Epiphany 1 January, 2008

A personal God governs the stars

What was the star the wise men saw in the East? (The story can be found at Matt. 2:1-12.) Some say it was the symbolically highly appropriate conjunction of Jupiter and Venus (Kingship and Love) on 17 June in 2 BC, when Jesus may have been two years old. The dates work less well if Jesus was born in 6 BC and Herod died two years after that, as the standard chronology suggests. Besides, how do we explain the part of the account that says the star ‘went before them’ and ‘came to rest over the place where the child was’? It seems that Matthew was less interested in astrology than in showing the fulfilment of ancient prophecies and correspondences – a theme that runs right through his Gospel. Jesus was the new Moses, the new David. So the phrase ‘went before them’ is meant to recall the book of Exodus, when in order to lead the Israelites out of Egypt the pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night ‘went before them’ to ‘lead them along the way’ to the Red Sea (Ex. 13:17-22). This pillar is the manifestation of the Lord’s presence, an angel sent to guide the people. Matthew is telling us that the ‘star of Bethlehem’ is essentially an angel. Immediately afterwards, in Matthew’s account, Joseph is asked to take the Holy Family into Egypt to keep them safe from Herod. This reinforces the association with Exodus. Thus the child Jesus is kept safe, for a time, in Egypt, just as Moses was kept safe by the Egyptian princess from that other ‘massacre of the infants’ initiated by Pharaoh, until the time came for him to take up his destiny. And then again, immediately after the return of the Holy Family from Egypt in Matthew’s account, we find the preaching of John the Baptist, and the baptism of Jesus in the waters of Jordan, the new ‘crossing of the Red Sea’, signifying the way in which the mature Jesus will lead his people through the sacrament of Baptism to their liberation from sin and death.

In his encyclical letter Spe Salvi, on Hope, Pope Benedict quotes St Gregory Nazianzen. “He says that at the very moment when the Magi, guided by the star, adored Christ the new king, astrology came to an end, because the stars were now moving in the orbit determined by Christ.” This means that “within everything and at the same time above everything, there is a personal will, there is a Spirit who in Jesus has revealed himself as Love.”

The staff at Second Spring wish all our readers a happy and blessed new year!

The Pope’s Spe Salvi shows us Christ, the good shepherd, the true philosopher, who ‘tells us who man truly is and what a man must do in order to be truly human.’ He shows us ‘the way beyond death; only someone able to do this is a true teacher of life.’ The Pope integrates spirituality with metaphysics in his extraordinary analysis of how faith is truly the ‘substance’ of what we hope for, in the sense of a real basis for a new existence.

In this Information Age, the Pope reminds us that the Gospel is not mere ‘information’ that can be filed away, any more than the sacrament of Baptism is just a way of inducting someone into a society where they can carry on being as they were before. Faith gives eternal life. But, he asks, do we want that eternal life? ‘In some way we want life itself, true life, untouched even by death; yet at the same time we do not know the thing towards which we feel driven. We cannot stop reaching out for it, and yet we know that all we can experience or accomplish is not what we yearn for. This unknown “thing” is the true “hope” which drives us, and at the same time the fact that it is unknown is the cause of all forms of despair and also of all efforts, whether positive or destructive, directed towards worldly authenticity and human authenticity. The term “eternal life” is intended to give a name to this known “unknown.”

‘Inevitably it is an inadequate term that creates confusion. “Eternal,” in fact, suggests to us the idea of something interminable, and this frightens us; “life” makes us think of the life that we know and love and do not want to lose, even though very often it brings more toil than satisfaction, so that while on the one hand we desire it, on the other hand we do not want it. To imagine ourselves outside the temporality that imprisons us and in some way to sense that eternity is not an unending succession of days in the calendar, but something more like the supreme moment of satisfaction, in which totality embraces us and we embrace totality – this we can only attempt. It would be like plunging into the ocean of infinite love, a moment in which time – “the before and after” – no longer exists. We can only attempt to grasp the idea that such a moment is life in the full sense, a plunging ever anew into the vastness of being, in which we are simply overwhelmed with joy.’

Life in this full sense is the opposite of self-centred or self-enclosed. It ‘presupposes that we escape from the prison of our “I,” because only in the openness of this universal subject does our gaze open out to the source of joy, to love itself – to God.’ Yet the Pope is aware that the opposite impression is often given. He asks: ‘how did we come to conceive the Christian project as a selfish search for salvation which rejects the idea of serving others?’ In order to answer this question, he has to analyse the foundations of the modern age, and the process by which faith in God was replaced by faith in progress.

What better way to begin the new year than by studying this wonderful encyclical!

‘It is important to know that I can always continue to hope, even if in my own life, or the historical period in which I am living, there seems to be nothing left to hope for. Only the great certitude of hope that my own life and history in general, despite all failures, are held firm by the indestructible power of Love, and that this gives them their meaning and importance, only this kind of hope can then give the courage to act and to persevere… We can open ourselves and the world and allow God to enter: we can open ourselves to truth, to love, to what is good…. We can free our life and the world from the poisons and contaminations that could destroy the present and the future. We can uncover the sources of creation and keep them unsullied, and in this way we can make a right use of creation, which comes to us as a gift, according to its intrinsic requirements and ultimate purpose. This makes sense even if outwardly we achieve nothing or seem powerless in the face of overwhelming hostile forces.’

Stratford Caldecott