Vatican astronomers, Br. Guy Consolmagno and Fr. Paul Mueller have penned this provocative question as the title of their new book. Would You Baptize an Extraterrestrial? deals with the most common questions they receive. Generally the questions assume a conflict between science and faith. Their first task is to reduce the assumption of conflict and to look at the information in an analytical and thoughtful way.
For example, they take on the star of Bethlehem and rule out many of the scientific explanations. It was most likely not a supernova as Kepler had proposed. It may have been a conjunction of planets as proposed by Molnar in his 1999 book, The Star of Bethlehem: The Legacy of the Magi. However, limiting the question to how it occurred and which laws of nature were violated can miss the point. According to Fr. Mueller, miracles don’t always mean a suspension of the laws of nature. The point of the star of Bethlehem is that God gave a great sign. According to Fr. Mueller, miracles, whether they accord with the laws of science or not, are some great sign of the coming of the Kingdom of God.
Br. Consolmagno defines science as an ongoing conversation about facts. It is not a book of rules. Likewise religion is conversation we have within our church, among ourselves, and with God. He concludes, “One of the joys of science and philosophy is learning how to live and enjoy a mystery.”
Hieronymus Bosch - The Adoration of the Magi
The Feast of Epiphany is traditionally celebrated January 6 in the Western Church. Recently, we have begun to celebrate it as a community on the first Sunday of January after the Feast of Mary, Mother of God (January 1st).
Epiphany, from the Greek “to manifest” or “to show forth,” is a celebration of God’s presence bursting forth and becoming visible in human lives. For Western Christians, the focus has been on the visit of the Magi, the wise ones, who followed a star from the East to find the newborn king. In this story, we see God’s presence being revealed to non-Jews, to Gentiles. For Eastern Christians, the focus is on the Baptism of Jesus, when Jesus became identified as the Son of God. The feast is sometimes known as Theophany in the East. (In the Western Church, we too celebrate the feast of the Baptism of Jesus, but on the Sunday after we celebrate Epiphany.)
In many Christian countries, especially those bordering the Mediterranean and in former colonies of those countries, gifts are exchanged at the Feast of Epiphany. This is because the Magi brought gifts to the child Jesus – gold, incense (frankincense) and myrrh. The gifts named in Matthew’s gospel can be seen as symbolic of the roles Jesus would play in salvation history – as king, deity, and human victim/sacrifice – as a result of the incarnation. Songs such as “The First Nowell” and “We Three Kings” remind us of the story and tell it again to our children.
During this season of Epiphany, may our eyes be open to see God’s presence in the people around us – the children, the babies, the old ones, the ones on the street, the ones at our work or in our homes. God is forever peeking around corners, knocking on doors in our hearts, smiling out of flowers, singing through the voices of birds and trying in every way possible to shine forth into our lives. May we be gifted to see and to smile in return.