Each year in the weeks before Christmas you are bound to find it if you browse the higher cable channels —a television program that investigates what portions of the traditional Christmas story, if any, are actually “true.” “The star of Bethlehem” and the magi who followed it will undoubtedly be discussed in detail. Magi, you will be told, were Persian astrologers, pagan star-gazers who tried to read the signs of the times in the sky. And then a researcher or two will present theories about how the “star” the magi saw in the west was actually an extraordinary conjunction of planets in the night time sky, or a comet, or perhaps a distant supernova.
Personally I don’t know which, if any, of these astronomical theories about the “star of Bethlehem” may be correct. It is, of course, possible that the “star” the magi followed was a purely miraculous sign that had nothing at all to do with astronomy as we know. God may have specially created an extraordinary light in the sky over Bethlehem to point the way as the day of Christ’s birth drew near. But I will admit that I find the astronomical theories intriguing.
Just think about it. If the “conjunction of the planets” theory is correct, it would mean that from the day God created our solar system His divine plan included placing the planets in their exact orbits, hurtling around the Sun at just the right speeds, so that untold years later those planets would appear to come together in the earth’s sky at the precise moment when God’s only begotten Son would take on flesh and be born of the Virgin Mary. If the sign of the magi was a distant supernova, it would mean that eons ago a star we’ve probably never heard of exploded billions of miles from here just so its light would reach us in the year that God came to be with us. When you think of it in those terms it gives an entirely different cast to the words of Isaiah, doesn’t it? “Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the LORD has risen upon you.”
That enigmatic star and the Eastern wise men that followed it to the Holy Family were all part of what St. Paul calls this morning “the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things.” But while the fullness of the mystery was hidden, hints about the divine plan of salvation had been given from the very beginning, when Eve was told on that last day in the Garden that her “seed” would one day smite the head of that ancient serpent, the devil. Its mystery had unfolded over the ages in the covenant of the rainbow with Noah, the covenant of circumcision with Abraham, the covenant of Sinai with Moses, and the covenant of the Kingdom with David. At each step along the way it appeared that the saving will of God was becoming more and more constricted, drawing down in scope from the entire human race, to the descendants of one man, to one chosen nation and one royal family.
And at its completion God’s mysterious plan for salvation was in fact constricted, reduced down to a single point of radiant intensity--one moment in time, one particular place, in the form of one little baby boy. But, ironically, it was only through the constraints of the Incarnation that God’s great work of redemption could be opened up to the whole world. With the birth of the Father’s only-begotten Son into the world the words spoken by the prophet Isaiah so long ago had come true. The nations did indeed stream to His light, and kings to the brightness of His dawning. With the birth of Jesus it was now possible to have a personal relationship with the One who is the Salvation of our God. It was possible to know Him, and love Him, and worship Him, and serve Him as the magi did on behalf of all nations.
St. Paul tells us today that, “This was according to the eternal purpose which [God] has realized in Christ Jesus our Lord, in whom we have boldness and confidence of access through our faith in him.” And the means by which God would restore our access to Him through faith were foreshadowed that fateful day in Bethlehem when the magi came to pay homage to the Baby “who was born king of the Jews.” For as the wise men opened their treasure chests before the Child and His Mother their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh symbolized far more than respect for the sovereignty of an earthly king. The Church has taught from its earliest days that the gifts were themselves an epiphany of the mystery of our salvation at its deepest level.
The gift of gold, of course, was most certainly fit for a king, as Isaiah and the Psalmist remind us today. In offering frankincense, on the other hand, the magi present to Jesus an offering fit for God. The Law given to Moses at Sinai commanded perpetual sacrifice of just such incense to the glory of the Lord. The gift of frankincense to the Babe of Bethlehem was, therefore, a tacit recognition of His deity, deity in no way inferior to that of God the Father worshipped in the Temple at Jerusalem on altar of incense. Finally, we have the mysterious offering of myrrh. Myrrh was an aromatic substance used in ancient ointments, known for a sweet fragrance but a bitter taste. One of its common uses was the preservation of corpses. Seventy-five pounds of myrrh and aloes would one day anoint the body of Jesus as He lay shrouded in a borrowed tomb on Good Friday. Thus in the magi’s offering of myrrh to the infant Lord, they recognize the genuineness of His humanity. Though He may be worshipped with incense as God, Christ also shares our mortality. The myrrh reminds us that He became one of us so that He could share our fate in the grave. In its bitterness the pain of the cross is foreshadowed. But in the beauty of the myrrh’s fragrance the sweet gift of salvation imparted to us through His sacrifice is made manifest. The myrrh reminds us that He became one of us so that through faith we may share His destiny, eternal life in the presence of God.
That is the Good News of Christ Jesus first manifested to the nations with the visit of the wise men to the city of David. But the feast of the Epiphany is broader in scope than the witness of the magi alone. It commemorates the showing forth of God’s plan of redemption in its fullness, the dawning of the Light to all people everywhere. Thus we celebrate today not only the visit of the magi but, as St. Paul says, we rejoice that “the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.” The apparent narrowing of God’s saving purpose in earlier days is shown to be an illusion by the Incarnation. Now to all who receive the King, who believe in his name, he gives power to become children of God.
But even the breaking down of barriers between nations and races and peoples accomplished through the saving work of Christ does not exhaust the meaning of the Epiphany. For the manifestation of God’s glory in Christ Jesus shines forth on a stage far greater than even the entirety of the human race. We must us not forget the astronomical implications of that star over Bethlehem. St. Paul tells us that through the Church and its proclamation of the Gospel “the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the principalities and powers in the heavenly places”! Our praise of God today for the manifestation of Christ, the Light of the Nations and the Glory of His people Israel, reverberates throughout the cosmos! For the whole history of the universe has played itself out, to borrow the words of St. Paul, “in accordance with the eternal purpose that [God] has carried out in Christ Jesus our Lord, in whom we have access to God in boldness and confidence through faith in him.”
All creation had been in subjection since the Fall of the first Adam. Now, with the manifestation of the second Adam at Bethlehem--the coming of the True Man in whom the image and likeness of God now shines forth without spot or blemish--all things in heaven and on earth and under the earth rejoice. May God give us grace always to join in that great chorus of praise and thanksgiving for the Epiphany of our God.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.