I remember hearing a sermon by a preacher (whose name I cannot recall) that was all about the evils of astrology. The speaker had become upset by the fact that people paid more attention to their daily horoscope in the newspaper than they did to the guidance that was available in the bible. I recall the punchline was something like... “Don't follow the Stars, follow the Son!” As I recall the preacher placed astrology... and numerous other ways of understanding life... that were not within the boundaries of their particular understanding of evangelical Christianity as being the “Work of the Devil.”
If I were still in contact with them it would be interesting to have a conversation with them about the story in Matthew 2:1-12 of the wise men, the “Magi,” following the star that led them to Bethlehem.
Over the centuries various theories have been developed as to who these characters, also known as“Kings,” may actually have been. Depending on which sources you take note of, their origin may have been in Persia, (associated with Zoroastrianism), in China (according to traditions in an ancient Syriac manuscript titled “Revelation of the Magi”) or maybe India (there are traditions that link the wise men's return with the disciple Thomas preaching in Central Asia.) And that's just mentioning a few.
One thing is clear. They did not receive their insights through the normal ways taught in the synagogues and temples of the Judaism of the day. They were culturally and religiously “Out of the box” when it came to characters you would expect to turn up to honor the birth of a Jewish messiah figure in an obscure town called Bethlehem.
We are told various things in the text. They are from the East. They are responding to a vision of a star that they had seen. They believe the star heralds the birth of a Jewish King who is worthy of worship. For most of their journey they are not guided by a star, the star re-appears as they get near to Bethlehem, an event that fills them with great joy. They bring three symbolic gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.
Not only do they return to their country “By another route” (Matthew 2:12) but their whole venture to recognize and welcome the Christ child was a whole different journey than that which was orthodox.
All of which is a roundabout way of saying that we should be careful not to condemn traditions we are unfamiliar with, or ways of understanding that are outside of our personal cultural or religious experience as being necessarily incorrect or even evil. Just because something is different and outside of our own limited vision, that does not make it invalid or wrong.
The congregation here at Mount Hebron Presbyterian holds an annual “Epiphany Star” service. Stars with attributes such as “sincerity” or “peace” or “empowering” are passed among the congregation and, rather like drawing names out of a hat, folk choose one, seemingly at random. What is fascinating is the conversation that follows... as people share how the “Star-Word” they received last year had somehow defined the kind of year they had experienced.
Maybe that's a little “Out-of-the box” for some folk. I'm sure the preacher I mentioned earlier would greatly disapprove. Personally, on the basis of many stories I encounter in the Bible, I hesitate to dictate the ways that God's Spirit can work and communicate God's purposes. There are many who travel through life “by another route.” Maybe, the most important thing for 2017, is simply to be sure we are on a journey of discovery and open to however God's Spirit may guide us.
For some music... an interesting juxtaposition of scenes of the wise men from “The Nativity” and the wonderful song by James Taylor “HomeBy Another Way.” Hope you don't find the subtitles (which relate to the movie rather than the song) distracting. For me they kind of added to the meditation rather than taking away. And a very happy and blessed New Year to all!
And of course, if you are in the area and want to experience “Epiphany Stars” for yourself, come and join us at 10:00 am :-)
Rev Adrian J. Pratt B.D.