The Epiphany of the Lord
29 Dec 2020
Carmen M. Nanko-Fernández, DMin

Reading 1: Isaiah 60:1-6
Responsorial Psalm: Psalm 72:1-2, 7-8, 10-11, 12-13
Reading 2: Ephesians 3:2-3a, 5-6
Gospel: Matthew 2:1-12

In our age of Google Maps and digital time-keeping, it is easy to forget that, for thousands of years, the heavens functioned as timekeeper and calendar, compass and navigational aid, for our ancestors from Mesopotamia to Mesoamerica. Astronomy is said to be one of humanity’s first sciences. Earth’s most ancient astronomical observatory is at Nbata Playa, located north of the Egyptian–Sudanese border. It predates Stonehenge by at least two thousand years. Chinese astronomers mapped the night sky and documented their observations in what is thought to be the earliest preserved atlas, which was found in the caves at Dunhuang. The Vatican Observatory, with its roots in 1582 and Pope Gregory XIII’s reform of the calendar, is among the oldest astronomical institutes in the world.

Photo taken by Carmen M. Nanko-Fernández of an anonymous medieval astronomer monk studying the skies. Adler Planetarium, Chicago.

For cultures across the globe, the heavens have been a resource for the ordering of practical and daily life, from agriculture to politics, to worship, and everything in between. Today, cultural astronomers study the stories that different communities have told and retell about the night sky, and what these indigenous astronomies reveal scientifically about the heavens when viewed from vast and varied places. These perspectives teach us much about the storytellers as well, and about how they have constructed their communal identities and distinctive understandings of their place in the universe.

Reading and tracking the movement of celestial bodies has long held religious significance. From Al-Andalus to the Kingdom of Mali, medieval Muslim astronomers looked to the skies to determine prayer times and to establish the direction of Mecca. Meanwhile, Christian monastic astronomers looked to the same stars to calculate their hours of prayer, liturgical seasons, and at times, the alignment and orientations of church buildings.

Perhaps, then, we should not be surprised that Matthew’s Gospel includes a narrative about stargazers who follow a star from its rising until it came to rest over the place where the child was. While interpretations of the visitation of the Magi typically emphasize the theophany to the Gentiles, mention of the star invites deeper reflection on the cosmic dimensions of the Epiphany in light of the integral ecology Pope Francis proposes.

This Advent, our attention was drawn to the stars when one of the largest telescopes in the world collapsed after 57 years of noteworthy service. In 1992, the radio telescope at the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico was the first to discover planets beyond our solar system. Almost two decades earlier, it was the first to beam a message into outer space in the direction of a star cluster at the edge of the Milky Way. This brief message communicated simple images of “the Arecibo telescope, our solar system, DNA, a stick figure of a human, and some of the biochemicals of earthly life.” It was a rudimentary attempt to express the substance of our humanity and to situate our place in the universe for the sake of whoever might be able to receive this communication and possibly even respond.

Awareness of our kinship with all of creation should evoke responses of praise for the Creator and an ethos and praxis of intentional care. When we read the gospel and celebrate the Epiphany from the perspective of stargazers, past and present, we open ourselves to what Pope Francis has described as an integral ecology that “includes taking time to recover a serene harmony with creation, reflecting on our lifestyle and our ideals, and contemplating the Creator who lives among us and surrounds us, whose presence ‘must not be contrived but found, uncovered’” (Laudato Si’, #225). To follow the star from its rising is to ponder and to struggle with the mysteries of what it means to be a creature in a complicated universe. To find ourselves at the place over which the star rests is to recognize that the Incarnation reveals how our humanity is entwined with the rhythms and disruptions of the universe. Perhaps there is something to learn from the controversial presence of an astronaut bearing a lunar gift in the 2020 Vatican Nativity!

Carmen M. Nanko-Fernández, DMin
Professor of Hispanic Theology and Ministry
Director of the Hispanic Theology and Ministry Program