Christ, Epiphany and Astrology
Homily for the Feast of the Epiphany. Is 60:1-6; Ps 71; Ep 3:2-3a.5-6; Mt 2:1-12
Today we celebrate the Solemnity of the Epiphany, the word ‘epiphany’ meaning a ‘showing’or ‘manifestation’. The particular 'epiphany' we are celebrating is the first showing of the incarnate Son of God to representatives of the gentiles, to non-Jewish people. These gentiles are described as Magi or ‘wise men’ from beyond the borders of ancient Israel. These men perhaps came from Persia, the area of the world now known as Iran. They may also have some connection with the teachings of a non-Jewish prophet, Balaam, who made the following prophecy recorded in the Old Testament, "A star shall come forth out of Jacob, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel" (Num 24:17). Whatever, their origins, however, the central lessons of the visit of the Magi are clear. First, the fact that the Magi are not Jewish indicates that Jesus is universal, given for all peoples. Second, the gifts of the Magi indicate various elements of Jesus' ministry: gold is a symbol of kingship; frankinscence a symbol of prophecy and myrrh, associated with sacrifice, is a symbol of priesthood. In Old Testament, priests, prophets and kings were all anointed. So these gifts indicate that Jesus is 'the anointed one', in other words, that Jesus is 'the Christ'. Finally, when they see the child with his mother Mary, they fall to their knees and 'do him homage'. In fact, the translation is weak here, since the Greek word rendered here as 'homage' is usually translated as 'worship'. For example, the woman of Samaria uses the same Greek work in John 4:20, "Our fathers worshiped on this mountain; and you say that in Jerusalem is the place where men ought to worship." One can do homage to great man, but one should only worship God himself (cf. Luke 4:8). The fact, therefore, that the wise men actually worship Jesus is an indication that he is more than simply some future great man: he is God himself made man to save us. So the visit of these wise men teaches us a great deal: that Jesus is for all peoples, that he is the Christ - a priest, prophet and king - and that he is God himself made man, properly worshipped with the worship due to God.
There are, however, some other lessons from the Epiphany that are less clear. The first potential point of confusion is with regard to 'the star' and that fact that by seeing a sign in the stars, the wise men might, at first, appear to be practising a sort of astrology. Now astrology is a kind of 'divination', a foretelling of the future by means of the stars and the many horoscopes published in newspapers and magazines are a popular modern example of divination. Now only God sees past, present and future as a seamless whole, so what makes divination evil is the attempt, by some technique, to acquire a God-like power of seeing the future in the absence of any kind of personal union with God. In other words, divination represents an attempt to seize God-like power without God-like love. Paradoxically, although purporting to give power, divinisation actually gives rise to a kind of fatalism and spiritual enslavement. As the prophet Jeremiah warns, "Learn not the way of the nations, nor be dismayed at the signs of the heavens because the nations are dismayed at them, for the customs of the peoples are false" (Jer 10:2-3). In other words, the pagan nations that had sought signs in the stars, ended up being dismayed or frightened of them. Lest such a condition seem fanciful, you may wish to consider that surprisingly many people today are habitually dependent on astrological predications or of transgressing superstitious injunctions. The practice of divination of all kinds was forbidden in Judaism and is forbidden, today, in Christianity. So is the account of the wise men following the star of Bethlehem a kind of counter-example, an instance of a good practice of astrology? Well the answer is 'no' for two reasons. First, Matt 2:9 describes the star as 'going forward' and 'coming to rest' over the place where the child was. What it means for a star to 'go forward' and 'rest' over a particular place remains somewhat unclear. Nevertheless, the spiritual implication is clear, namely that it is not the child that is moved by the star, but the star that is moved by the child. In other words, the mode of causation is diametrically opposed to that of astrology, and shows, indeed, how the birth of Christ breaks the sense of any kind of fatalistic spiritual enslavement to the movement of stars. Second, the wise men are not seeking God-like power separated from personal union with God, as astrologers do; on the contrary, they are seeking the face of God and so are filled with joy when they see they child with his mother Mary, falling to their knees to worship him. So far from endorsing astrology, the account of wise men represents a dramatic breaking of the power of astrology, divination and all kinds of superstition.
Finally, the Epiphany also gives us an implicit warning of what happens to those who do not follow the various signs that lead to Christ. While Herod and the cosmic powers are disturbed by the birth of Christ, many people are oblivious to what has come into the world. While a few shepherds and wise men and, later, Simeon and Anna recognise him in the Temple, most people simply carry on going about their daily business. Similarly today, every day in our churches across the world, the scriptual word of God is read out and the Body and Blood of the incarnate Christ are made present on the altar of sacrifice. Yet most people are oblivious and simply carry on going about their daily business. Yet to be without Christ is not to be a free and independent agent. On the contrary, the state of a life without Christ is to risk being mastered by whatever is more powerful than ourselves, whether earthly powers, such as Herod, or cosmic powers, such as spiritual enslavement to the stars, or simply the power of one's own disordered passions, as Herod himself later fell into a furious rage and killed the first born male children in the vicinity of Bethlehem. Indeed, modern history teaches the same lesson. The age of the tyrants, the age of the re-birth of astrology and the surrender to disordered passions, such as in the horrors of concentration camps, are not so much features of medieval Christian Europe but of a modern Europe largely without Christ, to a large extent the dark consequences of ideas that were planted in the fifteenth century. The warning is that if we do not seek to follow Christ, as the wise men did, we risk following, whether we wish to or not, whatever else is around in the world that is more powerful than we are.
So let us, like the wise men, seek the face of God as the first goal in our lives. Just as they were filled with joy when they saw the child with his mother Mary, may the prayers of Mary also assist us, one day, to see the face of God in heaven forever.
© Fr Andrew Pinsent. Academic Web Site.