Epiphany

Today, 6th January, is the feast of the Epiphany. This festival celebrates the visit of the three wise men to the infant Jesus.

The wise men are important figures in the Christian tradition, but the truth is that we don’t really know who the wise men were. We don’t know what nation they called home, we don’t even know that there were three of them - people have just assumed, based on the fact that three gifts are named. What we do know is that they are from somewhere east of Judea, or Israel, and some scholars have speculated that they may have been from somewhere in Persia (modern-day Iran). We have a vague idea of what they did, because we know that they were familiar with the night sky and the constellations, and noticed when a new star appeared; and they believed that this new star signalled an event of international importance. Based on this, we can make a guess that they might have been priests of their religion, or they might have been court astrologers for their king.

Despite the fact that many newspapers and magazines print horoscope columns, it's probably fair to say that the majority of people in the western world today probably don’t believe in astrology (although, of course, some do).Many people are, however, interested in astronomy. Even for non-experts, there is something special about looking at the stars, and many are fascinated by stars and planets and the possibilities for discovery that exist in space. If we want to be fair to the wise men, then we would have to say that, as well as being astrologers, they were, in a way, astronomers as well. They almost certainly plotted the orbits of the planets and they studied the regular progression of the stars across the night sky. How else would they have known that they were looking at something new? I suspect that they could predict things like lunar and solar eclipses, too, though that’s just a guess on my part.
Being able to read the stars and predict significant celestial events was incredibly important in the ancient world, and those who had the skill to do it were highly placed in royal courts. So much so, that they might well be entrusted to act as ambassadors to bring their king’s greetings and tribute to a newly born king of another nation.

What I find particularly interesting in the story of the wise men is the way in which God makes use of the ordinary intellectual pursuits of human beings to mediate an epiphany. It is in their routine watching of the stars that God draws the wise men’s attention to something not at all routine – the birth of the Christ child.

The wise men were the scientists of their day, and through their science, God draws to their attention a new and amazing thing that he is doing, and they respond. In today’s world, the media is particularly good at portraying science as the enemy of religion and faith. The argument is that, the more we learn through science, the less likely we are to believe in God. But that doesn't have to be the case. There are still wonders to be discovered, and it is science that allows us to uncover them. And while it’s true that not everyone will look for God in the wonders of the universe, for some, the more we discover, the more we are in awe of the God whose love allowed all things to come into being.

 

 

 

 


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