Pastoral Perspectives

Heavenly Manifestations

Human beings have a perennial fascination with astronomic phenomena. Just last Thursday, thousands of Singaporeans left the confines of their homes and offices and gathered in open spaces all around the island. This was a remarkable phenomenon in itself, for to remove us from our indoor habitats must have required something of astronomical proportions – nothing short of an annular solar eclipse. This is a solar eclipse which occurs when the moon passes centrally across the sun, but is insufficiently close to the earth to completely occlude it. This results in a spectacular ring of fire in a darkened sky at the moment of eclipse.

For most of the eclipse chasers out on Thursday, the entire affair was, perhaps, nothing more than a spectacle of nature (and a great opportunity to sneak a break). But for our ancestors who lived in a more enchanted cosmos, the solar eclipse would have been a most disturbing phenomenon. An elderly Chinese Singaporean interviewed by The Straits Times mentioned that there was still the custom of banging out loud noises during a solar eclipse when she was a teenager. This stems from the Chinese folklore that a solar eclipse occurs whenever a heavenly creature – either a dog or a dragon – is trying to swallow up the sun. To deter the creature from its dastardly deed, loud noises must be made to scare it away (it’s super effective!). Similar gastronomic folklores explaining this astronomic phenomenon are present in other cultures: for the Vietnamese the offender is a hungry heavenly frog/toad; the Koreans, a pack of hungry fiery dogs, the Indians, a decapitated demon Rahu (who tries to swallow the moon too).

The unhappy circumstances of the sun in these folklores reflect the ancient belief that solar eclipses are evil omens. On seeing one in 585 BC, the kingdoms of Media and Lydia perceived that the gods were angry at their warring and ceased hostilities immediately. The Aztecs thought the same way and made human sacrifices to propitiate the wrathful gods so that any impending disaster could be averted. The ancients believed in the astrological principle of “as above, so below,” in which celestial movements and phenomena are inextricably tied to the course of human affairs on earth. And if you see people perusing daily horoscope columns in the newspapers, you may be certain that this ancient principle still survives on in the minds of modern people.

Yet, about two thousand years ago, this same principle led a group of near eastern astrologers to Jesus (Matt. 2.1-12). They observed an unusual star in the night sky and figured it must be a sign of a significant event soon to happen on earth. The Magi are commonly referred to as sages (wise men) or kings in church tradition, but they were, in fact, neither. They were astrologers from the east, and of a significant enough social status to get an audience with Herod, the King of Judea – perhaps they were court diviners from a distant kingdom? Regardless, poring over scrolls and codices, they did their research and decided the star was a good omen heralding the birth of the Jewish Messiah.

What could have possibly caused the Magi to seek out the Jewish Messiah? The Gospel of Matthew does not give us much insight to this question. What we do know is, that unlike the Jews, the Magi were idolatrous Gentiles who worshipped foreign gods and engaged in dark practices like astrology, which were forbidden by God (cf. Lev. 19.26). They were a people who did not know God and whose hearts were far away from him. Due to their ignorance of him, only God alone could have made these Gentiles turn to the Messiah. Yet, God drew them not through conventional means like the preaching of prophets, but through something which he deplored: astrology! Here, we must not think that God therefore approves of us divining the future with astrological readings, or that he contradicts his own injunctions. In his profound mercy, he was working out his salvation plan through their ignorance and sinfulness. He is a God whose power is revealed chiefly in showing mercy and pity! He shone a beautiful light in the darkness for them whose minds have been darkened, and as they made the pilgrimage toward the light, he manifested his glory in the person of Jesus, his Messiah.

The church celebrates this manifestation of God’s glory to the Gentiles (as represented by the Magi) every year on the 6th of January (tomorrow!) in the Feast of the Epiphany. We remember how the light of Jesus fills humanity with the knowledge of God and draws us to him, thus fulfilling the prophecy in Isaiah 60 (NET):

“Arise! Shine! For your light arrives!
            The splendor of the LORD shines on you!
For, look, darkness covers the earth
            and deep darkness covers the nations,
but the LORD shines on you;
            his splendor appears over you.
Nations come to your light,
            kings to your bright light.”

Without this Light that God graciously shines into our hearts, we would be left groping about in the shadow of death.

Therefore, the only possible response to such grace is worship. Matthew does not tell us why the Magi were so ardent in their search for Jesus and their worship of him. As pragmatic Singaporeans, we certainly wonder why they had bothered to undertake an arduous land journey, braving the elements and the bandits, in order to offer gifts and pay homage to a baby, for they received nothing in return for their troubles! Was it not easier to DHL the gifts over with a nice note? After all, the Romans had a good postal system! Whatever was in their minds, they certainly believed the infant Messiah was well worth the trouble of a long pilgrimage.

The answer is simple: The Magi understood worship. In speaking of worship on Sundays, Roman Catholic theologian Romano Guardini has this to say: “When the liturgy [the church service] is rightly regarded it cannot be said to have a purpose, because it does not exist for the sake of humanity, but for the sake of God. In the liturgy, man is no longer concerned with himself; his gaze is directed towards God. In man it is not so much intended to edify himself as to contemplate God’s majesty.” The Magi recognised that there was One born on earth whose significance eclipsed and will eclipse every other human being. This fact inexorably led them to seek out the One above all so they may offer their rightful worship. This worship is not a means to an end; it is the end for all humanity. We are, after all, very acquainted with the first article of the Westminster Shorter Catechism: “What is the chief end of man? Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him for ever.” This is explicitly described in the book of Revelation, where John describes the heavenly scene as a divine liturgy, with humans and other co-creatures engaged in a perpetual worship of God enthroned in all his Beauty.

Jesus is the Light of the world, the event of astronomical proportions which draws humanity out of darkness to himself in worship. If we too have seen this Light, then our response must be the same as the Magi. This is why every Sunday, we embark on a pilgrimage like the Magi, leaving the comforts of our homes and gathering around Jesus in worship. To do so is neither for self-gain nor to achieve some greater purpose. If Singaporeans can waste productive time by venturing outdoors to glimpse the fleeting beauty of an annular solar eclipse, then Christians who have experienced the eternal glory of God in Jesus can certainly “waste time” in their worship of him.

Mr Png Eng Keat

January 5, 2020