Today is Epiphany,
hence we still have what we think of as Christmas decorations, but these
are really Epiphany decorations. The symbol of Epiphany, of
course, is the star of Bethlehem. On the church's calendar, then,
Epiphany comes after the 12 days of Christmas, and it is the day when we
celebrate the coming of the light of the world to the Gentiles, which
is, of course, us. The light of God comes to the non-Jewish world.
And then this is the
story from the gospels that symbolizes Epiphany:
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus
was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men
from the East came to Jerusalem,
2asking, ‘Where is the child who has
been born king of the Jews? For we
observed his star at its rising, and
have come to pay him homage.’ 3When King
Herod heard this, he was frightened, and
all Jerusalem with him; 4and calling
together all the chief priests and
scribes of the people, he inquired of
them where the Messiah was to be born.
5They told him, ‘In Bethlehem of Judea;
for so it has been written by the
6“And you, Bethlehem, in the land
are by no means least among the
rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
who is to shepherd my
people Israel.” ’
7 Then Herod secretly called for the
wise men and learned from them the exact
time when the star had appeared. 8Then
he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, ‘Go
and search diligently for the child; and
when you have found him, bring me word
so that I may also go and pay him
homage.’ 9When they had heard the king,
they set out; and there, ahead of them,
went the star that they had seen at its
rising, until it stopped over the place
where the child was. 10When they saw
that the star had stopped, they were
overwhelmed with joy. 11On entering the
house, they saw the child with Mary his
mother; and they knelt down and paid him
homage. Then, opening their
treasure-chests, they offered him gifts
of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12And
having been warned in a dream not to
return to Herod, they left for their own
country by another road.
Have you ever wondered what that star
Would you like to see the star of
In a book that many of us were reading
during Advent -- The First Christmas, by Marcus Borg and Dominic Crossan
-- the authors state: "Virtually every year, in the weeks before
Christmas, stories appear in the media that seek to identify the star of
Matthew's story with some natural phenomena. The most common
suggestions are a comet, a conjunction of planets, or a nova".
And sure enough, right on cue, the
Associated Press ran a story, picked up by the Register Guard, on the
Religion Page on the Saturday before Christmas, reporting on a
professor, an astrophysicist from Notre Dame, who revealed his two years
of research using NASA databases and writings from ancient Asian
astronomers to catalog all of the possible comets, conjunction of
planets, nova and super-nova in those years around the birth of Jesus.
Trying to figure out which one was most likely the star of Bethlehem.
Now, interestingly, with all of the
modern tools at his fingertips, including data from the Hubble
telescope, Dr. Grant Matthews (the astrophysicist) came essentially to
the same conclusion as a German astronomer 400 years ago. That the
most likely explanation was the conjunction of planets in the
constellation Aries which would have been taken by ancient astrologers
as the sign of the birth of a powerful leader.
How many of you read horoscopes?
How much stock do you put in horoscopes?
That's what this is.
Such a conjunction has the advantage of
the appearance of motion due to the orbits of planets. Which
coincides nicely with the story in Matthew where the motion of the star
directs the Magi to Bethlehem. Now, Dr. Matthews does not explain
-- because there is no explanation -- of how the movement of those
planets would not only direct traveling astrologers to the right
country, and the right town, but to the right house.
As Matthew tells the story, stopping over the place where the Christ
Now the reason that he and all other
would-be discoverers of the Star of Bethlehem cannot do that is not
because the evidence for that star is lacking, it's because they are
looking in the wrong place.
For the most compelling evidence of
the origins of the star leading the Magi to Bethlehem will not be found
in the skies over Bethlehem, but in the pocket of Matthew.
A very brief review of Roman history
will make that self-evident (I hope).
After Julius Caesar was assassinated on
the Ides of March in the year 44 before our common era (BCE), his
step-son Octavian sponsored Olympic-style games, in Rome, in honor of
the slain Caesar. During those games, a comet appeared in the
night sky. The ever astute Octavian quickly proclaimed this
celestial appearance to be a sign that Julius Caesar had taken his
rightful place among the Gods of the heavens.
