The wise men and the star
St Peter’s and St Christopher’s Tawa 6 Jan 2013 Rev. Felicity O’Brien
Matthew 2:1-12, Isaiah 60:1-6
Today we celebrate Epiphany. This is one of those complicated words that’s hard to define, but it talks about a sudden revelation, a sudden awakening of understanding. Our reading tells us how the Wise men had this revelation, this understanding of who this baby that they were travelling to see actually was.
The story of the wise men is so familiar, from carols and Christmas cards. Some scholars have concluded that they were not real at all, but made up as a kind of metaphor. Many traditions have arisen around the wise men – the men, originally known as astronomers, acquired royal status and became Kings around the end of the second century, and by the seventh century, one of them was black, and called Balthasar – the others were Caspar and Melchior. There is a lovely children’s opera based on their story – Amahl and the Night Visitors, by Menotti – does anyone know it?
I have no problem taking this story of the wise men literally – the bible can speak to us in many ways, and placing this story alongside our own stories can illuminate.
What can this story tell us?First, that these were wise, clever, well-educated people, who didn’t doubt what God was telling them by means of the star. They were not like some modern scientists who think that because science hasn’t proved something, that it cannot be real. They had faith and trust like that of Abraham, and set out on this journey, not knowing where it would end, or what they would find. So often, people nowadays only set off on a journey if they already know the destination.
But these men really were Wise – they trusted God. This reading tells us that true wisdom lies in following God.I have an embroidery at home which says “Wise men still seek him”, and that sums it up really – seeking Jesus is a wise thing to do.
There’s another message in these visitors coming from foreign lands to worship the baby Jesus. This tells us that even Gentiles are part of the new kingdom of God – that God’s self-revelation is not just limited to the people of Israel. The scholars who doubt the factual basis of this story see this as the major reason for its inclusion in the narrative.
What else does it tell us? I think the star is a message for us. Normal stars don’t lead people anywhere, or stop over stables, – they just follow a predictable course in the sky, and astronomers look for abnormalities, so they can discover new delights in the universe God has made.
But the star of the reading isn’t a normal star – there has been much speculation over the years about what it really was – a comet perhaps? A mass illusion? This has caused a stumbling block for some of those scientifically minded folk. They argue that since stars don’t behave like this star, therefore the whole story is a fable, a pretty tale for the simple-minded, and they ignore the whole Gospel message because of it.
But remember the Wise men – the scientists of the first century, who had no problem believing that an unusual star could be from God.Of course it’s from God – all the stars are! After all, God made them.Many things in the Bible are not normal – they are miraculous, supernatural, unable to be explained by science. Well, that’s the whole point of God – God is supernatural, outside the normal observed order as we currently understand it. The more we know and try to explain, the more we discover that we can’t explain.But accepting that God, who made the earth and the heavens is in control of all the sources of light shouldn’t be difficult for those who believe in him.
Our Isaiah reading is all about light – it could be the light of the star, or the light of the Saviour. The meaning is not clear and defined, it’s not limited or restricted, so it can speak to us in many ways. But it certainly seems to be pointing forward to that special star, and even the wise men – did you catch the reference in the last verse to gold and frankincense? I laugh with delight whenever I find a prophecy like this in the Old Testament – God is placing great big clues all over history for us to find!
Recent astronomical discoveries have found that at the time surrounding Jesus’ birth there was indeed an unusual situation in the sky, where three planets were in alignment. This could be an explanation for the Star of Bethlehem. Why did this happen at this time? Well, God who made the whole system was in charge of it, of course. It cannot be a random event – prophecies are fulfilled, and the whole course of history is changed, by a baby, born in a humble stable, worshipped by Gentiles bearing rich gifts.
Let’s go back to the Gospel reading. Can you imagine the scene? Mary and Joseph had presented Jesus at the temple. Mary had reached the end of her unclean time, and I bet she was longing to go back home to Nazareth and show her little boy to her Mum, and set up home with Joseph. Some time has passed since the stable scene – did you notice that the reading said ‘the child’ in ‘the house’, not ‘the baby’ in ‘the stable’? Perhaps they were packing the donkey with their few possessions, gathering provisions for the long journey home, strapping little Jesus onto his mum for travel, when this unlikely trio arrive.
Mary already knew that being the mother of this child was far from ordinary – this visit confirms it.
Is our life with Jesus ordinary? Or are we constantly challenged by what it means that God, who made all the stars in the universe, would be born as one of us? That God who controls the biggest things also cares for the smallest? May you keep following the star to Jesus, keep following his light, as you begin a New Year in Christ.