The following is Chapter 2 from the Epiphany collection in my Pilgrim Year collection of devotional, multi-media e-books on the spirituality of the Christian calendar year.  The complete collection—Advent, Christmastide, Epiphany, Lent, Holy Week, Eastertide and Ordinarytime— is available to read online, or through the dedicated app for $19.99, and can be found at www.pilgrimyear.com

Epiphany devices

Pagan Princes Discover Jesus through Astrology!

This would be quite a startling headline to find in the Bible, and would have horrified my Sunday school teachers to see it put that way. But you have to admit, according to Matthew’s gospel, that’s kind of how the story unfolds.

When we first meet the magi in Matthew 2:1, they have arrived in Jerusalem after a long journey, and are inquiring after “the one who has been born king of the Jews…We saw His star in the east and have come to worship Him.”

The pre-scientific world was an enchanted world where the morning stars sang ( Job 38:7), and heavenly luminaries spoke a knowledge that echoed across the cosmos (Psalm 19). The early Christian witness adopted and extended these ancient assumptions as valid signposts pointing to divine mysteries accessible to the imagination through the contemplation of nature. The apostle Paul proclaimed that:

…from the world’s creation the invisible things of [God] are perceived, being apprehended by the mind through the things that are made, both His eternal power and divinity. Romans 1:20

And Jesus Himself commended nature as a doorway or icon of deeper truths: “Consider the lilies!” ( Matthew 6:28). St. Augustine taught that we ought to approach the quest for knowledge by holding together the two sacred forms of revelation that God gave to humanity: the book of Scripture and the book of nature—both deriving from the same divine pen.

Mahala Mazerov, Illumination, 2009

“There’s more wisdom in an iris bud, than all our centuries of words”  – Sarah Slean (from the song, Cosmic Ballet)

The ancient world assumed that nature’s voice was pregnant with meaning —whether it be her “groanings in travail,” or the celestial music of the spheres—and that wisdom was the reward of those who reverently listened. Hence, the Persian astrologers of our story are commonly remembered as “the wise men.”

The forgotten origins of our own words give witness to these same assumptions. For example, the word “consider” comes from the Latin word con, meaning “with,” and sidur, meaning “star.” Think with the stars! Another example is the word “disaster”—dis, meaning “negate,” and astor meaning “star,” suggesting that calamity befalls those who do not heed celestial wisdom.

Georgia O’Keefe, Evening Star, 1917

 

Indigenous cultures profoundly understand and practice these presuppositions, as did Judeo-Christian culture up until the so-called “Enlightenment.” When disenchantment became the new smug-chic of the cultural elites, God and mystery were unceremoniously “shown the door.” Human beings were left with a meaningless universe composed of random particles arranged according to our whit and whim. Of course, this sustained “enlightenment” is proving to be disastrous in the true sense of the word.

Lest the reader thinks I’m advocating a return to pagan practices, nature worship or pre-scientific superstition, please note that I’m reflecting on a biblical story where, as a result of attending reverently and expectantly to God’s creation, the so-called “unenlightened” magi found themselves worshiping the Creator—Christ Himself—the “light which makes the light which makes the day” (Sir John Davies); indeed, wisdom incarnate.

A few years ago, I went on a silent retreat at a friend’s cabin which was situated on the edge of an untamed, tall-grass prairie and flanked by a scrub-oak forest. On one particularly lovely day, I set up a chair in the middle of the tall grasses. As I sat and felt the alternating heat-cool of the sun and breeze on my skin, I began to notice wild orchids in the grasses, and beneath them thousands of tiny periwinkle flowers covering the ground. Armies of orderly ants marched here and there carrying the spoils of their labour. A chipmunk scolded me from a woodpile and a garter snake passed inches from my bare feet in pursuit of, I assume, the frog that had jumped over my foot only moments before. I looked up to see a hummingbird arrow toward the lilacs growing beside the cabin. I began to notice and take delight in the birdsong of the wheeling sparrows and the sound of the leaf-choir from the nearby forest, harnessing the breeze in shivering chorus.