His claim was further strengthened by
the Roman astrologer Volcanius, who added to that claim that the comet
marked the beginning of a new age for the Roman people. The
growing popularity of the martyred Caesar for this new age prompted the
Roman Senate to officially Julius' divinity 2 years later, which had the
convenience of making Octavian -- his son -- a son of God.
That was a title that Octavian very
efficiently and profusely used in his battle against Caesar's assassins,
that lasted the next 10-15 years, for the throne of Rome. And the
symbol that he used to convey that message -- Julius is a God in the
heavens, he is therefore now son of God, was the star of Julius:
This is a Roman coin,
minted by Caesar Augustus, the title that Octavian took when he finally
defeated the assassins of Caesar and became the emperor of Rome.
You see him pictured on the left, and on the back side of that coin is
the star of his father Julius. And it says in Latin "DIVUS JULIUN",
which means "The God Julius".
Now, equally telling is
this legend told of Augustus: upon revealing his birth date to the
Greek astrologer Theogenes, the astrologer calculated the configuration
of the heavens at the time of the birth of Augustus (then Octavian).
When he saw what the signs of the heavens were at that time, he
immediately sprung up and threw himself at the feel of Augustus.
Now, where have I seen
that scene before? An astrologer at the feet of a ruler?
It's a familiar scene, kind of like when you watch a movie, and you see
a actor -- I know I've seen that guy before, where have I seen that
before? Oh yeah, I remember: "On
entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother and they
knelt down and paid him homage". Magi -- astrologers, at
the feet of a ruler.
Augustus was so impressed
with the astrology of Theogenes that he took the Zodiac sign of
Capricorn. Those of you who know your Zodiac symbols will
recognize it here on the back of these two coins:
On the lower left, we see
the sign of Capricorn with a horn of plenty above it, and Augustus on
the front of the coin. And we see the globe -- the earth -- at the
feet of Capricorn (Capricorn being the birth symbol of Augustus).
And on the right, Capricorn again, with the wreath, which was the symbol
of the God Apollo.
The meaning of all of this
is summed up in a single inscription, found from the first century, in
Egypt, on a tablet, which describes the rule Augustus as:
Does that sound familiar?
I cite all of this ancient
history simply to illustrate the importance of astrology and celestial
signs in ancient times. I'm not suggesting that we should all now
pay closer attention to our horoscopes, not at all.
But if you are going to
make a claim for a new savior of a world in that context, then you are
going to need the celestial confirmation that will equal, if not
surpass, that of Caesar's.
You see, Matthew's story
of the star of Bethlehem is the Christian equivalent of those coins of
Rome. It proclaims in image and metaphor the central truth of the
gospel -- Jesus Christ is the light of God.
And regardless of the
movement of stars and planets in the heavens, or that of Magi and Kings
on earth, the fundamental truth of Matthew's story is this: Jesus
is the light that overcomes the darkness, while the Herods and Caesars
of this world try to extinguish it.
So my claim is this:
Matthew is not so much making an assertion about an astrological
phenomena accompanying the birth of Jesus as he is of making an
assertion about the divine phenomena in the earthly life and
death of Jesus. That here in the gospel story, for which this is
the introduction, Matthew reveals to us God's eternal star, the light
that guides us out of our darkness, that leads the Gentiles to the God
of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
And so the critical
question for us to ask is not what was happening in the sky over
Bethlehem back then, but what is happening here on earth, now?
And so Borg and Crossan
ask: "Are we like the Magi, who followed the light and refused to
comply with the rulers plot to destroy it? Or are we like Herod,
filled with fear and willing to use whatever means necessary to maintain
power, even violence and slaughter? Are we among those in Herod's
court who seek to thwart the coming of the true light, the true King in
God's kingdom? Or do we see the light of the world in Jesus, who
stood against empire, and indeed was executed by imperial authority?"
To see the light of the
world in Jesus means not that we see Jesus as the way out of this
world, but as a way out of darkness. A different way of being in
the world, and a different way of the world being.
Those who see that
possibility, who see the vision of God as proclaimed by Jesus for our
world, are the ones who see the star that led the Magi to that
revelation, the Christ child.
It is a star that shone
not once long ago, it is a star that shines yet still today, and always,
and beckons us to follow.