The Epiphany star: still shining after all these years

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Joseph Evans sees the star which, tradition has it, guided the Wise Men to Jesus as an ancient form of the internet. And he argues that, two millennia on, the tale continues to be relevant for believers and unbelievers alike.

Every year, on January 6, Christians throughout the world celebrate the Epiphany. Many people have heard the name but don’t really know what it means. Yet the feast continues to have an enduring significance for all, including those who don’t share Christian beliefs, because it speaks to us of conscience and how we recognise and follow goodness and truth.

The word Epiphany comes from an ancient Greek word meaning manifestation. The feast celebrates that moment when, as recorded in the Christian Bible, and in particular in the Gospel of Matthew, those mysterious men from the East came to Bethlehem having followed a star from their homeland. The relevant passage reads: “Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, saying, ‘Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the East, and have come to worship him.’”

Bethlehem is just outside Jerusalem, the capital then, as now, of Israel. We’re talking about 2000 years ago. Jesus had just been born of Mary, that Jesus whom Christians like me believe to be God made man, conceived and born in a virgin birth.

But who were these Wise Men and why did they come, journeying from a mysterious and unspecified ‘East’? More on that in a moment, but first a word about the feast itself, which is celebrated usually each year on this day. I say usually because it can vary in some traditions. The Catholic Church, for example, gives permission for its celebration on the nearest Sunday instead, allowing the bishops of each country to make their own common decision. So some readers might already have celebrated the feast last Sunday.

For Eastern Christians, particularly those belonging to the various Orthodox churches, the Epiphany is in many ways more important than Christmas because it celebrates precisely Christ’s manifestation to the gentile or non-Jewish world. Up to this point, according to the Bible, the only witnesses of the birth had been Mary (obviously), Joseph – her husband and Jesus’ foster-father – and a few shepherds, all of them Jews.

As great as Jesus’s birth was, it was a very Hebrew event. It only began to interest the non-Jewish world when these exotic nobles arrived. Hence the importance of the Epiphany.

In places like Spain and countries influenced by it, the Epiphany certainly interests children more than Christmas does because that’s when they get their presents.

Every town or village will have its own “cabalgata de los reyes”, with three men on horseback in king-like garments riding through the streets throwing sweets to the children. And the proper presents follow back at home.

Here the Wise Men (considered to be three, though the Bible doesn’t give their number) are depicted as kings. It would seem from the costliness of the gifts they brought to Jesus – gold, frankincense and myrrh – that they were at least wealthy nobles. So the logic is, if these kings brought gifts to Jesus, we should give gifts to each other on this day. At least it makes more sense than a fat bearded man in red from an imaginary Lapland bringing gifts on a reindeer on December 25. (In fact, the real Father Christmas is Santa Claus, St Nicholas, but that’s another story.)

Interestingly, the custom of the procession of the kings seems to be gaining not losing traction, at least in some Catholic countries. In Poland, for example, it seems to have rocketed in recent years, with fair-skinned Slavonic looking kings more than tanned Hispanic ones riding past cheered on by delighted toddlers.

But back to the Wise Men. They followed a star. But why? Because they saw it in the East. So what? Well, it was no doubt bigger and more splendid than any other star they had ever seen. OK, but why did that make them head for Israel? Now that’s a question.

The most likely explanation is that they had heard of the Jewish prophecies which foretold the coming of a Saviour King, offering salvation (whatever that might mean in practice) to all nations. As small and unimportant as Israel was at the time – a mere subject state of the mighty Roman empire – its religion had prestige, if only because it was the only monotheistic creed existing then, with very high moral standards which frightened many but attracted some.

People searching for a more demanding and purer form of religion than the prevailing polytheism of the time found their way to Israel, often literally, hence the New Testament shows both an African Ethiopian and a Roman centurion equally attracted by the faith of the Jews.

And together with the prophetic utterances, the dazzling star would have been interpreted as a sign in an age when star-gazing was as much astrology as astronomy. One did not simply observe the stars, one learnt from them. And so the Wise Men set off.

Does this show Christianity embracing superstition? No, it simply shows it respecting people’s search for God, however that search might initiate.

What matters here is that the Wise Men were genuinely searching. They were looking up to the sky, to higher truths, not simply down to the earth.

I like to think of the star as an ancient form of the internet. Even today we use sky images to describe our data-driven age. We search for things on the ‘ether’. We store documents in the ‘cloud’. The Wise Men’s star gazing was an ancient form of internet search.

