January 6, 2008

The Star of Bethlehem and Epiphany

The 12 Days of Christmas are now over and this day, Epiphany, we remember the wise men of Matthew coming from afar following a star to find a child who they recognize as a king.

They came bearing gifts very strange and foreign to us. I still love the image in The Best Christmas Pageant Ever of the Herdman's dragging a ham before the manger - that was like the widows two mites to them; or the little drummer boy in the song; or the girl of Mexico bringing all she could find - weeds, which turned red (poinsettias).
From Bible studies we've learned that frankincense, gold and myrrh were costly gifts fit for kings (for life and burial!).

(I have this work of art by Fabriano sitting on an easel in the house right now.)

What was the star? There's so much speculation, and maybe someday a gas streak tail of a super nova will show up in the sky letting us know the real story. About 25 years ago we went to our school district's planetarium and heard a great story. First they showed why a comet has been ruled out as the star; then they talked about the possibility of a super nova; and then described the various patterns of stars and planets we observe from earth and what we might be able to be see by the naked eye. Jupiter is the consistent star of the stories, and in astrology it symbolizes 'the king' planet. There's records of Jupiter and Regulus (the king star) coming together and in conjunction with the planet Venus.

The explanation for the Bethlehem Star story I like best describes a planet conjunction. Pisces is associated with the Jewish people in astrology, and within its constellation was a conjunction several times in 7 BCE of Jupiter and Saturn, and then Mars joined them. Saturn was known as representing Mesopotamian deity who protected Israel. And Mars symbolized war.

Christians are afraid of astrology and think it evil. Astronomy and astrology combined are the science of observation and interpretation. In 7 BCE there was no astronomy other than astrology. In Genesis we're told God made the stars for 'signs and seasons'. And here in Matthew God is bringing astrologers into Jesus' story.

Were there exactly three wise men? We are told of three gifts. The book Ben Hur names three kings and opens with a dramatic description of how they might have met and traveled together to Bethlehem, but there could have been a whole entourage.

If you were dramatizing the whole Advent season with nativity figures, your wise men would be off in a distance in your house progressing to Joseph and Mary - who would in December be progressing by Donkey to Bethlehem. And baby Jesus and the Shepherds wouldn't show up until Christmas Eve or Christmas day?
Many, don't do gift giving until this day.

The Epiphany story is a remarkable story of grace. God doesn't need anything from us - he is the Creator of everything. Here God is receiving gifts. The pagan astrologers were not religious insiders. This is a reminder to me that God is at work in the strangest places, and in the people I least expect to respond to him. I want my eyes to be open to the potential and possibilities of God's grace. God's grace is at work far outside the arbitrary boundaries I construct.

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