I believe in signs from heaven. I do. I’m not even sure if I should. Scripture seems to treat the question on a case-by-case basis. King Ahaz was rebuked for refusing to seek a sign from God when invited to do so by Isaiah; the Pharisees were rebuked for seeking one when all the Truth they needed was quite literally staring them in the face. I guess we don’t get to make the rules here.
If I had to propose a general guideline, it would be this: superstition (and therefore heresy) is when we think we can crack the code of how God tells the future. All the convictions of astrologers and certainties of fortune-tellers seem misguided to me: I can’t in good conscience agree that it’s ours to know or predict in advance what form the Word will take when we hear it.
But creation is a language, and the language speaks of God. Without the one whose incarnate birth we celebrate this week, “not one thing was made that was made” (John 1:3). And if “the heavens declare His glory,” then all creation is in some sense a sacrament: a perceptible unfolding of events which, viewed in the right way, presents symbols of who God is (Psalm 19:1).
What I’m saying, then, is that the grammar of this sacramental language goes beyond the sort of hard-and-fast rules we write for human grammar. My human mind can grasp with clarity the principle that “whom” will occur whenever a direct object is meant, while “who” will occur whenever the person designated is doing, not undergoing, the action of the verb. But I am not equipped in the same way to say that whenever Jupiter is in the seventh house, it will always mean this or that.
Still, I cannot deny: more frequently than random chance would dictate, I see someone walking by me on the street whose silly t-shirt slogan speaks right into the heart of the problem I was just wrestling with internally. Or else a song comes on the radio whose lyrics seem to answer exactly the question I was asking myself. Usually what I gather from these experiences is a profounder teaching than can be put into words. After all, if it could have been spoken in the language of words rather than of images and experiences, it would have.
This week there has been much talk of an apparent heavenly sign. Appropriately enough for my argument, this sign is named like a part of speech: the Great Conjunction. Jupiter and Saturn have entered into rare proximity with one another and produced an astonishing brightness. There is some speculation, originating with Johannes Kepler in the 17th century, that this same brightness might have been the “star” over Bethlehem that the wise men saw at the first Christmas.
Well, I am no wise man, but it seems to me that the timing of this vision—whether or not it is the same vision the magi did see—has a certain providence. It comes at the closing of this traumatic year, which many of us sense was not only painful but revelatory of profound developments that quite predate 2020. In this brave new world and this season of revelation, I think the story of the magi has something to unveil for us, too.
Pope Benedict XVI, before he retired to his monastery, wrote a trilogy of books on Jesus’ life that will go down as one of this era’s foremost scholarly and theological accomplishments. Effortlessly, but on the basis of real philological expertise, Benedict writes in Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives about who the magi (magoi) in Matthew 2 likely were. He concludes that they were members either of a Persian priestly caste or of a related guild from elsewhere in the Near East, “custodians of religious and philosophical knowledge that had developed in that area and continued to be cultivated there.”
As such, the magi represent “the movement of the Gentiles toward Christ.” Matthew is describing here the very first instance in which Jesus began to “draw all peoples” from every race and location together to himself, the one true God of Israel (John 12:32). Christ has gone on to do this throughout all subsequent history and will do so forever more. This first time, he did it by means of the star.
The star, writes Benedict, was a cosmological phenomenon which the magi were likely watching as part of their inquiries into natural science. Yet it also pointed beyond itself, and beyond nature:
The cosmos speaks of Christ, even though its language is not yet fully intelligible to man in his present state.... Wisdom, then, serves to purify the message of “science”: the rationality of that message does not remain at the level of intellectual knowledge, but seeks understanding in its fullness, and so raises reason to its loftiest possibilities.
The study of the rules that govern our material world, though perfectly noble in itself, also hints at supernatural realities which transcend the spinning of planets and the bouncing of atoms off one another. Flesh is not everything, in other words—and even the material world itself, rightly understood, indicates that this is so.
