Reading the Book of Nature

Monday, Dec 30th, 2013

            I received some books for Christmas; I really needed some more!  I enjoy few things more than curling up with a good book, and recently my new friend Ellyw (Welsh Terrier) has joined me in that pursuit.   It is a full chair, to be sure.

            Medieval theologians urged the study of two books: The Book of Scripture and the Book of Nature.  God’s ways are disclosed in each, they contended.  The first could reveal God’s plan in history; the second could tell of God’s handiwork and design in all creation.  Reading them together invited more comprehensive perspective on God’s lavish engagement with the world.

The Adoration of the Magi

            As we approach Epiphany, we reflect on the Magi, astrologers from the East who spent time contemplating the second book, especially the night skies.  When they meet King Herod, they inquire: “Where is he who has been born King of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the East, and have come to worship him” (Matthew 2:2).  Herod thought that job was already filled, and his dyspepsia upset all of Jerusalem. We know that his rage and insecurity led to the slaughter of the Holy Innocents.

            Members of the priestly and learned class of Persian or Babylonian aristocracy, these Gentiles display an acute understanding of the larger world they inhabit.  Were they also acquainted with the Book of Scripture?  Perhaps they consulted it after their observation of a star “at its rising.”  Their beliefs likely associated the birth of a new ruler with astral portents.

The Adoration of the Magi by Rubens

            Overjoyed when they encountered the child and his mother, “they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and of myrrh” (2:11).  But first, they worshipped.  In the beloved painting Adoration of the Magi by Rubens, we perceive their homage as one kisses the foot of the Christ child even as the baby pats his bald head as a sign of blessing.  The magi also represent the nationalities of the known world in the 17th century, surely to indicate that Jesus is a gift for the whole of humanity.

            Much has been made of the gifts and what wise women might have brought—fresh diapers, casseroles, cleaning supplies, and willingness to baby-sit.  Perhaps there was one among the travelers because they did stop to ask for directions.  We can imagine that these gifts proved useful as they helped finance the Holy Family’s sojourn in Egypt.

            As we consider the meaning of the Christ child for the world, we will be wise to notice that he often taught through the images he read through the Book of Nature.  Sparrows, seeds, and sheep all featured in his homilies, and they served as encouragements to faith.  Such reading will help us in the New Year.

            Molly T. Marshall

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