The annual celebration of the birth of our Savior is over. With Epiphany (which actually was celebrated on Friday, January 6) the Christmas season officially ends, its Twelve Days having expired whether you received your eleven pipers piping or not. Many people don’t realize that Epiphany, like Christmas, is not merely a single day or event, but a season. We most commonly associate this season with the story we’ve read this morning: the story of wise men traveling from the East in search of “the one who was born King of the Jews.” Many legends have grown up around the story of these Wise men, the most obvious of which being that they were “three kings.” But while we still relish the opportunity to sing “We Three Kings,” there is nothing in our Bibles that explicitly says that these wise men were A) kings, or B) three in number. The number is derived from the list of gifts that we are told were offered: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. I’ve also heard it said that there was a fourth wise man, but because he took it upon himself to bring fruitcake, he was written out of the story!
The legend of these “three kings” has so captured the Church’s imagination that they’ve even been assigned names (Melchior, Caspar, and Balthazar) although all of these details differ depending on the source. What we do know is that Matthew is the only Gospel writer to include these mysterious magi in Jesus’ story, that they came from “where the sun rises,” that is, the East, and that they brought specific gifts to honor “one who was born King of the Jews” — the whereabouts of whom being unknown to them — because they had “seen his star at its rising”… whatever that means.
Scholars generally are agreed that these magi were astrologers — perhaps even religious priests (likely of the religion known as Zoroastrianism) — who used the movement of the heavenly bodies to prognosticate about world events. The right movement of the right bodies in juxtaposition with one another would have been enough to excite the imaginations of these magi, and sent them looking for what the heavens told them was the new King of the Jews. It is not necessary, therefore, that this “star” be… well… a star at all. Certainly, it is very difficult for modern minds to take seriously the idea that a star appeared in the sky to literally lead these magi directly to the place where Jesus was, when not a single historical figure has ever reported having seen this star — no ancient astrologers wrote about it, no ancient historians mentioned it. If it were such a big deal that magi were willing to “camel up” and travel an estimated four months to find out where it led, you’d think someone else would have mentioned the thing. Even Saint John Chrysostom, who lived in the fourth century and is one of the most celebrated early church fathers, wrote, “Thus, that this star was not of the common sort, or rather not a star at all, as it seems at least to me, but some invisible power transformed into this appearance, is in the first place evident from its very course. For there is not, there is not any star that moves by this way…[it was] some power highly endued with reason.”
We’ve heard modern astronomers try to explain what it might have been: a comet, a supernova, an unusual conjunction of planets. None of these questions satisfy us. But at some point, we also need to realize something else: that trying to figure out whether the appearance of such a star is feasible or explainable is beside the point. Let’s assume that the star wasn’t a star. Does it even matter? Would that ruin the story somehow? Would it make it “untrue?”
I don’t think it matters whether the star was really a star; what mattered to Matthew as he wrote his Gospel, and what matters to us today, is what that star represents.
In modern story criticism, the term “MacGuffin” [don’t click that, unless you’re okay with accomplishing nothing else today] describes “a motivating element in a story that is used to drive the plot. It serves no further purpose. It won’t pop up again later, it won’t explain the ending, it won’t do anything except possibly distract you while you try to figure out its significance.” Perhaps that’s really what Matthew was getting at by including the tale of the miraculous star in his Gospel. It appears as a motivating element: it gets the attention of Eastern astrologers, who feel compelled to chase down the boy King to which they believed it pointed. And while we’re busy trying to work out the science of how such a star would work (a proposition that even Saint John Chrysostom rejected as rather silly), we miss the point of the star’s role in the story. The star is a MacGuffin: it motivates the Magi. It drives the plot. It meets clerics from a strange and exotic religion right where they work, and inspires them to seek a savior they weren’t looking for, and didn’t know they needed.
Now that’s a story worth our consideration, isn’t it?
These days, we use the word “epiphany” to describe an “Aha!” moment. Maybe the Magi had an “Aha” moment when they finally reached Jesus’ home and encountered the boy for the first time. Certainly, they were awestruck by what they saw! But the word “epiphany” means “manifestation.” It’s a revelation of sorts. But the Church doesn’t merely celebrate this singular epiphany of the Magi; it celebrates an entire season of Epiphany, during which we see Jesus revealed not only to wise men from the East, but also to John the Baptist, to earnestly seeking disciples, to glad-hearted wedding guests, and even to a Samaritan woman. In each case, Jesus’ identity is revealed in such a way that evokes a response, that calls individuals forth into a new life.
In other words, it doesn’t matter if the star is really a star, because it’s what the star represents that matters. And what the star represents is that motivating moment, that realization, that calling of our hearts to “camel up” and go. To drop our nets and follow. To marvel at the one who turns our ritual bath into the wine of heavenly celebration. To discover the Savior we weren’t looking for and didn’t know we needed.
The Magi didn’t just have an epiphanal moment. They embarked upon an epiphanal journey. As commentator Michael Marsh notes,
Observing ‘the star at its rising’ was epiphanal. Their journey to Bethlehem was epiphanal. Seeing ‘the child with Mary his mother’ was epiphanal. Offering their gifts was epiphanal. Yes, there was a light, an illumination, a knowing that led them, a star that they followed, but it arose within them not in the sky. It was that deep kind of knowing that I have often described as happening when you know that you know but you don’t know how you know that you know. [You know?] … It’s the kind of knowing that has the power to move us and take us to a new place, to stir up within us an unquenchable longing, to open our lives to another, to let us give of ourselves, and to recognize and adore the beauty and grace of divine life in human life
… and indeed in all of life.
So I ask you: where and when did you first see his star at its rising? You’re probably only reading this because, at some point, you saw his star and were so intrigued, so awestruck, or even so desperate that you were compelled to camel up and go. The star of Bethlehem continues to rise to this day, pointing the way to the Savior that many aren’t looking for, and don’t know they need. That star — the star that drew the Magi across the desert sands, the star that continues to rise to this day — is a clear and blessed sign of God’s deep desire to draw us unto himself. It announces the coming of the very one who would make such an ingathering into communion with God possible. It points us toward the Kingdom he has established, and the table that he has set.
So heed the call. Drop your nets. Camel up.
Follow the star.