Epiphany questionBy Juan L. Mercado
Philippine Daily Inquirer
“Araw ng Tatlong Hari,” or Feast of the Three Kings, is marked here on the first Sunday of the New Year. Liturgically, this is known as Epiphany, which translates into the revelation of God the Son as a baby laid on a manger.
The day after Epiphany, many take down their belen and switch off the Christmas lights. Others keep them until Feb. 2. But Epiphany stirs old questions.
“Behold, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem saying ‘Where is He who has been born King of the Jews?’” Matthew wrote. “‘For we have seen His star at its rising and have come to worship Him.’”
Was the Star of Bethlehem a comet? An alignment of planets? “It led the Magi,” as historian Horacio de la Costa put it, “to go on a fool’s errand, to a Prince they have not seen, in a country they do not know,” recalls the weekly newspaper Mabuhay.
“Science is unraveling the mystery behind one of the most famous stories in astronomical history,” says a British Broadcasting Corp. report. “New technology allows [scientists] to map ancient night skies with extraordinary accuracy. They’re looking at a number of unusual events the Magi could have seen.”
Experts now challenge a traditional claim: that the star was a comet. Halley’s Comet appeared about 12 BC. Chinese and Korean stargazers, around 5 BC, reported a blazing object. For over 70 days, it didn’t budge.
Could the Star have been a rare “triple conjunction” of planets in 7 BC? asks Dr. David Hughes of the University of Sheffield. “Jupiter and Saturn came together thrice, over several months, that year. An ancient clay tablet, now displayed in the British Museum, describes this merging,” BBC’s Rebecca Ellis adds.
“They were probably astrologers from Persia. There is evidence that Persian astronomers predicted this conjunction,” Professor Hughes says. They combined science with faith to predict the birth of a new Messiah.
“A particularly striking conjunction occurred on June 17, 2 BC,” Ed Krupp of Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles told National Geographic. “For skywatchers, at that time, it looked like a massive, single star…”
Matthew writes that when the Magi found “the Child with Mary his mother, they opened their bags and offered him gifts of gold, incense and myrrh,” ancient symbols of divinity, kingship—and pain. Inheriting Spanish tradition, Filipinos call the Magi Gaspar, Melchor and Baltazar.
The Magi upset the elite of their day. Herod “was greatly disturbed and”—note this—“with him all the people in Jerusalem.” He hurriedly summoned leaders to what Filipino politicians today would dub a caucus or pulong-pulong.
Where would this Messiah be born? He demanded of experts who had the answer down pat: “In the town of Bethlehem.” And they cited verse and line from scriptures to back their stand. But they didn’t move out of their comfort zones. They did nothing. It was business as usual then.
Will it be business as usual in 2013? Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life just published “The Global Religious Landscape.” This study is anchored on the analysis of 2,500 national censuses in 230 countries and territories.
Among other conclusions, it finds that today there are 2.2 billion Christians. Those who say they heed the Child of Bethlehem make up 32 percent of the world’s population. Breakdown of other major faiths: 1.6 billion Muslims (23 percent), 1 billion Hindus (15 percent), nearly 500 million Buddhists (7 percent), and 14 million Jews (0.2 percent).
Fully 97 percent of all Hindus live in India, Mauritius and Nepal. Nearly 9 in 10 Christians (87 percent) are found in the world’s 157 Christian-majority countries. They’re also the most evenly dispersed—Europe (26 percent), Latin America and the Caribbean (24 percent) and sub-Saharan Africa (24 percent).
Three out of every four, who cluster in Asia and the Pacific, are “religiously unaffiliated (76 percent).” In China, the number of creed-less people crests at about 700 million. That’s more than twice the total US population.
In his Christmas message “Urbi et Orbi,” Benedict XVI addressed a direct appeal to the leaders in Beijing, “in a particularly difficult time.” Uneasy relations between the Holy See and China became more tense after Beijing last year forced the sacking of Shanghai Auxiliary Bishop Ma Daqin.
“May the King of Peace turn his gaze to the new leaders of the People’s Republic of China for the lofty task that awaits them,” the Pontiff said. “I hope it will enhance the contribution of religions, in respect to each, so that they can contribute to the construction of a society of solidarity for the benefit of that noble people and of the whole world.”
Chinese leaders issued, just before Christmas, 8,330 copies of a 16-page secret order, from the Communist Party’s Central Committee. This directed universities to root out foreigners seeking to convert students to Christianity, Reuters reported.
The document singles out Christianity as particularly dangerous, and the United States leads the effort. “No other country or religion is mentioned by name,” Reuters notes. Buddhism and Taoism are now supported by the government to some degree, “Christians remain a source of contention, along with Tibetan Buddhists, Uighur Muslims and Falun Gong practitioners.”
In his 1927 poem “The Journey of the Magi,” T.S. Eliot has one of the Magi reflecting years after they were warned against returning to Herod. They made their way to their country “by another way.”
“We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,/ But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,/ With an alien people clutching their gods.”
Life was never the same, after being led by a star to this Child.
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