Friday, May 29, 2009

1-6-2008: The Epiphany (A)

Isaiah 60:1-6/Psalm 72/Ephesians 3:2-3,5-6/Matthew 2:1-12
Enigmatic Magi, emblematic of a time before the birth of modern science, before astrology became astronomy, traversing desert dunes, bearing expensive and exotic gifts for someone whom a star revealed; AND, the Hubble spacecraft, seemingly adrift in weightless space, taking those spectacular never-before-seen photos of distant galaxies – an uncanny equivalence: star seekers all, humbled Magi and magnificent Hubble, reading the past through the encoded light of the stars. But practitioners of both astronomy and astrology, whether they be MIT grads or diviners of horoscopes, seek ultimately the same end: by observing the revelations of the starry cosmos out-there and back-when, they seek to unravel the mysteries of the universe within.
Astrology didn’t get a really bad name in Christian circles until the seventeenth century when the Italian abbot, Orazio Morandi, prophesied by the stars that the reigning pontiff, Urban VIII, would soon die. News of the pope’s imminent demise spread quickly, even to Spain, where cardinals readied for the journey to Rome eager to elect a pontiff more amenable to their particular needs. Needless to say, Urban didn’t take the news well and immediately imprisoned Morandi (who soon died of mysterious causes). Morandi’s demise was no doubt largely due to political realities, but his astrology was condemned as well, having posed a conflict for those who take the Bible literally.

The scientific method -- the attempt to use reason and experiment to understand the truths inherent in nature – is a noble pursuit. It would turn astrology into astronomy and reveal truths never before known. But at that crucial juncture in human culture, scripture remained pitted against a nascent science, and reason warred against faith. More recent efforts, especially by the present pope, have served to bridge the chasm that medieval Christianity had imposed between reason and faith. Unfortunately, today’s evangelical Christianity seeks to re-impose that old rift and harness science, once again, with a biblical fundamentalism.

Those who take the Bible literally must have a hard time with the mysterious Magi whose feast we celebrate today. On the one hand literalists dare not question the Magi’s historicity, figuring so prominently as it does in the infancy narrative of the gospel. On the other hand it is clear that the Magi, while wholly ignorant of the promises made in the Bible, nevertheless accepted the infant Jesus as a manifestation of divinity. The Magi knelt in adoration because they had read the stars – not the Bible.
Epiphanies are called manifestations when you encounter an objective truth; they’re called insights when you realize a subjective one. The Magi prostrated themselves and did the Christ-child homage. Homage connotes home-coming and is rooted in the word for man or human nature. To pay homage to the Christ-child then is to acknowledge that our humanness is intimately entwined with divinity, like the inside of a glove, well-fitted but unseen. Humanity is but divinity turned inside-out.
The greatest pilgrimage we can make, St. Teresa of Avila would say, is the one within. Christ was born in Bethlehem two millennia ago, but born again in our hearts this Little Christmas. The wisdom of the Magi stretches across time, not unlike the light of the stars, and teaches us still that God comes to us in the most obvious, and thus, most unexpected ways.

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