No one seems to argue about what makes a good Epiphany movie the way people debate what makes a good Christmas movie.
But if you’re a science fiction fan with a liturgical bent, Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979) should rank high on your list of films appropriate to the day.
In the Western Church, Epiphany commemorates the magi’s visit to the young Jesus—no longer a baby but a toddler, maybe even in his “terrible twos”—and how their visit illustrates “the revelation of God’s promise and purpose to the nations of the world.”
(The Eastern Church has traditionally kept a more expansive Epiphany, encompassing not only the magi but also Jesus’ baptism and his first public miracle, turning water into wine.)
As the evangelist Matthew tells it, the magi (probably not kings themselves, Christmas carols to the contrary, but Persian astrologers) saw a new star in the sky, correctly interpreted it as signaling the birth of the “King of the Jews,” and—after a stop at the court of unhinged King Herod in Jerusalem—followed its light to Bethlehem, where they knelt before the child, giving him gifts and paying him homage.
At a glance, Matthew’s story may seem an incredible distance from Star Trek: The Motion Picture (ST:TMP)—maybe even anywhere from two to 82 AUs away!
But consider the film’s plot through the day’s liturgical lens.
A bright new light in the sky leads travelers who study the stars to witness a birth that could change the future of humanity.
Sounds a lot like Epiphany to me!
A Bright—and Alarming—New Light
For whatever reason, those ever-popular planetarium shows asking “what was the Star of Bethlehem” never consider the possibility it may have been a 300-year-old NASA space probe that achieved consciousness and came home in search of its creator.
I suspect the star the magi saw didn’t rival V’Ger for brightness. After all, the magi might be the only characters in Matthew’s story who see it. In contrast, much of the known galaxy—at least, the Klingon Empire and Starfleet—notice V’Ger when the shining and indisputably splendid energy cloud shows up.
Fortunately, the Star of Bethlehem didn’t match V’Ger’s destructive power, either. The star was a sign of good news. The only person who regarded reports of it as a threat was Herod, whom Caesar had made king of Judea, and who wanted to hold on to his crown at all costs.
In their podcast for the First Sunday After Christmas, the Sermon Brainwave crew at Luther Seminary argue Herod, for all his fear and violence, wasn’t exactly wrong to regard the Christmas message as threatening. The birth of King Jesus is a threat to a status quo that favors the wealthy and powerful, that doesn’t align with the priorities of God’s reign, as Jesus will proclaim and enact them in his ministry.
If the Star of Bethlehem doesn’t threaten whatever power, prestige, and privilege we enjoy, to some degree—if we don’t, at some level, go to “red alert” because we know the world and our lives cannot stay as they are in its rays—have we seen it correctly?
Travelers Who Study the Stars—and Discover Their True Selves
Surprisingly little “star trekking” actually happens in Star Trek: The Motion Picture. The film’s plot only takes the Enterprise on a three days’ journey from Earth.
On the other hand, the crew’s trip into V’Ger’s interior is an epic (and some viewers claim overly long) journey through a “strange new world” all its own. And Spock’s jetpack-powered jaunt into V’Ger’s “inner sanctum,” while taking place within the enormous confines of this “living machine,” is a virtual voyage to the other side of the galaxy, to the unknown machine planet where Voyager 6 found rebirth.
In ST:TMP, then, as in most of the best Star Trek stories, the voyage out is also a voyage in.
Although they were astrologers by a 21st-century definition, studying the stars for cosmic clues to the fates of nations and the fortunes of individuals, the magi could be considered the “astronomers” of their day. They were proto-scientists, at least—carefully observing the natural world, seeking understanding and insight.
The magi wouldn’t have shared Starfleet’s scientific knowledge. But they would have understood Starfleet’s commitment to scientific exploration and journeys of discovery.
And for all that the mission in ST:TMP is a crisis, it remains fundamentally a mission of scientific exploration and discovery. “Our orders,” Kirk tells the crew assembled on the rec deck, “are to intercept, investigate, and take whatever action is necessary and possible.”
Destroying V’Ger is only ever considered as the last “necessary and possible” action. And certainly the Enterprise doesn’t make attacking V’Ger its opening gambit, as the Klingons made attack theirs.
What’s more, Spock’s journey of discovery into the heart of V’Ger leads him to a new and much-needed discovery about himself—an “epiphany” in the literary sense: “Logic and knowledge are not enough.” When we take a journey of discovery following the light of Christ, we, too, may be led to new and much-needed “epiphanies” about ourselves—who we are now, and who we are meant to be in relationship to God and each other.
A Birth That Can Change Humanity
The magi didn’t witness Jesus’ birth. But at Mary and Joseph’s house in Bethlehem, they saw a child like no other. And while it’s unclear how much they regarded their own kneeling before him as worship in a religious sense, as opposed to the honor due any monarch, it’s clear Matthew wants his readers to see in the magi’s actions a fulfillment of Isaiah’s promise that the nations of the world will one day worship the God of Israel.
The crew of the Enterprise also see a “child” like no other. “V’Ger is a child,” Spock tells Kirk—a metaphor that sets Dr. McCoy up with one of the film’s funniest lines: “This thing is about to wipe out every living thing on Earth! Now what do you suggest we do? Spank it?”
Unlike the Christ Child, the “child” V’Ger seeks self-understanding and self-actualization. In a scene that holds the key to interpreting the whole movie—yet, incredibly, was cut from the theatrical release—Spock explains V’Ger’s motivation:
Each of us, at some time in our life, turns to someone—a father, a brother, a god—and asks, “Why am I here? What was I meant to be?” V’Ger hopes to touch its Creator to find its answers.
Epiphany is also about touching our Creator—not that we can do so under our own power, but that we can do so because God has first graciously touched us.
As the apostle Paul said on Mars Hill in Athens, God created humanity “to search for God and perhaps fumble about for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from each one of us” (Acts 17.27). As Matthew declares in his Gospel’s first chapter, Jesus Christ is Emmanuel—”God-With-Us” (see 1.21-23). The child the magi see with his mother, Mary, is the God of Israel, in the flesh—sharing our flesh and blood, like us in every respect, unashamed to call us his siblings (Hebrews 2.10-18)—for our salvation.
Salvation is about not only eternal life in the next world but also flourishing and abundant life in this one. It is about finally living a more fully human life—free from sin, unafraid of evil and death, aligned with God’s good will—as Christ lived the only fully human life.
At the end of Star Trek: The Motion Picture, V’Ger, its Ilia-probe, and Will Decker “meld” into a new life form that transcends this universe. For a brief moment, an even bigger and brighter light than V’Ger’s cloud field flashes into existence above Earth.
This new light in the sky, too, heralds a new birth—not of a king, but of what Spock speculates may be “a next step in our evolution.” And although Spock is half-Vulcan, it’s clear the word “our” refers to the human race.
The new birth and new life revealed in Jesus Christ is not a next step in our evolution, but the result of God’s intervention in humanity. This new life is what God graciously promises in Christ—to transform us into Christ’s image, “from one degree of glory to another” (2 Corinthians 3.18), beginning in this world and continuing into the next.
As I wrote in this space before Christmas, Christ came not so we might transcend our humanity, but so we might finally and for the first time fully realize it, in him.
Epiphany reveals that by God’s grace—as ST:TMP’s tag line put it, with a different meaning but with well-chosen words—“the human adventure is just beginning.”