Perhaps like them, many others looked at the stars, but they looked out of idle curiosity or to confirm their prejudices and to live in their echo chambers. They weren’t searching for truth among the stars. They were simply wasting time or using what they saw (or thought they saw) to support their own ideas, as so many people do today when they go online.

But just as today there are also people who use the internet to search for real answers to serious questions, I imagine that is why the Wise Men spent days scrutinising the heavens. As proof of this, their sky-searching led to a real physical search, abandoning the comfort of their Eastern palaces to embark on a hard and hazardous journey across the desert to Israel. 

As real as I believe the star to have been, it also represents conscience and the search for truth. The Wise Men had been searching for life’s meaning. This had led them to the Jewish scriptures. The star now took over.

The question – for them then and for us now – is really how much we want to be challenged by the truth, and how much we want to seek it. Many people claim to follow their conscience but in fact they don’t. They follow their comfort, keeping their conscience firmly silenced or at least circumscribed. They have it nicely locked in the depth of their souls and do their best to gag it whenever it tries to shout.

It is perhaps ironic that whereas in the past people worshipped the stars, we also call our modern celebrities stars – in the fields of entertainment, sport, fashion or social media – who are worshipped in new if equally foolish ways. It would seem little has changed.

The search for truth will certainly involve facing real words or texts, as the Wise Men faced Israel’s prophecies. But it also involves a less clear sign, the star, shining bright for all to see, beckoning, calling one to get moving, and yet rarely absolutely explicit in its demands. This is conscience. Like the star it is both clear – how can we not see, or hear, our conscience? – and unclear: but what exactly is it saying? Now, there’s the rub.

But the fact is the star demanded movement: it was a nudge, a hint and more than a hint, to get going.

John Henry Newman, the great English Victorian who wrote so powerfully about conscience because he followed it so keenly himself, argued that conscience always has something imperative about it.

Conscience is a call, a demand, a summons. And it always points beyond itself. It suggests the way, but calls on you to seek further, more explicit clarification.

Newman found this himself in the teachings of the Catholic Church.

As many as were the myths and fables around them, as many other stars as there were in their eastern sky, the Wise Men still found their way through that oriental jungle of competing cults, with its dense undergrowth and screeching cacophony of superstition and false deities. They saw the star which shone the brightest, with the purest light, a star which also journeyed with them: it wasn’t simply the fashion of a time and place.

The biblical text suggests that the star which they saw in the East temporarily disappeared but became apparent again after they had reached Israel. Conscience is like that. It sets us in motion but can seem to play nasty tricks on us, leaving us alone to grapple with a moral dilemma or just persevere along the chosen path without absolute certainty of where this is leading us. And yet its reappearance filled them with joy and took them to the child.

Following the star of conscience is a question of honesty, determination, focus, and the willingness to sacrifice oneself. Many would have laughed at the Wise Men as they set out, and they were nearly badly tricked by king Herod, who tried to use them to lead him to the child so that he could kill him. With a bit of angelic help, they were able to turn the tables on the king and trick him in their turn. Yet more proof that if we are ready to do the right thing, there will always be both those who seek to abuse us and those ready to guide us along the right way. But this way can be found and followed.

I have already mentioned how they brought treasures to the baby Jesus, expensive, generous treasures which they preserved all the way, without spending or losing them. This too is part of our search and part of our sacrifice – seeking the truth always means a partial loss – but they would have considered themselves amply rewarded for finding the God child. The Saviour they heard about in their faraway land now lay before them in flesh and blood.

A final word about the significance of this feast, a small detail perhaps but not one to be missed. 

The biblical text tells us that when the Wise Men entered the house “they saw the child with Mary his mother”. They then “fell down and worshipped him”, offering their gifts.

Here these great, rich and powerful men worshipped before a poor child and his mother and offered them their treasures. Leaving aside the question of the child’s divinity, which many accept and others don’t, this passage at the very least helps reveal what true wealth is. The wealthy bowed down before a mother and child, as if to say they knew these are humanity’s true treasures. Whether one believes or not, this poignant scene, represented in so many artistic forms, can help us grasp the greatness of children – our society’s hope and future – and of the mothers who bear and nurture them.

While I wouldn’t encourage you to go out and kneel before a mum and her baby, as you might scare them, I would certainly understand it if you did. At the very least offer them your seat on a bus. Then you too would start to be a wise man – or woman.

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One Reply to “The Epiphany star: still shining after all these years”

  1. Joel says:

    I’ve often pondered at this question: what and how did the Wise Men see in the star that made them decide to go. Thanks for elaborating Fr. Joe.

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