December 24, 2020
The magi – Patron saints of late-comers – J. Barry Vaughn – Christmas Eve, 2020
Recent events have me turning my eyes toward the heavens.
The first event was not heavenly but earthly. At the beginning of December, the Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico collapsed. From 1963 to 2016 it was the largest radio telescope in the world.
The other heavenly event is the current conjunction of the planets Jupiter and Saturn which can be seen in the southwestern sky about an hour after sunset.
Even though it’s more likely that Jesus was born in the spring than in December, some are calling the Jupiter-Saturn conjunction the “Christmas star.” However, the star is featured only in Matthew’s account of Jesus’ birth, not in Luke’s familiar story of the manger, the angels, and the shepherds.
Nevertheless, decades of Christmas pageants have made most of us conflate the two nativity stories. I have to admit that as a child I always wanted to be one of the magi. Their costumes were much more colorful and elaborate, and I could make a much more dramatic entrance carrying any of the precious gifts – gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
Ancient cultures all over the world studied the heavens. The Chinese and the Indians studied the stars more than a thousand years before the birth of Jesus. But more than likely, the magi in Matthew’s gospel were Babylonian. The magi were Zoroastrian priests who also studied the stars and other natural phenomena. The word “magi” also gives us our word “magic,” and shows us that in the ancient world science, religion, and magic overlapped and intertwined.
Without having telescopes, the magi in Matthew’s story of Jesus’ birth noticed a new star in the sky or at least some kind of unexpected heavenly phenomenon that indicated the birth of a new king, the king of the Jews.
But the magi did not only study the heavens; they also studied ancient texts, not only the texts of their own tradition but apparently the texts that we know as the Old Testament.
Scholars of the New Testament like to point out that the difference between the stories of Jesus’ birth in Luke and Matthew is that in Luke the first visitors to the Christ child are the shepherds, poor and simple peasants. However, in Matthew, the first visitors are the magi, sophisticated, intellectual, and, judging from their gifts, wealthy.
We are probably more like the magi than we are like the shepherds. We are affluent and educated, and yet, there is room for us at the manger.
British author Evelyn Waugh (who also wrote Brideshead Revisited) wrote a wonderful novel about Helena, the mother of Constantine, the first Christian emperor of Rome, and a pilgrimage that she made to the Holy Land in the fourth century.
While in Bethlehem, she has a profound realization:
“Silver bells announced the coming of the three vested, bearded monks, who like the kings of old now prostrated themselves before the altar…
“She forgot even her quest and was dead to everything except the swaddled child long ago and those three royal sages who had come from so far to adore him.
“‘This is my day,’ she thought, ‘and these are my kind.’
“’Like me… you were late in coming. The shepherds were here long before; even the cattle. They had joined the chorus of angels before you were on your way. For you the primordial discipline of the heavens was relaxed and a new defiant light blazed amid the disconcerted stars.
“’How laboriously you came, taking sights and calculating, where the shepherds had run barefoot! How odd you looked on the road, attended by what outlandish liveries, laden with such preposterous gifts!
“’You came at length to the final stage of your pilgrimage and the great star stood still above you….
“’Yet you came, and were not turned away. You too found room before the manger. Your gifts were not needed, but they were accepted and put carefully by, for they were brought with love. In that new order of charity that had just come to life, there was room for you, too. You were not lower in the eyes of the holy family than the ox or the ass.
“’You are my especial patrons,’ said Helena, ‘and patrons of all late-comers, of all who have a tedious journey to make to the truth, of all who are confused with knowledge and speculation, of all who through politeness make themselves partners in guilt, of all who stand in danger by reason of their talents.’
“’Dear cousins, pray for me,’ said Helena… ‘Pray for the great, lest they perish utterly….
“’For His sake who did not reject your curious gifts, pray always for all the learned, the oblique, the delicate. Let them not be quite forgotten at the throne of God when the simple come into their kingdom.’”
(Evelyn Waugh, Helena: A Novel, Little, Brown and Company (2012), pp. 199-201.)
I don’t know about you, but like Helena, I’m grateful for the magi, who (as she says) are “patrons of all late-comers, of all who have a tedious journey to make to the truth, of all who are confused with knowledge and speculation.”
I think that’s a good description of me a lot of the time. All too often I confuse myself with knowledge and speculation.
But I’d like to make another observation about the magi and the star they observed.
Like the magi, we, too, do not need a telescope to see the star. We do not need it because the star arises not in the heavens above but in our hearts. The star was something new and unexpected.
What new and unexpected star beckons to us? What new journey, new adventure, does God call us to pursue?
At the end of one of the most difficult and complicated and unpleasant years of my lifetime, I need a new star to arise. I need a new birth. And I believe and hope and pray that God has something new in store for us. I have to believe that the whole world is ready to turn the page and begin again.
Astronomers tell us that the conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn has not happened like this since the year 1226 and that it will not happen again until 2080 and then not again until after the year 2400. I have to believe that God is using the stars to tell us something just as He told the magi and that this is our opportunity to turn a new corner.
The Christmas story is God’s promise that the new can break into our lives at any moment: new life, new ideas, new love.
I see our country caught between the old and the new, struggling, like a butterfly, to break out of its shell and emerge as something bright and fresh. The old must always give way to the new, the elderly to the young, the past to the present and the present to the future, and that is always frightening. It’s understandable why there is so much resistance.
The angels’ message to the shepherds was a message of good news, a message about something new that had broken into the world: “I bring you good news of great joy…. Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace.”
The old cycle of war and hatred and violence was suddenly interrupted by the birth of a child.
Let us pray:
You come to us as one unknown, without a name, as of old by the lakeside you came to those who knew you not. You speak to us the same words, “Follow me.” And you set us to the tasks which you have to fulfill for our time. You command. And to those who obey you, whether we are wise or simple, you will reveal yourself in the toils, the conflicts, the sufferings which we shall pass through in your fellowship, and, as an ineffable mystery, we shall learn in our own experience Who you are. Amen.