The Feast of the Epiphany


His Star

We saw His star as its rising And have come to worship him. Matthew 2:2

For the Mediterranean world, Greeks and Romans, Hebrews and Egyptians, life was part of a larger system and our lives were seen as dependent upon beings, God and gods, and upon events that happened elsewhere. For the Hebrews the pattern of nature was established and sustained by the eternal God who had created it, and the pattern of every life was determined by, or at least depended upon, the will of God, who, was known not only because the firmament showed forth his handiwork (Psalm 19:1) but who touched the believer through his providential presence and through his chastening absence. Mankind was never alone in the world for not only was God ever present, but the angels, both the fallen angels and the obedient angels, were influences usually invisible but sometimes apparent. Among the chief representatives of the divine presence and divine will in nature were the stars, for these bright lights shining in the heavens were supernatural presences. Nature itself was a theophany, crowned by the stars, themselves “visible gods” in Plato’s Timaeus (40, D) and Aristotle’s Metaphysics (E, 1, 1026). The stars have faded from our experience, perhaps a punishment due the world we have made. Having blotted out the sky with industrial clouds we have made lights of our own. And what unchecked technology has not accomplished the impoverishment of imagination has completed. Just as we, in learning that the heart is indeed a circulating pump, have neglected the truth that it is the seat of the will, we have, in learning that the stars are burning concentrations of nitrogen and the planets barren rocks, made it difficult to see them as divine presences. We could not now, without carefully disciplining imagination, begin a poem as Virgil did with an appeal to the stars: “O most radiant lights of the firmament that guide through heaven the gliding year.” For the Hellenistic world the heavens were alive with stars. And for the Hebrews: When the Lord laid the foundations of the earth “the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy” (Job 38:7). For the Psalmist the heavens declared God’s glory, and Saint Paul, seeking an example of the ordered glory of the world, wrote that “star differs from star in glory” (I Corinthians 15:41). The Hebrews and Greeks viewed the stars in complementary ways, with their differing emphases living in comfortable tension. For the Greeks and Romans the characteristics of the stars were their permanence and their beauty, with the cosmology of Hipparchus, the system of planetary spheres encircling the earth, perfected by the music of the spheres, the spectrum of audible sound formed by the blending of the note given off by each of the planets as it turned. For the Hebrews the stars were living beings, each, like Adam, Eve, and the animals of Eden, named into existence by God (Psalm 147:4), and as creatures belonging to time the stars will die when Christ returns to make all things new (Matthew 24:29, Revelation 8:12). But they too will be reborn to shine as the crown of the mother of God (Revelation 12:1). In Hebrew imagination whether the stars were angels was an open question; the Prophet John called the seven stars which the Son of Man held in his hand “the angels of the seven churches” (Revelation 1:20). Until the Hellenistic period the wisdom that most concerned mankind was understanding what lay behind the phenomena that was to be encountered at the edge of ordinary experience, the meaning of dreams and of the stars, and with that the possibility of exercising power over nature through enchantment. What we might call astrology might then have been called magic. Magians were a priestly caste in Persia, hence our ‘magicians,’ and ‘magic.’ Herodotus knows them as wisemen of Persia who interpreted dreams, and it is in this sense that Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, knows them in the book of Daniel (1:20). In the cosmopolitan middle eastern world it was not to the Greeks but to the East, to Babylon or Persia, that one looked for wisdom, for the ability to understand dreams, and in Matthew for the ability of understand the stars. Whatever the astronomical explanation of the star that led the wisemen may be, the significance of the wisemen’s journey and of their worship of the child began with their recognition that the star they saw in a distant land was “His star” and as they knelt to worship the new-born king they offered to Jesus not only gold, frankincense, and myhrr but the wisdom of the world, which the grace the Child would bring would elevate to truth. And as the wisemen knelt the star that stood over the manger offered the worship of all of nature to Him through whom the stars had been made, and in that act the vast system of nature found its center in the Child of Bethlehem. It was then that the heavens most truly declared the glory of God. Perhaps forty years after Matthew’s Gospel was published the bishop of Antioch in Syria, a genius, a saint on his way to martyrdom in Rome, the first to describe the teaching of the apostolic mission as the catholic faith, that is, the faith whole or entire; the determined opponent of the ‘intellectuals’ who considered the Gospel a tale of discarnate ideas; a teacher who may or may not have had the text of Matthew at hand, understood the meaning of the star of Bethlehem for the Church forever. Three great mysteries, Ignatius says, were hidden from the prince of this world: the virginity of Mary and her childbearing and likewise also the death of the Lord. Here Saint Ignatius is thinking first of Mary’s perfect purity, of her divinely ordered virginity of body and soul, a sinlessness the Church would later teach had been hers throughout her life. Second, Ignatius thinks of Mary’s motherhood; Jesus was born of the Virgin Mary, taking from her His human nature; He did not as Ignatius ‘spiritual’ opponents might have taught appear from heaven. Third, Ignatius names the mystery of the Lord’s death on the Cross, the sacrifice of the Son of God. These are “three mysteries wrought in the silence of God.” He continues: “And how were these mysteries made known to the ages?” Ignatius’ answer: the star of Bethlehem.
A star shone forth in the heavens above all other stars, and its light was indescribable and its newness caused amazement. And all the rest of the constellations with the sun and the moon formed themselves into a chorus around the star.
The consequence was the reordering of the heavens and the abolition of the power of the stars over human life, a relation the inviolability of which the Romans would have assumed.
From that time forward every sorcery and every power was dissolved, the ignorance of wickedness vanished away, the ancient kingdom was pulled down, when God appeared in the likeness of man unto newness of everlasting life. That which had been perfected in the counsels of God began to take effect. Thus all things were reordered because the abolishing of death was being taken in hand.
The Star that led the wisemen announced the resurrection. After the star of Bethlehem the determinism of the stars vanished. Shakespeare in Julius Caesar will speak the Christian line: The fault, dear Brutus is not in the stars but in ourselves….” In a way Aristotle, who saw so much, foresaw in part the image of the living heavens that would inhabit Christian imagination, that the pattern of the stars was neither fixed nor purposeless, for the stars, he wrote, were drawn to the great unmoved mover of all things by love. Aristotle’s word for love was not the Christian caritas but eros or desire. Many centuries after the star shone over Bethlehem, at the noontide of Christendom, Dante would conclude his great poem with the line that imaged the healing of his soul “by the love that moves the sun and other stars.”