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We have seen a star at its rising

Epiphany scene, Christ Church Cathedral, Ottawa
Photography: 
Archdeacon Chris Dunn

The Feast of Epiphany on Jan. 6 represents the continuation of the Christmas feast as we celebrate the arrival of the Magi to visit the babe of Bethlehem. Epiphany, also called “Little Christmas,” is frequently lost to corporate observance because it often falls in a mid-week when it is much harder to gather as a community. As well, in modern consciousness Christmas, at least for the world around us, (but not for our liturgical year), ends on December 26th with the Boxing Day sales.  (Actually Dec. 26 for us as Christians is not Boxing Day at all, but historically the feast of St Stephen and is an important and grounding time of remembrance of the cost of discipleship, in the midst of the Christmas feast. But that is another article for another time.)  In the ancient practice of the Western Church, Christmas was celebrated with 12 full days of scriptures, music, prayer and commemoration and the feast of Epiphany itself was not so much an end as a transition in the Christmas celebration into the Epiphany season. In the Epiphany season, we explore the meaning of the Birth of the Christ as that message goes from the Baptism of Christ to the choosing of the Disciples and out into the world from there.

The biblical story which gives us the feast of Epiphany is found in the second chapter of Matthew’s gospel. It tells of Magi, or Wise Ones, from the east who come searching for the Christ child and end up in Jerusalem saying, “We have seen his star at its rising.” Herod, ever jealous, pretends to be helpful, all the while planning harm for this newborn “king.”  The magi, after consulting with Herod’s scholars leave to find the child, but warned in a dream not to return by the same route, leave by another road. This leaves Herod none the wiser as to where they found the child, and leads him, in the story, to hold a pogrom to kill all the boy children two years old or under.

While modern biblical scholarship will tell you that the story was likely Matthew’s way of identifying the birth of Jesus with the birth of Moses, and is a kind of Midrash on the Moses story as seen through the eyes of the fledgling Christian faith, there are wonderful teachings in this passage which are worth a look and a commemoration.

First of all, it appears that the visit of the Magi is Matthew signalling to us that the birth of Jesus was a universal event. Matthew writes, likely for a Jewish or Jewish Christian audience, the Magi are not Jews. They are, as represented in the text, more likely envisioned to be Zoroastrians from Persia or some similar land. This means that they represent God’s proclamation and revelation to peoples of other faiths.

 Having been our interfaith officer for some years, I have always felt that this story reminds us to be deeply respectful of other religious traditions.  The story of the Magi tells us about God revealing the Christ to people from another faith and culture. Having the humility to see that God is able to work among peoples of many lands and nations, goes a long way to overcoming religious bigotry and bias.

Second, the phrase “we have seen his star at its rising” is interesting. 

 Each year there seems to be some article trying to show or prove what star was seen by the Magi. Was it Halley’s Comet or some conjunction of stars that stood out? But the phrasing is interesting.  It is not about a star that moves and leads. Rather it seems that it is about a star that is simply noticed “at its rising.” I suspect that the pageant idea of a star moving across the sky is what we would call a pious custom, or love song sung by believers. However the language that “we have seen his star at its rising” does speak to a special birth.

 I bumped into a wonderful insight about this in a book called The Syrian Christ.  The author Abraham Rihbany comments, from his youth in the Middle East, that it was (and at least until recently) believed that every child has a star at their birth.  For the Magi to say that they have seen “his” star at its rising is not to say that there was some strange star that suddenly appeared, but that in reading the stars they noticed this child’s star.  I have always felt that the subtext to this story is: What will we make of our star? How will we make our star, seen at our birth, echo that of the Christ’s? 

Third, the jealousy of Herod led him to turn on the children of his time with the killing of the “Holy Innocents” commemorated, by tradition, on Dec. 28. This biblical reference, falling within the 12 days of Christmas, reminds us that the birth of Jesus is also about the innocent victims created by the jealousy of rich, famous, and powerful people. We continue to see that reality in situations like the war in Ukraine, where it is the innocent who suffer most grievously, and in places of famine around the world, where children are the most obvious victims.

Finally, there are some wonderful house blessing traditions attached to the Feast of Epiphany.  

One I like is where chalk is blessed and sent home with parishioners at the worship nearest to Epiphany. The faithful are invited to take the blessed chalk and mark the date on or near their entry doors with three crosses interspersed with the date. So for this New Year it would be 2+0+2+3. 

Another Epiphany tradition is to take, on the day itself, an alternative route home from work, shopping or church to remember how the Magi, listening to the voice of God in their dreams, took an alternative route home to protect the Christ. 

An Epiphany tradition observed in some parts of the church is to leave the crèche up with the Magi in it, until Candlemas on Feb. 2.  This reminds us that Christmas is not just a day but a season that includes Christmas and Epiphany; it lets us reflect on the mystery of the Magi attending the Christ’s birth well into the New Year.  May this Epiphany be a deep continuation of our Christmas celebration and a source of blessing for your New Year.

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