Matthew 2:1-12 (NRSV)
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, ‘Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.’ When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, ‘In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: “And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.” ’
Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, ‘Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.’ When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure-chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.
Now I know there is a "star" in our gospel reading, and it appears there is a small band of rebels who resist against an Empire by “going home by a another/different road”…
But, I’m not going to do a deep dive on Star Wars today, however I do want to go down the road of the vital topic of “faith and science.”
Allow me to share a little background info.
Around five years ago, a long time member of Holy Trinity and Professor Emeritus of Physics at Duke, Dr. Al Goshaw, heard an interview with Jesuit Brother and Astronomer Guy Consolmagno on the NPR podcast “On Being”. On the podcast Brother Guy talked about the main questions at the crossroads of faith and science (notice we use “and” not “or”) in his book Would you baptize an Extraterrestrial? …and other questions from the Astronomers’ in-box at the Vatican Observatory.
(I can not recommend this book enough!)
Al shared this interview and book with me and other members of our congregation who are scientists and we agreed that this would be a great book to study together at Holy Trinity.
This book then inspired us to go deeper into the topic of faith and science that eventually lead us to receive a grant from Fuller Seminary (STEAM "science and theology for emerging adult ministries") to explore and break down the stereotype and myth that one must pick one OR the other, that one must choose faith OR science.
We have discovered over and over again that there are plenty of scientists and people of faith (and people of faith who also happen to be scientists) who believe that it can be faith AND science working together to explore the mysteries of life and our existence in the cosmos.
So, we sought to build upon what others have done in creating a healthier conversation between the work of science and the work of faith. As well as bring to light the many resources out there that contribute to a healthy conversation between the two.
In preparing for this message, reflecting on Christmas and Epiphany, and rereading today’s gospel lesson from Matthew, I was drawn again to Chapter 4 in Would you Baptize and Extraterrestrial?, entitled “What was the Star of Bethlehem?”
Brother Guy shares that since they oversee the Vatican’s Observatory, and they look at stars and the cosmos all the time, this is one of the top email’s and questions they get on a daily basis. He and his colleague at the Vatican Observatory, Father Paul Mueller, share that this short story in the gospel of Matthew is a great icon revealing a healthy dialogue between faith and science because it has elements of both.
They lift up the important questions of…
Was it really a star?
Was it a miracle, or some natural phenomena? Or both at the same time?
And more importantly, why did the author of Matthew choose to place this story in his story about Jesus?
Brother Guy and Father Paul share that the top candidates for what the Bethlehem Star could be…
* A star that went Supernova.
A star that goes supernova is a star that gets super bright right before it explodes. These events can even be seen during the daytime. But these events are super rare, and stars tend to be orderly and predictable and evidence of their explosions can be traced 1000s of years after they take place. So, most astronomers, including Brother Guy and Father Paul rule this one out.
* Maybe it was a Comet.
Again, they share that Comets are very predictable and easy to find their evidence… so it was most likely not a comet.
* Perhaps it was an unusual configuration or alinement of planets that when stacked near each other in the night sky they look like a bright star.
This is a leading candidate. Kepler even noted that in 7 BC Jupiter and Saturn aligned with each other that made a pretty bright light in the sky that most people noticed. AND this happened just a few weeks ago in our own present day context!
* This is a picture of the "great convergence" of Jupiter and Saturn Dec. 21st, 2020
But the question still lingers…
Why were the Magi the only ones who noticed it in Matthew’s story about Jesus?
Brother Guy likes the theory that connects the Magi themselves with the “star”.
You see the Magi were not necessarily “we three kings from orient are” (there were three gifts, but it never says there were only three magi). These Magi were pagan astrologers who studied the stars so they could make predictions… horoscopes… for Kings and rulers. They were the ones looking at the stars and the configurations of the planets doing their best to make meaning from those alignments.
It was widely known that Caesar Augustus claimed that a certain planetary alignment with the sun predicted and confirmed his royalty.
