Blog Template Theology of the Body: Indulgences on the Road: The Gifts of the Magi

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Indulgences on the Road: The Gifts of the Magi

For we do not preach ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants, for Jesus' sake. II Corinthians 4:5.

It is a fundamental of the Christian faith that there is always a vicarious element in the gifts which God bestows upon us, and in the glory which we return to Him. Because we can only have access to God through His Son, Jesus Christ, everything is mediated. This is the logic which the author of Ephesians sets forth when he explains the groundwork of the Christian life in Ephesians 5:1: "Be imitators of God, therefore, as dearly loved children and live a life of love, just as Christ loved us, and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God." Christ only gives Himself to us indirectly; His self-offering is first to the Father, for our sakes- to God, for us.

But the same logic works the other way around. Jesus explains that we serve Him in each other; the love which we would offer directly to Jesus must be offered through the neighbor, through the poor, through the weak, and through the needy in order for that love to be complete: "whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me....I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me." (Matthew 25: 40, 45) This much is clear: the whole law hangs on the two, intertwined and inextricable elements of the love for God and love for the neighbor, because God in Jesus of Nazareth has joined Himself forever and totally to His people.

One of the earliest commonplaces in the art of the Church is the depiction of the gifts of the Magi. Between the repositories of medieval art in Paris and Rome, I found this image everywhere. We are already used to seeing the infant Jesus depicted enthroned on the lap of His mother, and we are reminded that in this woman we all are both literally and figuratively represented, both to God and to ourselves, since it is by the redemption of the God-man, Christ the Lord, that this humble creature was purified totally by His grace and, by His grace, she was made able to join Him in everything; and this is the sum of our hope as creatures who are made alive by God's grace. Accordingly, the depiction of the adoration of the Magi always shows the two together; Jesus receives the gifts of the kings through His mother, on whose lap He sat.

The image of the adoration of the Magi accordingly shows how total is the union between God and the creature, because the infant Jesus recieves the gifts and adoration of the Magi through the custodianship of His creature. It is only natural for the gracious mother of a child to receive precious metals and spices, which are as yet unsuited to a child's needs; "and Mary treasured all of these things and pondered them in her heart." (Luke 2:19)

The Church's images are helpful to us as we seek to understand the depths of what Christ has done for us, as typified by His relationship to the maternal creature from whom He was clothed in our flesh, which He ever offers back to the Father for our sake. For example, the fifteenth century French panel (at top) shows the theological sequence from left to right; having given Himself over to the greater glory of the Father by joining humanity in His incarnation, Christ is glorified by the gifts which He receives in His creature, His mother; she in turn offers Him back to God at the Presentation in the Temple (Luke 2); and this interaction is grounded in their union, as Savior and saved, Mother and Son, bride and bridegroom. The same interaction is depicted time and time again in various carved medieval altarpieces, (second from top) in which the gifts of the Magi is depicted with such critical events in salvation history as the Annunciation and the Crucifixion. The earlier 12th century French ivory panels (middle) depict the same sort of sequence and juxtaposition of the creature's offering to Christ and the Savior's offering to God; and in alignment with the idea of the offering of the self to God for the sake of others, the Magi also find themselves on 12th century reliquarii (top and third from bottom). In the final image, you can also see a third century panel from an early Christian sarcophagus, depicting Mary receiving gifts for her Son; this theme is present on almost every sarcophagus exhibited in the Vatican's world-class collection of early Christian art.

It is with these intuitions in mind that Pope Paul VI explains that the doctrine of indulgences uniquely sets forth key aspects of the Christian faith:

"Following in the footsteps of Christ, the Christian faithful have always endeavored to help one another on the path leading to the Father through prayer (and) the 'exchange of spiritual goods'...the more they have been immersed in the fervor of charity, the more they have imitated Christ in His sufferings... the more certain it is that they could help their brothers to obtain salvation from the Father of mercies. This is the very ancient dogma of the Communion of Saints, whereby the life of each individual son and daughter of God, in Christ, and through Christ, is joined by a wonderful link to the life of all the Christian brothers in the supernatural unity of the mystical Body of Christ." Indulgentiarum Doctrina (1967), V.

To God be the glory, who has given and received in us.