, Brideshead Revisited, 1944