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Friday, January 06, 2006

Blessed Epiphany to You!!

January 6 is the Feast of the Epiphany of Our Lord. The word Epiphany means revelation and this is the season when we consider the ways God reveals himself to us in Jesus Christ.

The Gospel reading for January 6 (at least in our tradition) is Matthew 2, the story of the wise men or magi from the east who visit our Lord in Bethlehem.

First a couple of factoids. While it is generally traditional to show three wise men, the Scriptures don't, in fact, tell us their number. Only that their were three gifts. It does use the plural so it was more than one, but it could've be 2 or 20 for all we can say.

Another tidbit is that we don't know their names or exactly where they came from. Generally we'd say that they were Persian or Babylonian. That's a sound guess. We know from Old Testament history that the Jews were taken into captivity into Babylon for 70 years and many remained when Cyrus the Persian overtook Babylon. Thus Persian-types and Babylonian-types were somewhat familiar with Israel and the Hebrew prophecies. These ancient cultures were also renowned for their astronomical observations.

What was the star exactly? The Bible says that it moved to guide the magi to the very house where Jesus and his mother were staying. Many have undertaken to ascertain what kind of star this might be. Stars are fixed and do not move. What about the records of other star-gazing nations? Surely any kind of major change in the heavens - such as the appearance of a new star - would have been universally noticed.

I think it's key to note that the Greek word used here is aster. We get the english words astronomy and asteroid from it. Aster can refer to just about any heavenly body so it need not have been a star as we scientific moderns would define it. Maybe it was a meteor, a comet, or an uncommon alignments of the planets. Dozens of theories have been offered.

I find the most compelling explanation to also be one of the oldest. St. John Chrysostom, in the fourth century, proposed that the aster in Matthew 2 was an angelic being of some kind. That makes the most sense to me. Why? Because it is hard to find a widely convincing explanation if we only consider the known phenomena of nature. Comets or nova would have been observed and written about. One tantalizing theory involving the alignment of certain planets and constellations is fascinating but it would fail to explain how it guided the magi to the specific house where Jesus was staying.

And besides, angels are involved in almost every other aspect of the birth narratives. It makes sense that they'd be involved here as well. And it relieves us of having to explain it by scrunching together scientific data into a handful of not-wholly-satisfactory speculations. It fits the nature of an angel to lead people to Jesus. And there is ancient church support. To me, it's the most compelling explanation.

For more reflection on the Epiphany, head over to Aardvark Alley.

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