Celebrating God’s Revelation on the Feast of the Epiphany

Today, the Catholic Church observes the Feast of Epiphany, which celebrates the revelation of God to humanity in the person of Jesus Christ.  The Gospel reading for Mass today is the story from Matthew of the revealing of Jesus Christ to the wise men.  The fourth century pope Leo I (also known as Leo the Great) has an impressive homily for today’s feast:

What wondrous faith of perfect knowledge, which was taught [the wise men] not by earthly wisdom, but by the instruction of the Holy Spirit! Whence came it that these men, who had quitted their country without having seen Jesus, and had not noticed anything in His looks to enforce such systematic adoration, observed this method in offering their gifts unless it were that besides the appearance of the star, which attracted their bodily eyes, the more refulgent rays of truth taught their hearts that before they started on their toilsome road, they must understand that He was signified to Whom was owed in gold royal honor, in incense Divine adoration, in myrrh the acknowledgment of mortality.  Such a belief and understanding no doubt, as far as the enlightenment of their faith went, might have been sufficient in themselves and have prevented their using their bodily eyes in inquiring into that which they had beheld with their mind’s fullest gaze. But their sagacious diligence, persevering till they found the child, did good service for future peoples and for the men of our own time.

In light of today’s feast, I think it is appropriate to present a few reflections on what this feast celebrates–the revelation of God.

Thomas Aquinas introduces the Summa Theologica with a discussion of revelation which he calls “knowledge of God” outside of what could be known by human reason alone.  The truths in which revelations consists cannot be grasped by the natural intellect but must nevertheless be accepted on faith.  These truths are invisible, which Aquinas backs up by quoting Hebrews 11:1  “faith is the revelation of things hoped for and the conviction of things unseen.”

These truths are also eternal, not like the knowledge of this age which passes away.  Here, Aquinas draws on 1 Corinthians 2:6-10:

Yet we do speak a wisdom to those who are mature, but not a wisdom of this age, nor of the rulers of this age who are passing away.  Rather, we speak God’s wisdom, mysterious, hidden, which God predetermined before the ages for our glory, and which none of the rulers of this age knew; for if they had known it, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.  But as it is written: “What eye has not seen, and ear has not heard, and what has not entered the human heart, what God has prepared for those who love him,” this God has revealed to us through the Spirit.  For the Spirit scrutinizes everything, even the depths of God.

An example of such knowledge which exceeds what the natural intellect can achieve on its own is knowledge of the Trinity.  No amount of scientific experimentation will ever yield proof that God is one God in three persons.  No philosophical method can ever lead to the conclusion that God creates, redeems, and sanctifies.  These are called “theological” rather than philosophical truths, and they must be believed to be known.

Human reason can, however, come to some knowledge of God without the light of revelation.  Aquinas says that human beings were created with intellects that naturally seek out the causes of phenomena they observe in the world.  The Magi, for example,  saw a strange star and sought out its cause.  But the cause was not simply some astrological phenomenon, but rather, the unique work of a God revealing himself to the Gentiles.

Because the things we observe in the world are caused by God, human beings can “know that God exists in a general and confused way” (I, Q. 2, art. 1).  We can know God made the stars without really knowing the God who made the stars.

We can also know God as the source and the end of our quest for happiness.  All people desire happiness (beatitude) which is found ultimately only in God, a conviction that provides the foundation for Aquinas’ moral theology.  However, this knowledge regarding God as the source of our ultimate happiness is also confused because not all people know what their happiness consists in, some believing it to be riches or fame or pleasure (which I talked about here).

This general and confused knowledge of God can be demonstrated in five ways, all of which proceed from an observable effect to God who is the cause of this effect.  These five ways will be the subject of another blog post but in brief they are as follows: (1) God is the first mover of all of the universe, put into motion by no other; (2) God is the first efficient cause; (3) God is the only necessary thing amidst all other contingent things which exist; (4) God is the greatest gradation of Being, the most perfect thing of all other things which exist; and (5) God is the intelligent designer of all things which seem to have been made by something for a purpose.

The “five ways” are philosophical ways of talking about God, but they just scratch the surface.  Revelation opens up to us knowledge of the essence of God, not just what God appears to do, but what God is.  The perfection of this revelation is found in the person of Jesus Christ.  By the mystery of the Incarnation, we are brought to knowledge of “the goodness, the wisdom, the justice, and the power or might of God–‘His goodness, for He did not despise the weakness of His own handiwork; His justice, since, on man’s defeat, He caused the tyrant to be overcome by none other than man, and yet He did not snatch men forcibly from death; His wisdom, for He found a suitable discharge for a most heavy debt; His power, or infinite might, for there is nothing greater than for God to become incarnate . . .’” (Damascene, De Fide Orth. iii, 1, cited in Summa Theologica 3, Q. 1, art. 1).  For this reason, Aquinas argues, it was fitting that God become incarnate, so that we may see Jesus and know God.

Aquinas says that humanity’s whole salvation depends on this knowledge of God revealed in Christ.  “Therefore,” he writes, “in order that the salvation of men might be brought about more fitly and more surely, it was necessary that they should be taught divine truths by divine revelation.  It was therefore necessary that besides philosophical science built up by reason, there should be a sacred science learned through revelation” (I, Q. 1, art. 1–the first article of the Summa Theologica, for what it is worth).  We celebrate this revelation today, the Feast of the Epiphany, and like the three Magi from afar, we too would do wel to fall prostrate at the feet of our savior, and pay him homage.


1 comment so far

  1. […] Revealed Knowledge of God Posted January 18, 2009 Filed under: Uncategorized | Today’s first reading for Mass from 1 Samuel presents the perfect opportunity to talk a little about natural knowledge of God and revelation, a topic which I have also written about here. […]

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