Sunday, January 4, 2009

The Visit of the Magi

Early this past December, if you looked up at the night sky from any location in the northern hemisphere, you would have observed a rare occurrence: the conjunction of the planets Venus and Jupiter, the two brightest visible objects in the night sky except for the moon. The astronomers tell us that this conjunction of Venus and Jupiter occurs when these two celestial objects have the same right ascension on the sky’s dome. A conjunction of these planets won’t happen again until March 2012. During that conjunction, the two brilliant objects will appear 2 degrees apart. That’s about the width of your fingertip at arm’s length away.

It is possible, but extremely rare, to see two celestial objects appear to merge into a single point of light, a phenomenon called “occultation”. The last time these two planets met at the same spot on the visible celestial hemisphere was in the year 1818, when Venus passed in front of Jupiter. Conjunctions of two planets are fairly common; occultation is extremely rare. These two planets will not meet again in precisely the same positionon the sky’s dome for another 247 years, when Venus occults Jupiter in the year 2065.

Historians of astronomy tell us that a conjunction of Venus and Jupiter occurred in the 25th year of the reign of Caesar Augustus, when Quirinius was the governor of Syria. Wise men in the East observed this star at its rising. Magi (the singular is Magus) were members of the Persian priestly caste. They were foreigners, pagans, astrologers. Tradition calls them “kings”, probably because of the precious gifts they brought with them. So, of course, they first came to Jerusalem, to the palace of Herod, appointed “King of the Jews” by the Roman Senate in 40 BC. He was not in the mood to hear of a new king, especially one who was not a member of his own family. He was frightened to hear of a potential rival, and inquired of the chief priests and the scribes – the religious authorities of that time and place – who had studied the Scriptures, knew the prophecies, and were able to instruct the visitors from the East as to his whereabouts, in Bethlehem of Judea, a village not far from the capital. At the same time, of course, they also informed King Herod, whose plan was to eliminate any potential rival for the throne of Israel. Herod would fail to kill him, but later on, his son Herod Antipas, would succeed in having him executed by crucifixion, but that’s a later chapter in this story.

The Magi followed the star to Jerusalem, looking for a king, but did not find him at the palace, nor even in the capital city. Instead, they came to a cave used as a stable for draft animals, an ox and a donkey. There, they found a poor family, a man and his wife who had recently given birth to a boy child. From all appearances, these wise men had made a ridiculous miscalculation, yet, “falling to their knees, they did him homage.”

It is a strange Gospel to have three pagan astronomers whose religion is based entirely on astrology, observing and interpreting the motion of the stars and planets, following a single unknown star across the mountains and the deserts from Persia to Palestine - from Iran to Israel -- and eventually, to humble themselves before a newborn infant in a stable where his mother and father had spent the night because there was no room in an inn. These wise men from the East, once they have seen the newborn child, return to their homeland “by another way”, not only by a different geographical route, but because they have experienced an epiphany. Merriam-Webster defines the word as “an appearance or manifestation, especially of a divine being”. The magi left Persia wondering what the star meant; they followed its path westward from the Caucasus to the Judean Hills. They brought gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Gold is a gift presented to a king; frankincense and myrrh are aromatic resins used in religious rituals as a symbol of prayer rising to God. But frankincense and myrrh were the spices Magdalene, Johanna and Salome brought with them to the tomb, on the first day of the week, because there had been no time to embalm the body, as the Sabbath had begun at sundown two days before. Jesus, in his birth son of Mary, in eternity, True God of true God; in death, Redeemer and Savior.

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