So around the time of Jesus’ birth (give or take a few years, we really don’t know the exact time and date Jesus was born, the Church set the celebration around the Winter Solstice to make the theological point that Jesus is the light of the world)… around that time that was a particular configuration and alignment of planets; Venus, mercury, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn, that had a particular alignment with the sun at the same time of a new moon.
Interestingly this was very similar to Caesar Augustus’ claim, and an alignment that these wise men, or Magi, would have noticed.
The author of Matthew would most likely have known Augustus’ claim and perhaps wanted to say, “well guess what, we Jesus followers can make that claim too!”
So, is this short 12 verse story, only found in the gospel of Matthew, a scientifically provable story – OR – a theological point Matthew wanted to make for his audience and readers? …yes
Does it have to be “either, or”?
Maybe it was a configuration of planets, or some object in space that shined a great light just at the right time.
But whether the “star” can be scientifically proven or not, there is the radical move Matthew makes by hanging a star in the sky and bringing the Magi into the Jesus narrative... The first people in the gospel of Matthew who recognize Jesus for who he is were pagan foreigners who used astrology to find him.
Horoscopes and Astrology are frowned upon in the Hebrew scriptures and in Jewish culture because it is seen as breaking the first commandment, “you shall have no other gods.” The stars and planets do not control or direct our destiny, only God does.
And yet, in this “so strange it just might be true” story, Matthew sets up the premise that perhaps God revealed what the Divine was up through the tools the Magi worked with to share with his readers and community that Jesus is Lord and King, not just of Israel, but for all nations and all people.
People then and now, look to the stars for hope and signs of life and meaning.
God knows this.
A common ground faith and science can stand on is the human condition and ability to wonder and dream, to be in awe of the heavens asking questions and searching for meaning and purpose.
I'll make the bold claim that God uses this all the time to reach out to us to let us know that there is a bigger story we are a part of.
The season of Advent is a time when we wait and long for a savior.
At Christmas we celebrate the gift that God is with us, in the flesh and blood and breath of Jesus born of Mary in Bethlehem.
Epiphany is a time when God shines a spotlight on Jesus revealing to us what kind of Christ and King this Savior truly is.
2020 was a rough, challenging and scary year to say the least.
We all have been through a lot and here in the new year we are still in the midst of it.
We still wait and long for healing and wholeness.
We still wait and long for justice and peace.
We still wait and long for a Savior.
And yet, God continues to reveal to us the Savior of all nations and all people and how this Savior continues to break down borders and walls and bring wholeness into unnoticed spaces.
In the midst of a world that still longs for healing, good news, and peace, what is our purpose and posture moving forward?
Do we abandon all hope, vent on message boards, and attempt to keep God small and in some box we, or others, have constructed?
Or do we take the purpose and posture of the Magi…
Who look to the heavens, and with awe inspiring stars and orbiting planets, we come to understand that there is something larger, and a greater story of love, justice, and grace we are a part of.
Like the Magi, we too can go outside of our comfort zones and territory, and routines, and search for a Messiah, the Christ, who beacons us into unexpected places.
Like the Magi, we too can resist listening to the powers that be with their political self-serving agendas and who rather once encountering the Christ we set out on a journey and a different road than what they demand or expect.
Perhaps our posture can be that we love even harder, and like the Magi, we bear and give our gifts to a world that is hurting and longing for wholeness and peace.
In this new year, in this new liturgical season, what is God continuing to reveal to us?
Where is God showing up in the unlikely of places?
Where can we as Christ followers create better and healthier conversations in the areas we inhabit?
Where can we help change the narrative that people of faith are resistant or agnostic towards science?
Wow, can you tell how much I love this story?!?
And that verse, “and having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.”
A different road...
This a verse that I will be sitting with and reflecting on as we move forward in this new year wrestling with questions and challenges left over from last year.
May Christ be our ultimate epiphany of God’s love and grace for ALL, and may guide us down whatever road God calls us to travel and journey.