Zoroaster & the School of Athens

Isaiah 60:1-8
Psalm 72:1-13
Ephesians 3:2-6
Matthew 2:1-12

Coming to Light

"They were overjoyed to see the star."
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

Let us journey into light this morning, Sisters. The very word epiphany invites us to do so, for it is made of two Greek words that mean "coming to light." And our modern speech does not forget this meaning. When something has come to light, we mean that its have been revealed or discovered. When someone has had an epiphany, we mean they have entered into brilliant discovery, that their whole world has sharpened into a moment of clarity and unified meaning. On this feast day we celebrate many levels of this word. But they all begin with Three Magi, depicted as wise men or kings, who are coming toward light, following a star that leads to the Lux mundi, the Light of the World.

St. Matthew's word for these mysterious figures is μαγοι, which is a very specific term that would have been instantly recognizable to first-century Judeans. These are men from Persia from the highly respected class of Zoroastrian astronomers, — an exclusive class of the most advanced scientists who understood the courses and meanings of stars. They formed a kind of Royal Society of its day renown throughout the ancient world. We may be sure that they succeeded in some practical fashion, else the favor they enjoyed from emperors, kings, and wealthy traders would have quickly dried up.

We today may scoff at the very notion of their scientific prestige, but we should not forget that the Ptolemaic conception of celestial bodies stood up for a very long time — from before Aristotle until the sixteenth century (which is nearly two thousand years) and that their system yielded accurate computations that enabled men to circumnavigate the globe and to chart the their world in the form of maps. We also do well to remind ourselves that in any age, including our own, that people are inclined to think of the "verities of science" such as being bedrock, which can never be revised. But such people would not include modern research scientists, who anticipate that everything we know is destined to be revised.

George Bernard Shaw is said to have introduced Albert Einstein to the British Physical Society, saying, "Gentlemen, I would like you to meet Mr. Einstein. Aristotle's universe stood up for two thousand years, Newton's for two hundred, Einstein's for twenty. Let's see how far it will go." However, apocryphal this story might be, it communicates an important truth. I spent many years in the intensely skeptical milieus of Bell Labs Research and MIT, where I taught. These institutions, staffed with Nobel laureates, were not complacent environments but rather cultures that reviled complacency and questioned everything. As Thomas Kuhn wrote in his The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (undoubtedly among the most important books of the twentieth century), our dilemma is that research goes forward on the back of high school science as if any scientific truth could ever be sorted like mail into unchanging categories. Breakthroughs will be impossibile so long as our young people believe in settled, scientific truths.

It was light that would lead the best scientific minds of the twentieth century beyond the relative darkness of classical physics. Light would be the father of quantum physics, for Planck's constant and Einstein's Special and General Theories of relativity followed light as modern magi away from ignorance and into a scientific world as different from the world of Newton as the day is from the night. Einstein dreamt that he rode upon a great light wave and then reported that this dream had coincided with a great breakthrough.

The speed of light is famously the great constant. And light is indeed the great constant throughout our lifeworld. After a day's work in Haiti, I would sit beside a water cistern and laboriously chip away at the lugs of workboots. I had never seen so much clay and hardpan in the earth. I would meet agronomist at airports who told me that Haiti has the worst soil on earth. A gooey clay mostly devoid of nurtrients. Yet, bananas and yams and coconuts and mangos and coffee grew everywhere, for the sun's energy provided their needs. Should the sun ever fail to rise, all life on earth would be extinguished in days. The Apostles wrote, "two ways there are life and death," and we might add, "which is the light and darkness."

That the Creation story in Genesis should begin with light is remarkable. One would have thought the gods or humans or combinations of these would have come first, or Heaven and earth, or all the things of the material world as an evolutionary biologist might have believed. But, of all things, it is light. My boss' boss at Bell Labs Research, who won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1978, described these words in the first chapter of Genesis as being "a precise, though poetic, depiction of the Big Bang Theory." And I thought, "Wow! Why should the Scriptural account of Creation begin with light of all things?!" Needless to say, all scientists not very long ago would have scoffed at the idea of the entire universe being unpacked from a single atom in a microscopic fraction of a second with a great burst of light.

I am not suggesting that the Sacred Scriptures are a repository of scientific truths, of course. That is not their intention or purpose. I do suggest, however, that we do not know where the Book of Genesis came from, and we do not have a category for these amazing sentences. They may precede the first instance of history. They may precede the first instance of literature. We do know that they are holy. And they are packed with frequent bursts of light that reveal profound truths God's other creation, his mysterious human creatures.

Our technology and science are simply not up to the task of a challenge far beyond quantum physics or astrophysics, which is detecting or verifying God. In any case, science is not about God. They are fields, if we can use that impoverished term, that are utterly unalike. Science is preoccupied with the what and the how and in modest ways, the why. It is not about ultimate meaning. It cannot manage the task of a unified field theory even about itself.

But as primitive as our science and technology may be in ultimate terms, God never leaves us distant and alone from Himself, not those who love Him. On the contrary, He wants us always to draw near to Him and has planted within each of us a science that will never fail to verify Him, which is ourselves. The poet Leonard Cohen, speaking of this broken world, said, "Everything has cracks in it. That's how the light gets in."

In Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.