Christians are now living liturgically in the fourth week after Epiphany, but perhaps it’s not too late to keep thinking about the Magi—those three “kings,” “wise men,” magicians, and/or astrologers we’ve been singing about during Christmas. In 200 C.E., Tertullian argued that the Magi were astrologers by trade, but were also considered kings. John Calvin, by contrast, said of people who consider these three men to be “kings” that, “beyond all doubt, they have been stupefied by a righteous judgement of God, that all might laugh at their gross ignorance.” Well, thanks, Calvin. It remains something of a mystery who the Magi were, but etymology points in the direction of Persian priest-astrologers.
The presence of the Magi in the Christmas story has me thinking about the resurgence of astrology here in our own time. Over the past decade or so especially, I’ve noticed an increase in the use of astrology among Millenials – young people are reading their horoscopes and charts, as well as using tarot cards. When I encountered this trend among my students a number of years ago, I was surprised. Why were they into astrology? They told me it’s a way to set their intentions for the day. It’s also a way to interpret the events of their lives, and especially to interpret their relationships with other people and themselves. In short, it’s a way to make meaning out of their world.
Christians, too, find ways to set their intentions for the week, perhaps by listening to a sermon or repeating a morning prayer. They try to find comfort and challenge by interpreting scripture, perhaps by using a reflective practice like Lectio Divina. And, of course, Christians attempt to interpret the events and relationships of their lives by looking to the life and teachings of Jesus.
Although both astrology and Christianity can be used to make sense of people’s lives and world, astrology seems more attractive than Christianity these days, at least among some young people. For many, it might simply be an accessible alternative to the religions they grew up with. Astrology is more fun, and one can take it seriously without taking it literally. (Of course, the latter could be said about many forms of Christianity as well.)
In any case, I’m noticing again the presence of astrology in our own contemporary society because it’s right there in the Epiphany story. Surprisingly, perhaps, astrology is present in the Christian story from the very the beginning. Astrologers interpreted the stars, following one star in particular, in order to find the newborn King of the Jews.
What a multi-religious story this is. And what a wonderful story. In conjunction with our own context, Epiphany would challenge Christians to recognize that although there are many spiritual traditions and disciplines in this world, they do not have to be at odds with one another or antagonistic toward one another. They can, in fact, honor and respect one another.
As Christians celebrate the Epiphany season, the presence of the Magi might encourage them to see that enshrined in the Christian story, from the very beginning, is the possibility that people with various spiritual practices and traditions can respect one another and even intersect with one another’s traditions. Because of the Magi in the Epiphany story, we remember that “they” are part of “our” story too.
This piece is a modified version of a sermon originally delivered to Safe Harbor Family Church, United Church of Christ, in Clinton, MS.