Each year I see or am sent a link to an article about how the star Bethlehem was a) a fraud perpetrated by deluding biblical editors, b) a perfectly explainable natural phenomenon, or c) just a metaphor. I tend to smile gently when I read these generally well-meant contributions to seasonal reading as they remind me once more how spiritually impoverished we are in our day, and how ironic it is that we think of ourselves as the “enlightened” ones.
The star we celebrate at Epiphany is presented in the Biblical narrative as a sign, guide, and symbol that cannot be reduced to any of the neat categories moderns so like to use. One of the supreme joys of having faith deeply set on the foundations of Holy Writ is the ability to maintain connection—however strained—with such a holistic mindset.
The Sacred Scriptures, like all ancient texts, require us to enter into pricey territory: we must take time and submerge our ego-centric obsession with control and self-referential comfort in order to receive the multivalent message they bring about something so profound as Reality or God or Truth. That is a price too high to pay for many, it seems.
The Feast of the Epiphany of Our Lord is a splendid example of how rich and beautiful—as well as useful and meaningful—the Scriptures are. This Feast commemorates Christ’s manifestation, his appearing to the world as not just a human infant or even as the Savior, Redeemer, and Messiah of the Jews, but as the universal Savior for all peoples. This day’s message is that through this little child, the spiritual confusion and division of humanity is being unwound—sort of a reverse Tower of Babel. And this is the mission of the Church.
The star that announces this revelation (in the Gospel according to Matthew) brings with it vast amounts of meaning. It recalls the stars as “intelligences” of the Creation (ministering and faithful spirits of a living and interactive cosmos) and the promise made to Abraham that he would have progeny as numerous as the stars of the night sky. So we have Cosmos and history, generality and specificity. The star is a sign, but a sign that partakes of the reality it points to. The distinction between viewer and event is radically diminished in the Bible. We become participants, not simply audience members. The star is important, but it points not to itself but what is truly significant—God’s direct participation in human life through the Incarnation in Christ.
This dynamic participation sets us up to experience the Epiphany not only as part of the story of Christ, but as our story of coming to faith by God’s mysterious leading. We do not initiate the process; we respond to God’s leading (like the Magi and Star). But, are we open? Are we listening? Are our heads turned up to the heavens in interest and wonder as we look for Truth—or only to our computer screens in the mindless and endless act of data-grazing?
The Magi bring the fullness of human wisdom and science to bear in the service of finding not only facts, but Truth. When humans offer themselves for this kind of life, this kind of journey (metaphorical or literal), we become vessels capable of receiving and sharing God. The Magi’s purpose is so important to them that they ignore common sense and actually advertise the presence of a rival King to Herod. Assuming that Herod would want to join them in this quest for Truth, they (and we) blurt out the purpose and joy within us. Is our faith really that eager, that desirous of consummation in God?
The Epiphany is also an engagement with the mission of the Church. That mission is not to grow a larger institution or spread more second-hand ideological propaganda. It is to minister its own Eucharistic gratitude for the gift its has received from God in its own personal experience. Thus, the story of the urgency attached to the Magi’s search.
The Magi aren’t barnstorming spiritual hucksters on the Sawdust Trail. They are people whose living experience of God’s engagement has caused them to venture from their own familiar worlds toward an unknown region, a field of creative openness that can only be fulfilled by relationship with the Author of knowledge.
This movement from focus on possession to person is then made manifest by their giving gifts to the Christ child. The symbolic nature of these gifts is real, of course, but it is not the total meaning. The Church is always receiving and giving gifts of knowledge and love; it is always a Eucharistic community of sharing and worship. In a very real sense, the Church is a continuous state of Epiphany-now-and-not-yet, a conduit of the revelation that it does not statically possess but lives, shares, and embodies. A real faith is deeply verbal, not merely a string of nouns.
The mission of the Church to teach all nations and baptize is not a checklist that we sent to complete, something tempting us to dehumanize both those in and outside the Church. The mission given to us is a condition of existence, a state of transmission, a shining with a light received, not generated.
The narrative of the Manifestation of Christ (which properly includes the Nativity, the Adoration of the Magi, the Baptism of Christ, and the First Miracle at a Wedding of Cana in Galilee) is an invitation to all who read it to enter into this dialogue, to follow the star God has placed in our own night sky, to use the science we have for something deeper than the satisfaction of material matters. The season it is part of is one of looking out into the Cosmos and meeting all we find there with curiosity and love as we share the fruits of our own experience and openness to the Truth from Above. If we possess neither openness nor experience, we just stumbling in the dark of our own opinions or biases.
The Star of Bethlehem is about light in all its meaning. This star is not a fact, not a metaphor, not a delusion or wishful thinking. It is a star—with all that means. Only those who can look upon stars as an inviting reality existing on all the planes of experience will be able to read the sign, be open to the possibility, and take the journey.
Everyone else will just have to stay at home in the dark and click on the link.