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The Eternal Star

Sermon - 1/06/08
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

Matthew 2:1-12

 

 

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 prophet:

6“And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
   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 was?

Would you like to see the star of Bethlehem yourself?

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? J 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 child was.

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.

 


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