I became so enraptured that I couldn’t move. I sat as still as I could, feeling as though roots were growing out of me and penetrating deep into the soil, uniting me to an elemental elation I’d not consciously known but was somehow now re-membering (perhaps the opposite of remember is not forget, but rather, dis-member).

I sat until the sun went down and the receding light revealed the deep space behind the day with millions of stars, those ancient, silent witnesses that tingle the senses into heightened attunement. And in the vast, profound silence, I heard their voice…

Be but your own good friend
And be good to the other
Cherish those sisters and brothers
Along the road
And to the earth extend
Every reverence and wonder
Tend to the wounds of your blunders
And honour God who formed our home.

Wise words to consider indeed; words which led me to a surprising experience of Christ—in humbled adoration and tearful gratitude—such as I had never experienced before.

song: Good Friend


GOOD FRIEND
music and lyrics by Steve Bell
(lyrics adapted in part from Richard Wilbur’s poem Mayflies)

On sombre night
When shivering clouds bemoan
The aching of souls alone

Then stars appear
One arc of their dance shows clear
And glittering song, intones:

Be but your own good friend
And be good to the other
Cherish those sisters and brothers
Along the road
And to the earth extend
Every reverence and wonder
Tend to the wounds of your blunders
and honour God who formed our home

When sun is low
Bright bands in forest glow
Fair fiats of Love. Behold!

See shimmering flies
In their quadrillions rise
Weaving a cloth of gold

Certainly this story of the wise men from the east can be told from many angles and lead to various insights (epiphanies). For example, it surely would have ruffled the religious sensibilities of the tidy chosen Jewish establishment when they learned how pagan outsiders were invited to a divine birthday party alongside unwashed, ruffian shepherds, while they remained unaware and left out of the festivities. Perhaps God doesn’t regard social status and tribal divisions as we do. It is also worth considering the swift and brutal push-back from Herod, the puppet king who recognized in Jesus a threat to his dominion. The magi’s reverent pilgrimage to pay homage to Jesus set off Herod’s disastrous raging. Earthly powers are shown to be meanly infantile in the light of this child.

Jesus Mafa, The Three Wise Men, 1973


Given the current crisis we now face as a result of the earth’s despoliation
—the same earth which St. Augustine taught is God’s first book of revelation—it may be prudent to take this festival as an opportunity to reconsider our relationship to God’s “very good” creation (Genesis 1:31), the “ton kosmon” (whole cosmos) which God so loves (John 3:16). Perhaps, like the Bible, creation should be cherished and attended to as divine messenger, not merely as inert dirt for us to manipulate. If we have truly lost the virtues and skills to perceive the earth’s voice, we could humbly come alongside those  “irrational” outsiders—poets and indigenous peoples—whose attendant customs and tacit knowledge can return to us a precious gift of God. In so doing, we will find Christ afresh, and may find ourselves profoundly surprised and unsettled enough to lay down our gifts in wonder and adoration.

I’ll close this chapter with another song, one I wrote with my friend Jamie Howison as we tried to imaginatively retell this story from the perspective of one of the magi many years after the event.

song: Old Sage


OLD SAGE
music by Steve Bell
lyrics by Steve Bell and Jamie Howison

I remember how it started still
Those are days that I remember well
It was something in the stars that was new enough to tell
There was something going down

So we set off for a foreign land
With no idea what we just might find
’cause when you’re following a star
You have to walk at night
Sounds crazy even now

And still the search goes on for
My way back home
I can’t go back the way I’ve known

And now the road for me has changed
Nothing seems to look the same
Don’t get me wrong I’m not complaining
And every star along the way
Holds a promise for the day
When I will be at home again

Some tell me I’m a wise man;
A kind of sage. You know it makes me laugh
I don’t know what I’m not, barely know what I am
If you know what I mean

But everybody can remember when
They had to stop and start all over again
It was something ’bout that boy in Bethlehem
I will never be the same

And still the search goes on…

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