‘After Jesus had been born at Bethlehem in Judaea during the reign of King Herod, some wise men came from the east.’ So, after keeping Jesus’ birth at Christmas, we remember these wise men at Epiphany.
They have always fascinated the Christian imagination, and they can fascinate ours. Probably they were astrologers and astronomers (the two things were not differentiated then). In our terms, a mixture of scientist and philosopher and religious inquirer. Probably they were from Babylon, in what is now southern Iraq, and was a centre for study of the stars. Perhaps the star they saw was an unusual conjunction of the planets Jupiter and Saturn in the constellation of Pisces which took place in the years 7 – 6 BC, now thought to have been the time that Jesus was born. And here’s an interesting detail: the planet Jupiter was associated with the chief Babylonian god, Marduk, and the planet Saturn with the Jews. So if the two came together this would have been charged with significance. Certainly many non-Jewish people of the time knew the Jews were expecting a Messiah. There were still Jews in Babylon too. Perhaps the wise men were in conversation with them. Perhaps they heard of the prophecy of the Gentile Balaam in the book of Numbers: ‘I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not nigh: a star shall come forth out of Jacob and a sceptre shall rise out of Jerusalem.’ These are all real possibilities.
Whatever, these intrepid, pure-hearted magi “saw” and “went”. They followed the star. They read the runes, as it were. They picked up the clues. They followed the trail and came with their gifts to worship the new-born King. In the Rule of St Benedict when a young person wants to enter the monastery, the first question he or she is asked is, ‘Are you really seeking God?’ These men were. And they are patterns for us. They had a star in the sky. We have the star of faith. Their goal was Bethlehem. Ours is heaven.
What a contrast Herod makes! He was ‘troubled’, perturbed, ‘and so was the whole of Jerusalem.’ For him, the birth of the Christ was bad news, not good news. It was a threat to his own petty power, as the local big man. And isn’t it strange that neither he, nor the chief priests and scribes, go on with the magi to Bethlehem? Beneath their dignity, I suppose. In fact, they dig themselves in. They stay where they are. They represent the world closed to what is above it. They knew their Bible, but they didn’t seek God.
The magi did though. The star shone out again, and they were filled with delight. And on they went. These wise men were more than they realised. They carried more meaning than they knew. They were representative. They represent the world open to what’s above it. They stand for science and philosophy and religion – human research, inquiry, wisdom – finding its way to Christ. They followed a star, their conscience. A hope for a better world drove them on. They were being guided more than they knew by the gentle Providence of God. Old prophecies were coming true in them. We heard one in the 1st reading: ‘[Jerusalem] the riches of the sea will flow to you, the wealth of the nations come to you; camels in throngs will cover you, and dromedaries of Midian and Ephah; everyone in Sheba will come, bringing gold and incense and singing the praise of God.’ Israel had long hoped that one day the Gentiles would turn to the God of Israel. In the magi this day dawns. And so they were carrying all of us, all the Gentile believers to come, who would make their way, generation after generation, to Bethlehem to worship the King of Israel. We come in their wake. And like them we too may be more than we realise. We carry the past and the future in us, and the more our lives move towards Christ, ‘to the beauty of your sublime glory’ as the Collect calls it, the more the whole world is finding its bearings, coming right, fulfilling God’s plan, making its way home. But Herod was troubled and he didn’t move.
At Christmas Jesus is born. At the Epiphany the Church is born. At Christmas a person enters the world in a new way, God is made man, the God-man is born. At Epiphany, a new human family enters the world, a new social entity. Before there were the Jewish people on the one hand, the depositary of God’s promises, and on the other the various scattered pagan Gentile peoples and nations, each going its own way. It was a divided world. But now, in the middle of it, a third, new thing appears: the Church, the extension of Christ through space and time. Here is the place where Jews and Gentiles can be reconciled, where ‘there is neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus’ (Gal 3:28) and where the one true God is worshipped in spirit and truth. In the 2nd reading St Paul proclaims it: ‘the pagans now share the same inheritance, they are parts of the same body, and the same promise has been made to them, in Jesus Christ, through the gospel.’ Yes, he says, Gentiles and Jews are now coheirs, co-members, co-partners. The pagan wise men enter the house in Bethlehem and fall down before the Jewish boy on his mother’s lap, and a new space, a new place, a new way of being human, and living with God and each other, opens up. It’s a small seed of reconciliation and hope. It is the Church. It is Catholic unity.
This is what Herod refused to accept, clutching his own little corner of power. This is the way the Jerusalem scribes, for all their knowledge, wouldn’t go. And yet prophecy was fulfilled, and it is every day. ‘Though night still covers the earth and darkness the peoples’, the ‘glory of the Lord rises’ on Jerusalem,. And at this sight, we, believing Jerusalem, should ‘grow radiant, [our] heart throbbing and full.’ The Epiphany calls us to open our heart: to the gift of God, the Incarnation of his Son, and the gift of one another.
So, here’s a thought to end with, partly humorous, partly serious. The wise men have always sparked the imagination, as I said. In Jesus’ time and long after, there were only three known continents: Asia, Africa and Europe. So perhaps, some have thought, one wise man came from Europe, one from Africa, one from Asia. This is why there’s often a black king among them. And so it was the whole world, symbolically, that came to Bethlehem. Then think of the Bethlehem which is Aberdeen, the Church in this place, and Our Lady of Aberdeen and the kingly child she holds, with sceptre and crown. Don’t we experience the Epiphany here. Here over the last years have come people from Africa, Asia and the mainland of Europe: Africans with gold – the love of life and God; Indians and Filipinos with incense – prayer and spicy food; Eastern Europeans with the myrrh of a painful history and an embattled faith. Coming here to Jesus and Mary, to the Eucharist and the Church in this place.
Well, it’s just a thought – and includes a grateful welcome to all from the Americas and Oceania! But we, we who got here first as it were, we must not be ‘troubled’. Let our hearts be enlarged, as Mary’s and Joseph’s must have been by their exotic visitors. And let all of us, wherever we’re from, let us allow the glory of God to open our hearts, in the great new space of the Church. Let us welcome one another. And with Mary and Joseph, angels and stars, shepherds and wise men, let us worship our God. He has appeared in the flesh, he is present in this Eucharist.
And then we will be stars to lead others to him.