That is the message which the very bedrock of creation is calling out to us in this, our own moment of planetary alignment. Not only the Great Conjunction, but the mysterious discoveries of Quantum Physics—the effects of human observation on matter, for example, and the frustration of our efforts to treat the world as inert “stuff” whose form and meaning is a mere illusion of our neurochemistry—these things are calling us back to that old wisdom of the magi, the wisdom that more is to be found in the world than mere patterns of motion.
In our own day there is an attitude, very tired intellectually but still discernable as a knee-jerk assumption of our upper classes, that all such supernatural speculations are only so much mystical mumbo-jumbo. This attitude was well expressed in the late Stephen Hawking’s blithe assertion that God has been rendered unnecessary because “the laws of nature” were enough to create the universe ex nihilo.
Not only is this argument inadequate to withstand even the most basic philosophical scrutiny (whose laws? Who wrote them?)—it is also not working out very well for us. The insufficiency of science as a governing theory of everything is painfully demonstrated by our compulsive habit of putting Science itself in the place of God as a conscious moral governor of the universe and our lives.
“President Joe Biden will trust in God, and he will also trust in science to guide our work on earth,” said John Kerry, whom Biden has tapped as climate envoy. Taken at face value this isn’t necessarily an objectionable statement. But put in the context of constant insistence that we “listen to Science,” “trust the Science,” and “follow the Science” in all we do—often sacrificing our livelihoods, our relationships, and our religious rituals in the process—Kerry’s words betoken a deadly idolatry.
The world of coronavirus lockdowns is the world of science worship: it is the world in which Science steps into God’s place and, like all false gods, beats us bloody until we fall to our knees. Everywhere we see a helpless people who yearn for something more but know not what. And so here we are, staring at an honest-to-goodness heavenly light overhead, but we cannot follow it to Bethlehem: we have been taught that the baby who is born there must not exist.
Yet he does. That truth is what the star has always signified, and ours is not the first generation into which it was thought impossible that the Son of God should be born. The Roman Imperial era in which the Christ child appeared was no unreasoning stone age: Athens, where Jesus’ name would be spoken and sometimes praised after his resurrection, was at that point a hotbed of rationalism and philosophy, some of it materialist. The Epicureans heard Paul preach just like the Jews did. Not a few of them were led to reconsider their conviction that everything is atoms, and after death we are nothing.
We, too, can believe. We must, both logically and practically speaking. The alternative is more of the same dire violence we have inflicted upon ourselves and one another not just this year, but in the past decades of aimless urban wandering, senseless moral self-abasement, and pointless rebellion against beauty. The unsustainability of this tormented mode of life is what really crystallized and became visible in 2020. Coronavirus was the inciting incident, but the truth is we have been a world of restless hearts for much longer than that. We are a people deprived of that wisdom and meaning which can only come from turning to our Creator.
If this is you—if you are looking at those planets in their alignment above our anguished world, but you have been forbidden by your supposed betters from speculating about what they might really mean—then take this as a plea to shake off what has become a perilously overlong slumber of the Western soul. You are not just a bag of flesh; the world is not just chemicals and laws; it never made any sense to believe that it could be so. You know this in your heart. Now you must accept it in your mind.
As the carol says, the wise men knew when to “leave their contemplations.” They did so because they saw a brighter vision shining afar. It was time then for them to go beyond star charts and seek in the newborn king the very hope of nations, the truth toward which all natural science points and all men hardly dare to yearn.
Now is the time for us to leave our contemplations. The materialism of these past generations was a vain dream, and like all dreams it will vanish when the light arises and the truth is known. That star is rising in the East, and behold: a child is born in Bethlehem, as real and alive this very day as he was then. His mercy answers every secret shortcoming for which you fault yourself in private; his nail-pierced hands will wipe the tears from your own two eyes. None of this is far-fetched or fantastical: it is as real as the stars in the sky. Therefore, oh son of man: do not be afraid, neither let your heart be troubled. Believe in the child who is born; and as sure as the sun shall rise, the truth shall set you free.