I want to share with you today some thoughts on what it means for us that the Wise Men followed a star, as we heard in our Gospel (Matt 2:1-12). In the ancient world most people, except the race that Jesus belonged to, the Jews, only made major decisions in life after they had consulted the stars via an astrologer. The great Caesar Augustus consulted his own astrologer every day. So why were the stars so important to them? The probable answer is that if we think our world today is pretty messy, we need to remember that the world they lived in was even more horrible. Disease, wars, death, accidents, and plain human wickedness were all around them. Only the stars, following their regular course up there in the sky seemed steady and reliable.
The Jews also looked to the stars as a sign of something ordered and regular ; but unlike the rest of the world they believed that we must look beyond the stars themselves to the one God that made them. As Psalm 8 says: “O Lord, you have set your glory above the heavens.” And that was what Matthew wanted to make clear when he told the story of the wise men finding Jesus. Follow the stars by all means, but if you keep looking hard enough, then in the end you will find God – even in the most unexpected place, as in a tiny baby born at Bethlehem. He wanted to make clear too that in that baby, in Jesus, the great prophecy of Isaiah (Our 1st Reading : Is 60:1-6) was fulfilled. “Arise, shine out…. for your light has come…the glory of the Lord is rising on you” And this light that is God has come to us despite all the awful things happening in the world. As the reading goes on “Though night still covers the earth and darkness the peoples.”
In our modern world, the study of the stars, is still about a certainty that we cannot find in our ordinary lives. Nowadays we call that certainty “science”, but sadly some people think that science and God do not mix. One teenager said to me “Oh I don’t believe in God, I believe in the Big Bang.” and was rather surprised when I said I did too, and that actually this view of the Universe is a Christian one. The point is that if science didn’t work, if the Universe was just as chaotic as our human lives can sometimes be, then we might well agree that there is no God; but the Universe can be studied scientifically, and wonder of wonders it all makes mathematical sense.
So how can we be like the wise men, and allow the stars to lead us to God today? The fact is that when they studied the stars in those days, although some of their ideas were magical/astrological; they also used the maths that you and I learned at school in order to get some things right. So 4000 years ago, 2000 years before Jesus was born, they had worked out mathematically how far the moon was from the earth. They used a fact that we all learned at school. If you know the length of one side of a triangle and two of the three angles, then you can work out how long the other two sides are. What an amazing world that two plus two always equals four and that these mathematical truths hold good for the whole Universe!
Now in order to be sure about all this, I had to check it with someone I know who is an astrophysicist at Oxford University; and the amazing coincidence is that the young scientist whom I consulted just happens to be a Catholic who plays the organ at one of the churches where I am preaching this Homily. So there in Didcot, I can say “Ask him how easily science and faith go together.”
Yes, there are many many wise men in our world today, men and women whom we now call scientists or mathematicians, who can tell us how their studies are one of the most important ways in which they find the glory of God. They will tell us that their work is a matter of trial and error. Like the wise men in our Gospel, who at first went to the wrong place, so our modern scientists tell us that they don’t always get it right straightaway; but that getting it wrong is part of the process of discovering the truth. If you ask them to explain all this, then most of you will probably find, like me, that you are soon lost in their mathematical formulas ; but it is a great comfort to know that they know what they are doing, and are still discovering new things many of which can then help us in our lives.
Of course we all find God in different ways, but even when we have found God we need to remember that there is always something more about God to discover. Our faith must always be an ongoing journey towards the light, never a certainty that we have reached it. Many people have wondered what happened to the wise men next, because surely that was not the end of their journey. As St Paul says “Now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face” (1 Cor 13:12)
I did not become a Christian because I studied the stars. I was hopeless at Physics and for many years had a hatred of science, and so it was only much later on in life that Atrophysics became a fascination for me; and I became an avid watcher of programmes about the Universe like those by Professor Brian Cox. When our view of God has become too ordinary, too domestic, when we take God for granted, then we need to look towards things in the Universe that we cannot fully understand, to the infinite immensity that is out there, and then let our faith in God grow.