Epiphany 2015

Cartoon by Mike Twohy for The New Yorker

Cartoon by Mike Twohy for The New Yorker

A cartoon in last week’s New Yorker depicts two laboratory-mice in a cage, facing one another.  One of the mice has wires attached to an electrode or something on its head and leading out of the cage to someplace in the distance.  That wired-up mouse is saying to the other one, “I’m not religious – just anti-science.”

These days, science and religion are supposed to be at enmity with one another.  Religion, we are told, is inferior to science for many reasons, not least of which is that the scientific method reveals things that are verifiably true, whereas religion brings few, if any, revelations that can be verified in any sense of the word.  The number of essays, treatises, and other assertions making this point continues to grow in our day and age, as the protectors of some kind of scientific truth duel it out with the practitioners of religion, cast invariably as the enemies of science.

I, myself, am largely un-indoctrinated to the kind of religion that is hostile to science or the scientific method.  Educated for a long time in church schools, with a seminary degree, and nearly twenty years of ministry of a distinctly religious flavor, I have never once been tempted to see science, as a pursuit and a field of inquiry, as hostile to the religion I practice, or the faith I believe.  In fact, most of my education and experience points to quite the opposite, since the architecture, music, and world view of the church I have grown up in and inhabited my whole life is built on a robust engagement with mathematics, physics, natural sciences, and the scientific method.   But maybe I’m just delusional, and secretly anti-science.

In any case, these musings are only the backdrop against which I encounter with you tonight the Wise Men of the Epiphany.  The annotations in my Bible, published by Oxford University, allow for the possibility that these men are “astrologers,” on the one hand – which sounds pretty suspect to me, since we all know that astrology is the silly, superstitious, blonde-haired, quasi-religious step-child of an actual science, namely astronomy.  How the editors determined that these Wise Men were astrologers and not astronomers, I cannot say.  I strongly suspect that there was actually a difference of opinion among the Oxford editors on this point, since a footnote for the very same verse tells me unambiguously that the wise men were from “a learned class in ancient Persia,” and no self-respecting Oxonian could possibly refer to an astrologer as “learned.”

For the sake of argument, then, let us contend that in the Wise Men we have a potential meeting of the religious and the scientific.  For all I know, one was an astrologer, one was an astronomer, and another was a priest of some variety.  Wouldn’t that be convenient?

What I want to know is this, is there any chance that the Wise Men were accustomed to employing the scientific method in their journeys and their observations?  And, if so, what does their arrival at the Christ-child’s manger have to say to them?

May I abbreviate the scientific method thusly: 

1 – You ask a question.

2 – You construct a hypothesis that may provide an answer to the question.

3 – You test the hypothesis rigorously.

4 – You analyze the results and draw conclusions.

For the Wise Men it could have gone something like this:

1 – Question: What is that funny star glowing in the East?

2 – Hypothesis: Perhaps it is a sign of something important!

3 – Test: Let’s look at it more closely… hell, let’s follow it, and see what happens!

4 – Analysis: Good golly this is an adorable baby at whose unusual birth-place we have arrived!

Now along the way, the Wise Men had been getting some advice.  Clearly a rabbi somewhere had put a bug in their ears about Micah, chapter 5, verse 2, and convinced them that this star was about something important indeed – a ruler for Israel who would come from Bethlehem.  Then there was Herod, whose paranoia tended to underscore the idea that they were onto something big.  And even the shepherds they passed on the way had probably told the Wise Men as they traveled that the sheep were unusually excitable, and that there was a kind of a buzz in the winter air that warranted investigation.

How many wonderful things have been discovered because someone said, “let’s follow that and see what happens?”  This is what the Wise Men did.

Gazing at the sky had proved to yield good results in the past for ancient peoples.  They looked at the sky and learned that you could navigate the globe, using the stars as your guide – and they were not wrong about this.  They looked at the sky and saw that things were moving, changing, revolving, zooming around, far past any height they could ever hope to climb.  They looked at the sky and saw stories unfold that expressed deep truths they experienced in their own lives.  Looking at the sky they posed questions, they formed hypotheses, they tested those hypotheses as best they could, and they analyzed the results with various degrees of success, sometimes with peer review, sometimes able to duplicate results, and many times unable to do so.

