Happy 10th day of Christmas! Again this year, I am grateful to be an Episcopalian to celebrate the full 12 days of the season, and to be able to reflect and give thanks for the incarnation of our Lord for a longer time.
Today’s lectionary offers three possible gospels, all dealing with events in our Lord’s life after his birth and before his public ministry began. They are rich passages and give much material to think about. I had some difficulty with my choice of texts to use today because each is so wonderful.
I finally decided to use the passage from Matthew 2:1-12, the wise men coming from the east. In part I made the choice because of the recent convergence of the planets Jupiter and Saturn. I hope you were able to see that and experience how bright they were. As I read the material in the modern press regarding this convergence I was reminded of the book that came out about twenty years ago, titled “In the Fullness of Time”. This is an historian’s account of events that correspond with several Biblical stories and in part speaks to the convergence of these planets. You might remember that I have talked about this book before, though it has been some time.
The gospel at the beginning of the second chapter of Matthew tells of wise men coming from the east looking for the child who had been born King of the Jews. They were wealthy astronomers, scientists of their time, whose curiosity sent them out to find the one whose star they had seen. They traveled long and far following that star, seeking to meet the king that they thought the star predicted.
This particular gospel has been studied by many throughout the years to see if its clues could give a date for Jesus’ birth. Paul Maier, a retired professor of Ancient History at Western Michigan University wrote “In the Fullness of Time” which explores some of these possibilities. I use some of his findings here.
The Greek word used in this gospel, translated as star is “aster”. Aster can actually be used to mean any luminous body in the sky, including a planet, a comet, a meteor, a nova and so on.
Comets in the ancient world were thought to announce important changes in the state. For example a bright red comet that could be seen even in the daytime, dominated the skies in the year that Caesar was assassinated in 44 BC. So, perhaps the star the wise men followed was actually a comet. Maier goes through a few possibilities in his book. He also relates that following a bright light in the sky to see what it meant was probably not uncommon in that time.
Another theory that first came into thought in the seventeenth century is that the “star” was actually a conjunction of planets. Every 805 years the planets Jupiter and Saturn come into an extraordinary, repeated closeness. Then, according to Maier, a year after Jupiter and Saturn have come near to the other, Mars joins the configuration. By counting backwards scientists found that these three planets would have been in a close triangle in February of 6 BC. Making it plausible that this was the aster the magi followed.
December 2020, was such a conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn. Now, if you kept up with the conjunction this year you may have read that other scientists do not think the “bright star” of scripture and the planet conjunction were the same thing.
And isn’t it wonderful that scientists disagree? Really, I think so! This is a part of the process to making new discoveries and finding new solutions. I am very grateful to scientists and find it fascinating to read how thought changes over time and how what is “proof” in one age is scoffed at in another. Science continues to grow and we learn more all the time.
I know we are all grateful for modern scientists who have given us vaccines to combat the Covid 19 virus and for the testing process that other scientists used to make sure the vaccines are both effective and safe. I have no concerns about the scientific method and how ideas change with more research and I look forward to the day I can receive the vaccine!
So, back to ancient astrology, and the wise men from the east! At the time, the planet Jupiter was known as the king’s planet for it represented the highest god and ruler of the universe, called Zeus by the Greeks, and Jupiter by the Romans. And the planet Saturn with its rings was known as the defender of Palestine. So in the time of the Magi, these two planets meeting would have meant that a new king was to appear in Palestine. For me, this helps to explain why these wise men would have been seeking the child who had been born a king.
If this interests you I encourage you to check out Dr. Maier’s book to see the diagrams and positions of the planets. The book is easily read, even for a non-scientist. I certainly found it interesting to know that many have searched for proof of what Matthew relates in this gospel. For me, though, rather than seeking scientific proof, I have always been more interested in the metaphors the lesson brings.
First, in contrast to the lowly Hebrew shepherds who sought to see the infant Jesus we heard about last week, we now hear of strangers, gentiles, who were very wealthy coming to meet this same child. Jesus’ birth has meaning for everyone, according to this scripture. Many from near and far, rich and poor wanted to meet him. No matter how God enticed them, angels singing, a bright light in the sky, a message heard in one’s heart, there have always been those who yearned to see and meet Jesus. And this gospel tells us that when these wise men did find the child, they were overwhelmed with joy. Their longing was satisfied and they were overcome with joy!
Many know this story well and what came next was that these wise men gave gifts to the child. The gifts might seem strange but what they represent is not.
Gold is a gift for royalty, given by someone with great wealth themselves. It represents Jesus’ heavenly kingship.
Frankincense was used by priests in their worship and so it represents Jesus’ divinity, his heavenly priesthood.
Myrrh is an aromatic orange colored resin taken from small trees. It was used in embalming and also as a medicine, an analgesic when mixed with wine. This myrrh represented Jesus’ sufferings to come at the end of his earthly life.
So, whether you take this lesson as metaphor or as literal truth, proved by equations and graphs, it is rich with meaning. Maybe you are more scientific in mind and want the concrete proof of Jesus’ time on earth or maybe you are more of a poet and look for the meaning behind the symbols. Either way this lesson appeals to all.
For the entire world, Jesus is the incarnate Lord. His birth brings joy to us, whether rich or poor, scientist or poet, exotic or common. This is a timeless message. The joy that comes with Jesus’ birth flows out from everyone because God has come to live with us, to share in our life and to share His life with us!
For the second Sunday in the season then, Merry Christmas, Emmanuel, our God has come to us!