Chalk and Astrologers

Wise MenAround the world this weekend priests armed with chalk, water and in many cases ladders will be walking the streets of their parishes continuing a centuries old tradition of blessing homes, and marking them with chalk (above the front door) as a sign that they are Christian households.  Because this weekend we celebrate the great festival of the Epiphany of Our Lord Jesus Christ.

The word “Epiphany” literally means “manifestation or appearance of God,” and so today is the Festival of the Manifestation of our Lord Jesus Christ: the manifestation of God, in Jesus, in our midst, with us, in our lives and in our homes.  And lest you think that the idea of blessing homes, and marking them with chalk as a sign of Christ’s presence is terribly old fashioned, or not at all Anglican, it is worth noting that our Anglican neighbours in Telarah Rutherford and in Raymond Terrace will be blessing chalk for exactly that purpose today.

“Arise, shine; for your light has come,” says the Prophet Isaiah in our first reading, “and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you”, anticipating the day when the Messiah will be in their midst.  The imagery in our liturgy today speaks of new light in the darkness, as we celebrate the light of Christ amongst us in this season in Australia when we have more light than at any other time in the year.

Contrary to popular thought this great Festival of the Epiphany, which is much older than the Festival of Christmas, which was a later adaption to the liturgical year by the Church is not only about the visit of the wise men to Jesus and the Holy Family.  A much fuller and richer understanding of the Epiphany celebrations, historically in the life of the Church, links three events together in one revealing movement of God in Christ.

The first, yes, is the revealing of God to the wise men in the nativity; but there are two other events in the beginning of the ministry of Jesus which are singled out as part and parcel of this manifesting action of God as well.  So alongside the encounter with the wise men, who come to worship the Word of God made flesh in the baby Jesus, Christians over the centuries also saw the deep significance of Jesus’ baptism by John, and his turning of water into wine at the wedding feast in Cana of Galilee, (the first miracle performed through Jesus in John’s Gospel) as key moments when Jesus’ glory and divinity were made manifest to the world.  For many centuries Christians have held these three events together as the one encounter of the Epiphany of our Lord — of the manifestation of God to us in Jesus.  And just like Advent, Epiphany isn’t a one-day-wonder it is a season that we will be living in for the next five weeks, and my hope is that we will be able to explore over these weekends some of the riches of these epiphany moments.

Next weekend I want to focus on the Baptism of Jesus – the second great Epiphany moment of manifestation, and then the following weekend I want to focus on the wedding at Cana in Galilee, and then we will continue to explore this great Epiphany theme for the weekends that follow until we reach the Season of Lent.  The question that I want to ask as we reflect together on each of these Epiphany encounters, both today and in the weekends which will follow, is simply this, “what is it that God makes manifest about his character through these different events? If the Epiphany is about coming to know more about God as he is revealed to us through these encounters, what do we learn about God through Jesus in these Epiphany moments?”

Well, to begin to seek to answer that question today, we need to look a little more closely at the characters in this first Epiphany event, the wise men who follow a star to find Jesus some time after his birth, as we heard in our Gospel reading a few moments ago.  It is worth saying, up front, that we can know almost nothing with any certainty about them.  Christians down through the ages have imagined and wondered who these mysterious characters from the East might be.  And probably almost everything that we might have in our minds about these visitors to Jesus has no justification whatsoever in the Christmas narratives of the Bible and the teachings of the Early Church.

We have no idea, for example, how many of them there were, we simply hear from the story that they brought with them three gifts.  But what we can be almost certain about, at least from the story as we have received it, is that these men were not kings at all.  In other words, they were the ancient equivalent of the people who write horoscopes – they were men who practiced astrology – who watched the movement and appearance of stars to try and work out what God in the heavens was up to. They were not astronomers, astronomy in the sense that we know it today had not been invented. They were astrologers – fortune tellers, predictors of the future on the basis of what they saw in the sky.  Which we probably would not consider to be a particularly wise past time today.