Back on the ground, do you know that it was not until the year 1878 that we could definitively say that all four feet of a horse were off the ground at the same time when it gallops?  Until then reasonable people could disagree on this question, since the horse’s movement was too fast to capture with the unaided eye.  Artists depicting horses at full tilt tended to draw or paint them with fore-legs extended all the way and hind-legs kicking back as the horse flies through the air.  And not everyone thought that it was possible for a horse to be completely suspended in mid-air in the midst of its stride, despite a period of roughly 6,000 years that we have been observing, up close, the domesticated horse.  But in 1878 the photography of Eadweard Muybridge showed scientifically that there is actually a time when all four of a horse’s feet are off the ground, and it’s when they are tucked up under its belly.

For how long have we been observing the workings of God?  And God is more mysterious and complicated than a horse: faster, but also much slower.  We observe the workings of God, and by inference we have tried to figure things out, sometimes we have been right, sometimes we have been wrong.

A long time ago, some Wise Men asked a question.  I think the question may have been about a star, or a planet, or a comet – reasonable people disagree about what it might have been (if anything) that the Wise Men observed.  Perhaps the question they asked was really about this verse from the prophet Micah: “But thou, Bethlehem Ephratah, though thou be little among the thousands of Judah, yet out of thee shall come forth unto me that is to be ruler in Israel; whose goings forth have been from of old, from everlasting.”  Maybe they liked that question because it gave them a reason to go on a journey to Bethlehem, which would really have given them a reason to visit Jerusalem, which was a much more interesting place to visit (better restaurants).  Yes, maybe this trip was just a junket for the Wise Men.  But they had to have a question, in order to get funding, so they said they were investigating this verse, or they were following that star.

No matter what the reason for their journey, no matter where the question came from or what it was, no matter what hypothesis they formed; they end up testing it as they go, since journeys have a way of testing a lot of hypotheses, as well as the people who make them.

I don’t think the Wise Men had been planning to leave anything of value in Bethlehem.  I don’t think that the gold they had was gift wrapped, or the frankincense, or the myrrh.  I think it came as a surprise to the Wise Men as they peered into the stable, each to find the others simultaneously reaching into their bags, and coming up with the gifts.  I think they may have huddled outside the stable and challenged each other: “Why did you give myrrh?”  “What were you thinking by diminishing the frankincense supply?”  “Did you really have to dip into the gold?”  And in that conversation, maybe they discovered how each of them had been unexpectedly and unaccountably moved just to givesomething, but something of real value, in the Presence of this young Child.

And despite the subsequent experiments in the Christian church with church taxes, and paid indulgences, and pew rents, and capital campaigns, and every other form of extortion you can probably think of, the experience of the Wise Men has been repeated over and over again as men and women – some wiser than others – have come to Jesus…   sometimes by following the stars, or through a vale of tears, or in a moment of joy, or in the pages of Scripture, or at the celebration of the Mass, or at a mother’s knee, or from the seat of a space ship orbiting the earth, or in a page of music, or in the fair beauty of the earth… we find that we are unexpectedly and unaccountably moved just to givesomething, but something of real value, in the Presence of this young Child, even if it begins with just our praise, our prayers, our songs.

I don’t suppose it would be right to call this long process scientific, even though I do think that when you apply the scientific method to it, you will get some satisfactory results.

1 – You ask a question: is there a Force of Love in the world that seems to be calling me toward it, equipping me by some strange Spirit, and changing me for the better in the midst of a world that tends more often to degrade than to exalt?

2 – You construct a hypothesis: perhaps that Force of Love is the same one that made all of nature, that built cathedrals, that composes music, that delights in scientific discovery, and that teaches how our humanity is really founded in compassion, empathy, and sacrifice?

3 – You test the hypothesis rigorously: by engaging in the community called together in the Name of that Force – a typically imperfect, sometimes dysfunctional, often infuriating community – and you find that despite all the imperfection, dysfunction, and infuriation, love is practiced (however imperfectly), often in the very midst of those crippling symptoms.

4 – You analyze the results: recognizing in yourself, if you are as lucky as I have been, that you are unexpectedly and unaccountably moved just to givesomething, but something of real value, in the Presence of this young Child. 

And you draw conclusions - perhaps the same conclusions that the Wise Men drew, now peer-reviewed by you and by me: that God has shown us something real in this stable of Bethlehem, that he is allowing us to observe himself up-close and personal, as never before, and that we may never in our lives give better gifts than the ones we give to him.


Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen

The Feast of the Epiphany 2015

Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia

Posted on January 7, 2015 .