Behold the Star of Bethlehem- (or most of it)!
For the past 73 years, Chicago's Adler Planetarium has done a presentation each December entitled Star of Wonder, predicated on speculation that the Star which led certain ancient astrologers to Bethlehem long ago in seach of the Christ Child was in fact a series of sporadic conjunctions between Venus (in ancient Near Eastern astrology, the star of birth), Jupiter (the star of kingship or royalty) and- on occasion- Rigel (also symbolizing kingship) in Leo (the constellation allegedly governing Judea) during the historical time-frame specified by the Gospels. Viewed from the Near East, the conjunctions would have fit the Bible's description of the appearances and behavior of the Star like a glove- and especially in combination with certain other telling details, would naturally have provoked in the minds of certain astrologers of that time and place thquestion, "Where is he who is born King of the Jews?"
Today is Epiphany, the day when the Church commemorates the arrival of those astrologers, or magi, at Bethlehem, and their homage to the infant King- most likely about a year old at the time, and certainly not living in a stable anymore!
Contrary to what most Americans assume, this is the proverbial "Twelfth Day of Christmas;" those twelve days begin, rather than end, on December 25. The idea of contaminating and essentially abolishing Advent by celebrating Christmas before December 25 is a modern American innovation whose purpose is to sell presents for people to give to others, allegedly in celebration of the Savior's birth. We pay for it with the mutilation and impoverishment of that celebration.
Actually, in most nominally Christian countries, the gift-giving is done on what, when you think about it, is a much more appropriate day: today, Epiphany. The Bible, by the way, doesn't actually specify the number of the "Wise Men;" the earliest tradition is that there were twelve. Scripture does specify that there were three gifts. But in any case if we give Christmas gifts to each other as a way of giving birthday presents to Jesus, it shouldn't come as any surprise that Christians in many cultures give Epiphany gifts instead.
Today also begins the liturgical season of Epiphany, which leads up to Ash Wednesday and the penitential season of Lent. An epiphany, by the way, is a revelation, especially of a deity- and that's what the season and the feast of Epiphany are really all about: the revelation to the world (traditionally symbolized, in minature by those Three Magi, fancifully said to have been comprised of of one representative of each of the three traditional racial groupings of humanity) of that most incredible and amazing of miracles: that the Creator of all that exists, seen and unseen, has become a human being.
As ancient as the Good News is, the longing to which it is an answer is contemporary enough to have inspired a popular song not many years ago- a song which became a theme of one of the few TV shows my wife and I have made it a point, whenever possible, to watch together. "What if God were one of us?," we're rhetorically asked at the beginning of every episode of Joan of Arcadia. Today, God answers the question in a surprising and joyous way: "Guess what? I am!"
In the past days, Lutheran and other Christian blogs have linked us to wise and weighty articles by theologians and thinkers on the topic of where God was when the tsunami hit- and, by extension, in all the suffering and tragedy of the world. If God is almighty, why does He allow such things? Ultimately, for all of our struggling with theodicy (the question of how one works an almighty and loving God into a world filled with evil and suffering), we can't get our minds around anything resembling an intellectually satisfying answer.
It's true that committed and orthodox Christians know all about Original Sin, and how all pain and suffering is ultimately the consequence of a fallen creation's rebellion against its good and gracious Creator. We know that God graciously chooses to have children rather than robots, and permits us the freedom to rebel against Him. We know the past and present abuse of that freedom has consequences which are turned loose in the world, and which affect the innocent as well as the guilty, often in obscure and arcane ways our puny human minds can't begin to understand, much less explain. Jesus certainly doesn't explain it. The closest He comes is in Luke 13 , where He simply cautions us against assuming that such things happen as a direct consequence of one's own, personal deserts, with the cryptic warning, "Unless you repent, you, too, will perish."
But why the consequences of sin should be so random and impersonal, if God is truly all-just and all-powerful and yet all loving, is the crux of the problem, and vaguely appealing to the sinfulness inherited by those dead little children doesn't really help much. Their fate-fallen though they, too, may have been- calls out to even own hardened, sinful hearts. How can it not call out to that of a loving and all-powerful God?
Permit me my crack at the subject. Or rather, permit Luther, whose answer it is- to the extent that it really even really is an answer- his crack at it. If I and other theologically committed Lutherans are right, it's also St. Paul's answer, and ultimately God's- and the best one we're going to get this side of the grave. One may or may not be wholly satisfied with it from an intellectual point of view, and perhaps that's a good thing. Maybe one of the reasons why God permits disasters of this magnitude is precisely to humble our arrogant ambitions to understand His mind. But what if the One Whose mind our puny intellects cannot comprehend condescends to meet our befuddlement in another way- a wholly unexpected and unlooked-for way?
What if His answer is the Epiphany?
Do not seek to know the mind of the hidden, "naked" God, Luther counsels us- God as He is in Himself. Run from Him instead. Run for your life! Just as He warned Moses long ago, you cannot look upon His face and live!
Run to the Manger. Run to God revealed in the Incarnation, clothed in our humanity, and robed in His promises.
Let's put that another way, shall we- a way in which, according to legend, Luther once put it to a parishioner worried about the same questions with which the tsunami and its aftermath confront us?
Why does God allow tragedy and injustice and suffering? Where is He in all of this?
I don't know. But why don't you ask Him yourself? Here He is: