Brief synopsis of the readings: Last week we celebrated the Feast of the Holy Family, the Sunday between Christmas and New Years. In years like this, where the next Sunday falls between the 2nd and the 8th of January we celebrate the Epiphany of the Lord. Isaiah describes a light that has come out of darkness because “[A]bove you the Lord now rises and above his glory appears.” Matthew’s Gospel recounts the story of the wise men. They came to Jerusalem from the east and asked about the “infant king of the Jews” that they sought because of a star they sighted. When Herod learned of this he expressed his disturbance. He called his chief priests and scribes who affirmed that Isaiah spoke about a leader who would be born in Bethlehem. Herold then instructed the wise men to find this infant and then return with directions on where to find him. They found Jesus in Bethlehem and paid him homage. But in a dream they were warned not to return to Herod and they returned by a different route.
I’ve always thought that we should celebrate Epiphany more than we do. We spend much of Advent shopping for gifts for our loved ones, we spend most of Christmas morning unwrapping our gifts and watching others unwrapping theirs.
And yet the event that encourages us to give gifts to the people we love doesn’t happen until… well, now. Joseph and (a very pregnant) Mary traveled to Bethlehem where Jesus was born. Angels announced this birth to nearby shepherds but we have no indication that they actually went to see Jesus. After all, even though the angels appeared to them they still needed to tend to their sheep.
But today, on the Solemnity of the Epiphany, we witness the first people outside of Joseph and Mary who laid eyes of Jesus. And as much as we “know” about this event, Matthew is pretty vague. He tells us that “some wise men” came from the East. Other translations refer to them as astrologers or magi. We don’t even know how many there were, but assume there were three since they presented Jesus with gold, frankincense and myrrh. Nobody wants to greet the Savior of the world empty handed. Finally the prophecies from Isaiah spoke about a great light, but not a star. So what was it about this star that drew the wise men?
Well, we don’t know, but there was something that moved them to travel to Bethlehem. Perhaps it was a stirring in their heart or some prophecy because when they met with Herod they asked to see the “infant King of the Jews.” And the fact that they didn’t know about the prophecy about a leader coming from Bethlehem tells me they probably weren’t Jews.
So let us look not at a singular star but the entire night sky. People in ancient times didn’t call it the sky but instead called it the “heavens.” It was, for them, a place of great mystery and awe. They were incredibly attuned to the movement of the stars and planets and anything unexpected was a cause of great concern (e.g. a comet).
We even share that awe today. Virtually all newspapers publish a horoscope and many of us believe that the location of the stars (especially on the day we were born) affects what happens to us.
The study of astronomy continues the wonders of the ancient world and large segments of our population identify as “amateur astronomers.” They can be a tough crowd. When the movie Titanic came out in 1997 several people noticed that the night sky portrayed in the movie was not the night sky in the North Atlantic on the night of April 14 – 15, 1912. When the movie came out on DVD they corrected this flaw. One of my more treasured gifts from my wife is a photograph of the night sky in San Diego and the day we married.
The idea of a star that portends good things took on a particular meaning last month as the planets Jupiter and Saturn aligned so that many of us saw them as one bright light. This meaning was all the more important because this hasn’t happened since 1226.
Some are calling this the Christmas star and suggest that this alignment also happened when Jesus was born. If so this was the “star” that led the wise men to Bethlehem. That is almost certainly not true, but it misses the point. Even if the star that attracted the wise men wasn’t the alignment of Jupiter and Saturn the search for the light still gives us meaning and direction.
If darkness frightens us (and it does) then light attracts us. People who have survived near death experiences almost universally describe seeing a light that is indescribably bright but didn’t hurt their eyes and they felt drawn to follow the light.
And we continue this today. When we look at those we exchange gifts with, they are the lights in our lives. OK, yes, I’m well aware we do spend part of our Advent shopping for gifts we give out of obligation, but that’s not the point. When we present a gift to someone we love we are taking on the role of those who traveled to Bethlehem. And they are taking on the role of Jesus.
For the past 2000 years theologians have explored the meaning behind the birth of Jesus. But sometimes the best understanding is the easiest. When this newborn, conceived out of wedlock and in poverty, was laid in a feeding trough he hardly looked like the “infant king of the Jews” but he was. And these wise men somehow recognized him.
In our lives we often see with our hearts and love those who others tell us we shouldn’t. We gift those we love even when they can’t, or don’t wish to, reciprocate. We gift those who can’t or won’t benefit us. We do it anyway because Jesus also didn’t look like someone who could reciprocate. Except he saved us.