Some years ago I visited an SMA colleague in Nigeria. He was renowned for his fluency in several local languages and his interest in the stars. He even had a telescope mounted in the mission compound. Because he lived in a remote area of Nigeria there was virtually no ‘light pollution’ and so Fr Tim could roam the skies through his periscope, pointing out all sorts of stars etc to the locals who came to watch him. Fr Tim is also a wonderful preacher and, on the feast of the Epiphany, he preached the following sermon to the people who came to celebrate the manifestation of the Child Jesus to the nations.
It’s an honour to celebrate Mass today, the feast of the Epiphany, because like the Wise Men, I too have been following the stars for years, and I still do. I find the footprints of God everywhere in the night sky. But, unlike the Wise Men, my journey is not yet over.
Our crib here would be incomplete without the arrival of the Wise Men. Well, they arrived safely last night, under the guidance of a local star, Sr. Margaret, who always prepares our crib and altar.
Now, three kings would make a great hand in a card game like poker. These three kings turned up trumps, and beat Herod and the religious leaders of Jerusalem hands down, but more about that later.
“Now when Jesus was born… there came Magi from the East to Jerusalem, saying ‘where is the newborn king of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the East, and come to worship him”. Matthew 2:1-2
Who were the Magi? And where did they come from? Today’s Gospel says “Wise Men”, to translate the word “Magi”. They came from the East, beyond the Jordan. There we find the Arabian desert, beyond that Mesopotamia, and finally Persia. We turn to Persia, because the word “Magi” is not a Hebrew word, but Persian in origin.
The Magi were probably followers of the Zoroaster religion of Persia. Like the Jews, they believed in one God. But the coming of Islam to Persia destroyed it in about the sixth century A.D., just as it destroyed the great churches of St. Paul in Galatia and Ephesus, in modern Turkey, all Muslim today.
The Magi were astronomers, who studied the movements of the heavens. In those days there was no separation of religion and science.
What did they, in far off Persia, know about a messianic king? They tell us that the Persians also had a tradition of waiting for a great prophet or leader, and were aware of a similar expectation among the Jews. Why cannot God speak to the so called pagans of Persia or anywhere else? In today’s Gospel it is clear that God actually did.
The Jews, according to Isaiah 49:6 were supposed to be “a light for the Gentiles”, but today it is these pagan Wise Men who bring the light to Herod and to the religious elite in Jerusalem. They had the Scriptures and failed to find Jesus. The Magi read the scriptures of the heavens, followed the God given star, and were brought face to face to the Messianic boy child.
We said that God can speak through so called pagan prophets, if he so wishes. But Israel looked down on them, despised them, and definitely did not record their messages or prophecies in Old Testament scriptures. With self righteous arrogance they believed that God spoke only to the prophets of Israel.
We can condemn this tunnel vision, but up to Vatican II, did not the Catholic Church teach, “outside the Church there is no salvation.”
The Jews may have despised the pagan nations and their seers, but the pagan seer Balaam slipped through their net. The star of the Magi was foretold, not by one of the great prophets of Israel like Isaiah, but by Balaam, the pagan seer from Moab. Let me quote the prophetic poem of Balaam:
“The prophesy of Balaam, son of Beor,
The prophesy of the man with the far seeing eyes,
The prophesy of the one who hears the words of God..
I see him – but not in the present,
I perceive him – but not close at hand.
A star is emerging from Jacob,
A sceptre is rising from Israel.” (Numbers 24:15-17)
Balaam of the far seeing eyes, saw further than he realised, anticipating today’s star, and the birth of the Messiah.
Many people today follow the star of wealth or power. These stars fade, as you cannot buy peace or happiness, as wealthy people with children on drugs, well know.
The Magi crossed the deserts of Arabia to follow their star. We live in a world where there are so many people crossing their own deserts, deserts of pain and bank debts, deserts of disillusionment or depression. Others follow a mirage, in a desert of their own making.
God never said, to follow his star would be easy. Let us remember today, those, whose star has faded, or is hidden from sight, by dark clouds of pain, physical or mental.
Like the Magi, we too are on a journey, a journey searching for God. We can find him by reading the map pages of the Scriptures. But remember, the Magi read the scriptures of the heavens. We can also meet God in the scriptures of the fields, as we turn the beautiful pages of nature.
May we all follow our star, the star foreseen by the pagan seer Balaam, the star followed by the Magi, Jesus Christ, our Star, our Light. May we follow that Star, across deserts if necessary, but surely, across the fields and byways of 2015.
Safe journey, and keep an eye on your Star.
– Bishop Tim Carroll SMA