Ah yes – a new year and a new quarter. You can smell the freshly sharpened No. 2 pencils populating the messenger bags of many-a-student on campus. I am truly looking forward to 2008. This week is Epiphany in the church calendar – the time we reflect upon the journey of the Magi under the star of Bethleham which leads to the presense of Emmanuel, God-with-us.
In looking at the Matthew 2 text, the references we have point to some astronomical phenomena (translated as a “star” in most accounts) that connects us to what is going on here on Earth. In short, there is a great overturning of things and a touching of the divine with the secular. (I am reminded of Celtic “canticle of the turning” where the seasons are ‘thin places’ where the natural and supernatural blend together) Here in Matthew, the Star seems to point back to the prophecy in the Book of Numbers (24:17 – I behold him, but not nigh: There shall come forth a star out of Jacob, And a sceptre shall rise out of Israel, And shall smite through the corners of Moab, And break down all the sons of tumult) regarding the shining of the star over god’s chosen – the Star of Jacob. Origen, one of the most influential early Christian theologians, discussed the connection between this prophecy and the Star of Bethlehem:
“ If, then, at the commencement of new dynasties, or on the occasion of other important events, there arises a comet so called, or any similar celestial body, why should it be matter of wonder that at the birth of Him who was to introduce a new doctrine to the human race, and to make known His teaching not only to Jews, but also to Greeks, and to many of the barbarous nations besides, a star should have arisen? Now I would say, that with respect to comets there is no prophecy in circulation to the effect that such and such a comet was to arise in connection with a particular kingdom or a particular time; but with respect to the appearance of a star at the birth of Jesus there is a prophecy of Balaam recorded by Moses to this effect: There shall arise a star out of Jacob, and a man shall rise up out of Israel. ” (Origen, Contra Celsum, Chapter LIX.)
According to Origen, if the magi knew of Jewish prophecy they could have “conjectured that the man whose appearance had been foretold along with that of the star, had actually come into the world.” While Origen argued for a naturalistic explanation, John Chrysostom viewed the star as purely miraculous: “How then, tell me, did the star point out a spot so confined, just the space of a manger and shed, unless it left that height and came down, and stood over the very head of the young child? And at this the evangelist was hinting when he said, Lo, the star went before them, till it came and stood over where the young Child was.”
What I am challenged by in this time of Epiphany is whether I am willing to follow folks like Magi who might lead me to the truth. Magi were not part of Israel per se, they were not part of the inner circle – they were “outsiders” and yet they got to the heart of things. Secondly, the Magi go home “by another way.” They are changed by their encounter with Emmanuel, so much so that they much change their path of life entirely. I have been reading Douglas Coupland’s latest novel, The Gum Thief, this weekend and have been struck by Coupland’s insight into the fact that people generally hit a certain age internally and cease to grow. His primary protagonist, Roger Thorpe, begins a series of letters reflecting on his sad life as a relational wash-out and Staples employee with these words: “A few years ago it dawned on me that everyone past a certain age – regardless of how they look on the outside – pretty much constantly dream of being able to escape from their lives. They don’t want to be who they are any more. They want out… I used the phrase “a certain age.” What I mean by this is the age people are in their heads. It’s usually thirty to thirty-four. Nobody is forty in their head. When it comes to your internal age, chin wattles and relentless liver spots mean nothing.” As Roger goes through the book, his great lament is that he will always remain the same, unchanged by the seismic changes in his life – deaths, disaapointment, loss, joy, etc. Perhaps this is the notion of hell – to be unchanged in a world constantly changing and unable to move with the movement of God. This is TS Eliot’s lament in the Journey of the Magi where the journey to Emmanuel leaves a taste in the mouth that no journey through time can erase:
All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death?
There was a Birth, certainly,We had evidence and no doubt.
I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.
I suppose I too should be glad of another death such as this…