In the early days of the Church there were only three major feasts: Easter, Pentecost and Epiphany. The Epiphany, or showing or manifestation, included Christmas, today’s celebration of the Epiphany and next Sunday’s celebration of the Lord’s Baptism. Separating these out into three distinct celebrations gave rise to a Christmas Season. What these three feasts do is introduce Jesus; hence, a showing. Christmas showed God as one of us: a weak, mortal human. To see God, we need look no further than to ourselves. (Matthew 25:40) Epiphany’s contribution was to introduce Jesus not just to a Chosen People, but to all people of all times and all places, to foreigners, pagans and the different. When we start to exclude on the base of nationality, race, religion, class or occupation, this behaviour brings the Gospel into disrepute. There are no outsiders. People with different views are not automatically excluded; we all somehow belong to the one family to whom Jesus has come as Saviour — which brings us to the third celebration: Jesus’ Baptism. This celebration ends the hidden life of Jesus, and ushers in his public ministry; this Jesus has come with a purpose, which is to reveal God’s love. The Christmas Season is meant to introduce us to Jesus as the Lord, the Messiah come among us, for all of us, and for the purpose of manifesting the God who is love to all. In this, this Jesus manifests who we are and what we are to do. We are weak, frail, mortal human beings. We have all been baptised. We belong to a community of love, of love for all — for the foreigner, for the pagan, for the different. In it, we are to manifest the presence of the God who is love, who loves the whole of humankind and indeed the whole of creation — nothing and no one is excluded. This is the message and the call of Christmas.
So, to look a little more closely at this particular aspect of Christmas: “Where is the infant king of the Jews? We saw his star as it rose and have come to do him homage.” (Matthew 2:2) This is the critical question. It prompted the Magi to follow a distant star to a distant place. We might ask ourselves: What brought us to worship this child in a manger at Bethlehem? ‘And there in front of them was the star they had seen rising; it went forward and halted over the place where the child was. The sight of the star filled them with delight.’ (Matthew 2:9-10) How do you follow a star? And how do you know when a star is ‘over the place’? This is something picked up on rather well in that old movie, The Life of Brian. Having followed the star, the three wise men went in and saw a child with its mother and they fell down and did him homage and then offered him gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Then one of them realises they are at the wrong house. So, they come back in, angrily take back their gifts and go down the street to the right address. We must, then, see the star not as something necessarily real but as a symbol, as a guiding light in the darkness of our world, which leads us to Jesus — we have all followed our own star that has brought us to Jesus. When you noticed that you were following your star, when you were doing what you had to do and gone in search of the God [your God] in our midst, did you also notice that this filled you with delight? (C.f.: Luke24:32) This feast celebrates God’s reaching out to all the world, in all places and across all times … even to the ends of the earth, to us here in Melbourne! Our happiness lies in our reaching out to the God who is with us reaching out to us.
“We saw his star as it rose.” (Matthew 2:2) Those who saw it were called ‘Magi’ as they were astrologers, which seems a curious thing to have here in what is essentially a Jewish story. For astrology for the purposes of forecasting the future was strongly forbidden in Jewish Scriptures. Yet I remember, when I was in Israel, going to the ruins of yet another ancient synagogue, being amused to find there on the floor a wonderfully intact mosaic of the zodiac. The people of ancient Israel were no different to ourselves: they accepted the whole cosmology of their time and place, and the best science of their day taught them that the complex and bizarre changes in human affairs could find their parallel in the bizarre and complex motions of the planets — which would probably make for a good parable on our relations to the science of our day. Though it was not wholly compatible with their religion, to understand their world they turned to science of their times: astrology. This is what this story is speaking to. Michael Molnar, in his book The Star of Bethlehem, has concluded that there was a conjunction of all the planets and the new Moon (similar to that used by Caesar Augustus to support his claims to a royal birth) occurring in the constellation of Aries (which seemingly was associated with Judaea) in late 4BC. This did happen; the birth of the king of the Jews was foreseen in the heavens! But it occurred when the planets rose with the Sun in the East, which fits well with Matthew’s story, and which also explains why only the astrologers were aware of it. For no one would have actually seen it as the planets would have been hidden in the glare of the Sun … but astrologers would have been able to calculate it. They went in search of what they ‘knew’ to be true. We, too, rooted in our own lives with our own histories and our own belief systems, need to follow what we hold to be true; it will bring us to encounter our own Saviour. In the path we choose in life, following the stars that guide us, we express the truth we know in the core of our being. We need to do this, if we are to come to the fullness of life, to live a life well-lived. Today we celebrate the God who reaches out to all of us, even me! To respond, we need to reach out and go in search of him.
By Dom Steele Hartmann ocso