Here are my thoughts for this coming Sunday, The Epiphany of the Lord.
We have always been fascinated by the stars. From the day that mankind first looked skyward, we have wondered about the stars. No matter what the culture, mankind has seen patterns in the stars and created stories to go with the patterns. Over the years, we have come to realize that stars are not merely pinpoints of light fixed on the celestial heaven but rather celestial bodies in similarity to our own neighboring star, the Sun.
Mankind’s exploration of the heavens began when we were able to differentiate between stars and planets because planets wandered across the fixed, relative unchanging background of the stars.
Early on, mankind realized that it was possible to find their way by following the stars in the night. Tradition has it that runaway slaves used the song “Follow the Drinking Gourd” as a means of finding their way north to freedom. The “drinking gourd” was another term for the “Big Dipper”, the constellation in the Northern skies that points to the North Pole.
For early mankind, though, the stars were more than simply signposts in the skies that gave directions. In conjunction with the planets and other heavenly bodies (comets, meteors, and so forth), early mankind saw the handiwork of the gods.
Whether it was the conjunction of several stars and/or planets or a comet passing through the skies, something occurred some two thousand years ago that shook the scientific worlds of people far away from Bethlehem.
Today, we would call those who attribute occurrences here on earth to the alignment of the stars astrologers and, hopefully, we give little credence to what they say or do. There is no evidence to suggest that a particular alignment of the stars at a particular time of a person’s life will have any influence on what will happen to that person. All one has to do is consider the dire warnings that were broadcast when all the planets were essentially aligned, as was the case in 2000.
It was said that the combined gravitational pull of all the Jovian planets would have dire consequences on the planet earth; unfortunately, this was not a unique occurrence. The same thing had occurred in 1962 (with the added benefit of a solar eclipse). Neither of these were an exact alignment but the planets were close enough that, if anything was going to happen, it would have happened. (1)
But, two thousand years ago, as knowledge was developing and other gods still dominated daily life, there was something in the sky that spoke of great things about to occur. The Magi were men of science who saw the signs in the sky and deduced that something great was occurring. They were not necessarily magicians or sorcerers, though those are often the images we associate with them. For them, the signs of the sky were an announcement that a new king was being born and such a birth was worthy of their attention and presence. (2)
But the star that they sought was not just a simple combination of planets, stars, and other heavenly bodies. It was the star whose light has shown throughout the ages. It was a light that shown in the darkness and illuminated the world so that all could see. The prophet Isaiah wrote that darkness covered the world but the Lord illuminated the world so that all could see. (3)
The idea of light as part of the Word and as part of Jesus presence is one of the central tenets of the Gospel message. Jesus spoke of not being able to hide the light in a bushel basket and how evil would come to fear the light, for the light would bring the truth.
Even Paul, in his letter to the Ephesians (4), alluded to the opening of God’s word through Christ. God’s mysteries were closed to man until Christ came. But through Christ, the mystery is solved and all are aware of it.
We call this Sunday “The Epiphany of the Lord”. Epiphany is often used to mean that we come to an understanding of what we have been studying. The Magi, however many there might have actually been, came to Bethlehem thinking that they had come to a new-born earthly king. They left aware of a new-born King who transcended heaven and earth. Their own understanding of God’s message to the world had changed.
We live in a society and at a time when we are more interested in the gifts that we can get during the season of Christmas. We focus on the gold, frankincense, and myrrh that the Magi brought to the new-born child. We forget the meaning those gifts would have in the years to come. We have been given the opportunity for a great Epiphany of our own, on the order as the one the Magi received. We have the opportunity to change the direction of our life, to go like the Magi in a different direction because of the birth of Christ.
We saw the star, we wondered at its brightness and its luminosity. Did we understand what it was that the star meant?
(1) See http://www.etsu.edu/physics/etsuobs/starprty/22099dgl/planalign.htm among other sites for more on such planetary alignments.
(2) Matthew 2: 1 – 12
(3) Isaiah 60: 1- 6
(4) Ephesians 3: 1 – 12