In Rome, in St. Peter’s Square, there stands an ancient Egyptian obelisk, a single block of granite in the shape of the Washington monument, it’s almost 100 feet high and it weighs 330 tons. It’s the oldest obelisk in Rome, dating back to 1850 BC. At that time it had been erected as a monument to the Pharaoh, and it stood for over two thousand years of Egyptian history. That obelisk was standing when Abraham was called; it was standing when Joseph the son of Jacob was viceroy of Egypt, and it was standing when Moses led his people out of Egypt.
At the time of Jesus’ birth and not long after the Magi came to worship him, the Roman Emperor Caligula brought the obelisk to Rome as a sign of Rome’s superiority over the conquered Egypt. And there in Rome it stood for four more centuries, it stood as a symbol of the Roman Empire, the largest empire in human history. A golden urn with Julius Caesar’s ashes was once placed on top of it. It stood in the arena where St. Peter himself was martyred, along with countless other early Christians. Then the barbarians invaded Rome, and Rome decayed, in the Middle Ages the obelisk fell. Weeds and vines grew all around it. It was half-buried near the old St. Peter’s Basilica.
But then with time, the Church converted the barbarians, and a new Christian culture emerged and flourished, and St. Peter’s Basilica was rebuilt and expanded, Pope Sixtus V had the obelisk re-erected in the center of the square, where it now stands. It’s no longer a reminder of the long-gone empires of Egypt or Rome. The obelisk is now topped with a bronze cross, containing within it a small fragment of the True Cross. It’s now a symbol of the universal and eternal Kingdom of Christ to which men and women of all times and all places are called.
In today’s Gospel we hear the call of the Magi, they represent the Gentile nations, and they too are called to this everlasting kingdom. The Magi were basically the scientists of the ancient world. They rationally and logically studied philosophy, medicine, and the natural world, including the stars. They were the scholars and professors of their time. But instead of working in universities, they worked for kings. A king would finance his own group of magi, using them as consultants and translators, and to also enhance his kingdom’s reputation. It was only the best of kingdoms that had the smartest magi. These magi to the East, very learned men, had no doubt heard of the Hebrew prophesies of a star signaling the birth of a King. And tempted to know the God of Israel they looked to the sky for signs of a divine “King of the Jews.”
Now much has been written about the star the Magi followed. And there is verifiable proof of major stellar events taking place at that time in those years around the birth of Christ. Halley’s Comet appeared during this time period, there was also an alignment of the planets Jupiter and Saturn and this would have produced a very bright star; there was also a stellar explosion, an exploding star, called a nova which also occurred during that time period. One shortcoming of these naturalistic explanations is that the star in Matthew’s Gospel leads the magi and then comes to rest over a house, something an ordinary star doesn’t do. This suggests that whatever the nature of the star might have been, God intervened in an extraordinary way to lead the magi to the messiah. One interesting proposal, one that the early Church Fathers write about, is that the star guiding the Magi was an angel. In the Jewish tradition stars were associated with angels and the guiding star in Matthew’s Gospel recalls the angel God sent to guide the people in the desert on their way to the Promised Land. So while some natural starry phenomenon might have initially led the Magi in search of a king, God later provided an Angel to finish leading the Magi to Jesus. Whatever the case, a star led the Magi to Jesus; a star led them to our Lord, led them to the eternal kingdom and to true worship.
Now in a way all of us here today are meant to imitate that Star of Bethlehem. Each one of us as a Christian should make it a goal to be like the star that guided the Magi. That means being a steady witness to Christ, a gentle, but clear and attractive invitation to this Eternal Kingdom of God.
That obelisk in St. Peter’s square is a sign of God’s Kingdom but we too are signs. Like that star that guided the Magi to Jesus we guide our families, our friends, our neighbors, our co-workers we guide them by our example, our words, and our actions. But as you know we are not perfect, we sin, we make mistakes. In the moments after receiving Holy Communion, after thanking Him, ask our Lord how you can be a better guiding light or inspiration to those around you, and then listen, and then pray for that grace. More people than we realize, people who live right beside us, are searching, and if we let our lives shine in Christ, we can help them. God will use us to help them as the star helped the Magi to find True Joy.
Peace and all good,
Fr. Christopher Ankley