Preached by Brenda Holden on 6 January 2019: Epiphany Isaiah 60:1-6; Matthew 2:1-12
Ever since the dawn of mankind there has been a fascination, wonder and awe associated with a star filled sky. Stars make us feel part of something so much bigger than our small planet - the immensity of our universe amazes us and challenges the minds of all! It is almost beyond our comprehension that many of the stars that we can see are ‘light-years’ away from us and by the time that the light from them reaches us then they no longer exist in the universe.
‘Follow the Star’- the logo on the banner displayed in our church yard over the Christmas period was also a booklet produced by the Church of England with daily readings, thoughts and prayers leading up to the feast of Epiphany that we are celebrating today. Today is the day when we are told in Matthew’s Gospel that the Star was followed by the wise men in their quest to find the newly born King of the Jews.
What about the star that the wise men saw? Apparently there was in 7BC what is known as a multiple planetary conjunction - a very rare event in which the paths of the three planets Jupiter, Saturn and Venus as seen from the earth all crossed. It has been suggested as possibility that this is what was seen by the night sky-watchers. Another suggestion has been the appearance of Halley’s comet in 11 BC, a comet which reappears every 75 years.
Alternatively, the birth of a new star or a new galaxy would be an explosive cosmic event, which if it appeared in or near our Milky Way, could produce more light than all the other stars in the sky put together. We know that such random events do occur, but are rarely recognisable with the naked eye.
There is in fact an independent Chinese record that such a bright star was seen about 4BC and this was about the time of Jesus’ birth. Whatever may be our view of the improbability, if not impossibility, that astronomical events are associated with human destiny, we might, with our faith hats on, believe that God might signal the incarnation of His Son by an observable astronomical event.
Whether we believe this or not does not matter - what does matter is that we heard in our Gospel reading that the wise men did see a star. To the wise men there was sufficient significance for them to seek out and worship the Holy Baby. The writer of Matthew’s Gospel was keen to show how the visitation of the wise men was foretold by the prophet Isaiah in our first Old Testament reading this morning. However, this was the only gospel writer to make this link.
So let us consider the role of these wise men who followed the star….
The coming of the Messiah, God’s Son, was expected to be primarily a Jewish national story, but what we have is a festival called The Epiphany - the showing forth - God’s Son was being shown to representatives from the whole world it was to be an international story for the benefit of all mankind.
The wise men, incorrectly represented as kings with crowns at children’s Nativity events, were described as Magi - a term which was used by early writers to mean priests of other religions and later included all who practised magic arts and rites.
The wise men were watchers of the night sky and whether we would classify them as astronomers or astrologers they were the scientists of their day. The fact that there are three of them was because they brought three gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, but the number of wise men is not specified in Matthew’s story.
Many artistic representations of the Epiphany show the three wise men from different races and from their clothes they were from different countries of origin - ‘from the East’ was a vague term indicating that they originated from a non-Jewish background, that is, they like us were Gentiles!
Why did they feel drawn to follow the star?
The enigmatic poet WH Auden puts these words into the mouths of the wise men:
‘At least we know for certain that we are three old sinners,
That this journey is much too long, that we want our dinners,
And miss our wives, our books, our dogs,
But have only the vaguest idea why we are what we are.
To discover how to be human now
Is the reason we follow the star.’
When they came to the Holy Family they found joy - they rejoiced and worshipped - they discovered that the capacity to worship is essential to the joy of being human. The object of our worship, God our Creator, restores our damaged selves. God helps us to discover how to be truly human!
By following the star with the wise men this Epiphany we can also find the source of light which overcomes the darkness of the world! Amen