It was not until the 6th Century that they were given names – Balthasar, Melchior and Caspar, and later, in Christian Art, these three men came to depict the various coloured skin of humanity – representing the mission of God, the love of God in Jesus – for the whole world, for people in every time and culture.  The more that I reflect on this story the more extraordinary it seems to me, to be.

We cannot know what the connection between stars in the sky and these men’s journey was, but we do know that they were in the business of creating wealth and power for themselves by interpreting what they saw, and something which they saw in the sky triggered them to come, to travel a great distance in search of a king.  Whilst this form of astrology was quite acceptable to these men, who probably came from Persia, it certainly wasn’t acceptable to Jews.  Jews then and now, like us as Christians, turn not to inanimate objects like the stars for advice, but instead for our inspiration and guidance we turn to the one who has created them.

We simply do not believe that our future, our work, our relationships are controlled by mindless lumps of matter far away in the night sky, any more than we believe them to be controlled by some impersonal and non-responsible power called “fate.”

But these men did, and they brought symbols of their interests with them as gifts for the new king.

Imagine the scene – Mary and Joseph, good Jewish people, open the door to astrologers from the East who come to pay homage to their son.

It is a profound image – without knowing it these men are entirely impure, following a path of life condemned in the Jewish Bible – and yet they turn up, and are welcomed in to a Jewish household as guests to see the new born baby.

There are many ways of interpreting the significance of the symbolic gifts which they bring: gold, frankincense and myrrh.

Mostly the popular interpretations relate to events which will happen later in Jesus’ life about which these men would have had no inkling.

So I want to offer you a different interpretation today, not linked to the later life of Jesus, but to the lives of those who bought the gifts.

These men offer to the baby Jesus gold, not because they are miners who have dug it up from the ground, but because the gold is the profit of their trade – it represents the economic power which they have gained by sucking in gullible people who have believed their superstitions. As such it is tainted gold, but they offer it nevertheless to Jesus.

They offer frankincense – incense – which represents their deep dependence on religious symbolism and mystery in the practice of their profession. They offer it to Jesus.

They offer myrrh – used for embalming the dead – as a symbol of the fatalism of their understanding of the world. They offer it to Jesus.

They hand over these symbols, to the newly arrived Lord of heaven and earth. And in doing so these gifts are changed – because they have handed over their symbols of power to one who is more powerful. In this encounter with Jesus their understanding of the world is being transformed.

Ignatius of Antioch, one of the Early Church Fathers wrote about the encounter like this, “magic crumbled before this star; the spells of sorcery were all broken, and superstition received its death-blow.”

The point is that it does not matter by what means they have arrived in the presence of Jesus, they did not need to be transformed before they got there – God’s work begins in them when they come face to face with the baby who will be the hope of all the nations.

And there is something even more exciting than that – even more exciting than this testimony that the love of God breaks through into the hearts of those whose lives have been so heavily dominated by sorcery. God brings those men to God’s self in Jesus through what they know best, even through astrology.

In other words, their conversion to Christ does not happen before they arrive, God uses their astrology to bring them to himself.

What does that tell us about God? Or to use my earlier question – what is it in this event that God makes manifest about himself in this Epiphany season?

It is simply this, that it does not matter how people get into the presence of God – there are more routes than we can imagine – once they have experienced God in Jesus they are transformed.

Which can be true as much for strange astrologers from ancient times, as it can be for us, and for our families and friends.

Through these wandering star-gazers we are reminded that God is present – Emmanuel – God is with us.

And we celebrate that the radical hospitality of God extends even to those who put their whole trust in something worthless in comparison to him.

God through Jesus has declared to the world that this is a place worthy for him to dwell.

Which is a powerful reminder to us all that God isn’t only in the places that we expect to find him.

The first Epiphany – God’s manifestation to these men from the East: a manifestation that reminds us that there is no one outside of the love of God; no journey so far from God’s Kingdom which cannot bring people into his presence.

That is why Jesus is the hope for the whole world, that is why Jesus is the hope for us as we come to meet him once again today in the broken bread and in the wine.