Finding the Perfect Light in Life
Posted on January 3, 2014 in Inspirational Writings by Jack T Scully
Miracles. We hear a lot about miracles in the Christmas season. On television, the Christmas classic The Miracle on 34th Street continues to rival current favorites, including Home Alone and The Christmas Story. After a record year, we are hearing about the miracle of the U.S. Economy. And, of course the miracle of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem, some 2,000 years ago, marks another great revelation of God’s presence to man.
On January 6th, Christianity will observe Epiphany, the last miracle of the Christmas season. Sometimes known as 12th Night, it celebrates the visit of three wise men from “the East,” the Magi, who arrive on the scene with gifts for the infant Jesus. The visit is important because it characterizes Jesus as the king of kings–the “light of light”–coming into the world for all people, Jews and Gentiles alike. Indeed it is a public holiday in Austria, Poland, parts of Germany, Greece, Italy, Croatia, Cyprus, Ethiopia, Slovakia, Spain, Columbia, and Uruguay. In Ireland it is called Little Christmas (Nolaig Bheag) and women are given the day off. Obliging men cook, clean and fund a free night on the town. In America, Epiphany has lost its patina, but not so in earlier generations. My Irish grandmother observed Epiphany literally; presents for her four sons were not opened until January 6th.
In some parts of the world, Epiphany is a bigger feast day than Christmas. In the Czech Republic and Slovakia, children wear Magi costumes and make the rounds of neighborhood homes singing nativity hymns praising the “king of kings. In Latin America, Dia de los Reyes Magos (The Day of The Great King) is celebrated on Epiphany. In many Latin American countries, the three wise, not Santa Claus, bring gifts to children. In France, Le Jour des Rois (the Day of Kings) includes eating of the galette des rois (cake of kings).
I’ve always been intrigued by the “Star of Bethlehem.” Symbolically, it is a light shining in the darkness, just as Jesus is later identified in John’s Gospel. We know little about the rising star other than the Magi telling King Herod that it guided them to Jerusalem where it seemed to stand still. Of the four evangelists, Matthew alone writes about the brilliant star. “When they (the Magi) saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy” (Matthew 2:11). He calls the wise men “astrologers from the east who arrived one day in Jerusalem inquiring, where is the newborn king of the Jews?
After an envious King Herod consults with the chief priests and elders of the temple in Jerusalem, he directs them to “Bethlehem of Judea” and they set off on the final leg of their journey. It is the town in which Old Testament prophets had predicted the Messiah would be born.
Mathew continues: “They prostrated themselves and did homage. Then they opened their coffers and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.”
That Matthew saw fit to include the Magi story in his Gospel is indicative of the universality of Jesus’ work. The star signaled his arrival to non-Jews, as far as 500 to 1,000 miles away. Undoubtedly the Magi were of sufficient status to be received at Herod’s royal court and granted an audience with the king himself. From the Herod’s response, it is clear he had no inkling of the great event that had just occurred in Bethlehem. That in itself is consistent with other revelations of God’s presence. Time after time, God chooses to reveal Himself to the lowly not the mighty. In this case, angels appear to poor shepherds, not the king who ruled over them. Luke further links the star to the shepherds, writing, “The angel of the Lord appeared to them as the glory of the Lord shone all around them.”
Scripture says no more. Only when oral stories, passing from generation to generation, were recorded, do we learn more about the Magi. Somewhere, possibly in early Christmas carols, we hear their names: Gaspar, Melchior, and Balthassar. Some scholars believe the Magi were astrologers (synonymous with astronomers back then) from Babylon who had a channel of communication with Jewish Messianism. Surely they had an interest in the night sky. Others believe they were religious followers of the philosopher Zoroaster. If this is true they may have been coming from Saudi Arabia, which gains some credence by the Arabian nature of their gifts. Wherever their origin, they were experienced travelers able to make long trips.
Despite our vast knowledge of the solar system and ability to predict orbits of planets, comets and meteors, the rising star over Bethlehem is still a mystery. In the 16th century, Isaac Abravel concluded it resulted from the rare alignment of Jupiter and Saturn in Pisces–an astronomical event occurring once every 2,360 years. Kepler believed the Magi had seen the conjunction of Jupiter, Saturn, and Mars. In 1640, he wrote, “The star was not of the ordinary run of comets or near stars, but produced by a special miracle moving in the lower layer of the atmosphere.”
But as Henry M. Morris, Ph.D. of the Institute of Creation Research writes in his essay “When They Saw the Star,” (http://www.icr.org/home/resources/resources_tracts_whentheysawthestar/)
“All such conjunction theories, however, face several serious difficulties. It seems incredible that the Magi, as versed in astronomy as they were, would call such a group of celestial objects His Star!…Furthermore, all such planetary conjunctions occur with some significant frequency, which could have been calculated easily enough by these experienced astronomers from the known orbits of the planets, so why would any one, or several, such conjunctions be associated as a special “sign” with the promised King of Israel?”
Rather he and other night sky observers suggest the Magi’s star may have been an “unpredictable explosions of an existing star–perhaps a nova or supernova. When this occurs, an ordinary star suddenly increases massively in brilliance, continuing so for several months before fading away.
And so the Magi followed this bright star to Israel bringing with them gifts that even today are remembered for their uniqueness and the distinction of starting the Christmas gift-giving tradition. Melchior brought gold–the appropriate gift for a king. Balthassar brought frankincense–an aromatic tree resin often used in incense. It is symbolic of the gift of a high priest. Gaspar brought myrrh, an essential oil extracted from tree sap. It was often mixed with spices in ancient times to anoint bodies. (After the crucifixion, Nicodemus brought such a mixture to anoint Christ’s body.)
There is a striking symmetry between the Magi’s star and the Son of Man. In Luke 2:32, temple elder Simeon blesses Jesus, predicting he would be “a light for revelation to the Gentiles.” His was the first of many indications that Jesus came for people of all races, colors and creeds. He is, says John in his Gospel, “the true light coming into the world, which lights every man.” Jesus himself equates light with his mission on earth: “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” (John 8:12).
In the Christmas carol We Three Kings, we hear the miraculous connection repeated in the refrain:
O star of wonder,
Star of night,
Star with royal beauty bright,
Westward leading, still proceeding,
Guide us to thy perfect light.
We live for light. For most of human existence, the sun was thought to revolve around the earth, giving us light and warmth. Indeed whole civilizations worshipped the sun as a god. For those without faith, light illuminates the darkness only. But Jesus, the “winged messenger of heaven,” raises the stakes. He is the light of the world sent to bring us to the perfect, unending light. A light shining in the darkness signaled his arrival on earth. His life persuades us that the light of day will never perish for those who trust in his message of love, peace, and charity.