The Feast of the Epiphany – The Three Kings
Epiphany – literally the shining forth – was traditionally celebrated on January 6 but is now observed on the second Sunday after Christmas. St. Matthew’s Gospel (2:1-12) is the only one to recount the story. This feast is of singular importance because it is the first manifestation of Christ to non-Jews. It is also remarkable in that the importance of Jesus is reflected in the stars and attracts the attention of Zoroastrian priest-astrologers in Persia who come to pay homage to the newborn king.
St. Matthew’s account does not tell us the number of Magi -literally magoi or “Great Ones” – and certainly they were not kings. For those familiar with current contemporary science fantasy books, the term in Greek for the visitors is Mages – magicians or sorcerers. The term is generally translated as Wise Men, softening the sense of black or destructive magic. The three gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh were seen as offerings for a god, according to St. John Chrysostom in the second century. Some scholars characterize this story as a non-historical account which has symbolic importance for the very special divine status of the Christ child.
Was there a star? Well yes and no. According to Ball State University astronomer, Ron Kaitchuck, contemporary astronomical research – which has its origins in this same priestly Zoroastrian caste – indicates that there were unusual conjunctions of key planets in significant constellations. The story is somewhat complicated because we are not sure of the actual month or year of the birth of Christ. (When the Christian calendar was being established, an error in arithmetic changed the count by 3 years. Christ was actually born in 3 B.C. – we think.) Astrophysicist Grant Matthews, at Notre Dame University, has found supernovae which he suggests as potential candidates.
Creationists who are also well credentialed scientists have come up with some interesting scenarios to explain the Christmas “Aster”. The Greek term we translate as star can be just about any light in the heavens. (You want to watch out for bad “asters” or “dys-asters”.)
Lambert Dolphin, an accomplished physicist, has published an updated account of the Christmas Star by Barry Setterfield, an Austrailian astronomer who has tried to reconcile literal biblical accounts of the young age of the earth with a novel approach to scientific dating that assumes the duration of atomic processes does vary over time. Needless to say, Setterfield’s ideas are not considered to be in the scientific mainstream. However, his account of the ancient night sky and the dating of Christ’s birth follow a rigorous logic. His approach is also shared by another noted astronomer, Craig Chester of the Monterey Institute for Research in Astronomy.
While Setterfield and Craig issue the traditional warning against the practice of astrology and the occult, it is hard to see anything else in their analysis of the ancient star patterns other than ancient astrology. It is a curious contradiction that we are supposed to watch for signs and portents in the heavens and assign some religious predictive meaning to them by interpreting the scriptures but we are to avoid astrology. Clearly, the admonitions are meant to avoid pre-Christian and other earth based religions that attempt to manipulate the transnatural or “buy off” disasters with various types of animal sacrifice.
When the ancient night sky can be traced to certain historical events, such as the Roman census and the rise and fall of various rulers, it has a certain grounding. If we look at Setterfield’s and Chester’s analysis of sky charts to reveal the creation of the world or the coming of the apocalypse, there is really nothing to ground these speculations except for a string of assumptions that don’t seem to be supported by outside verifiable evidence.
Whether we believe it happened or see it only as a shining metaphor of the favor of Heaven, the Star and the Magi are portents of the coming of all people to faith.