January 10, 2016
Lots of churches read this story of the magi and celebrated Epiphany last Sunday, but Epiphany day—or Three Kings Day–was actually January 6; right smack dab in the middle of the week. So we are listening to and contemplating this story today.
There’s a lot packed into this gem of a narrative: the journey of the magi; the fear of Herod and “all Jerusalem with him;” the chief priests and the prophecies; the Christ child and the gifts—we all know what those were: gold, frankincense, and myrrh; and the foreboding dream that sends the magi home by another way. And, as an article I recently read by David Hensen points out, the wise men’s detour leads us right to the slaughter of the innocents—Herrod’s desperate attempt to kill this new “king” by ordering the murder of all boys in and around Bethlehem under the age of two.
There is so, so much in this story. Good stuff. And hard stuff. Deep theological insights. Profound truths about the human condition. Which is why I was surprised on my retreat this past week when, after meditating on the story of the wise men, I found myself doing a watercolor sketch of the star in my journal. It’s big and pointy and radiating pink light . . . that kind of looks more like fringes than light beams . . . I didn’t say it was a good sketch.
Still, this year it is the star that intrigues me. The star that is pulling me in. And on one hand it feels like I should pay attention to some of the more earthly, serious aspects of this story. But on the other hand I have realized that I am definitely not alone in my fascination with the star.
My friend Shan, who went on the retreat with me, said that she has been looking for years for a necklace that depicts the star the way she sees it in her mind’s eye.
In much of the artwork, music, poetry about this story, the star holds a special place. This star, this “beautiful Star of Bethlehem” has captured the hearts and imaginations of people for hundreds and hundreds of years. Poets, artists, and musicians have explored the mystery of this object—the holy light guiding the enigmatic magi to the Christ child.
And I’ve discovered that it’s not just the artistic types who are drawn in by this star. Actual historians and astronomers—honest to goodness scientists–pour over data and debate what exactly the star was. In 2014, there was a 2-day colloquium at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands titled: “The Star of Bethlehem: Historical and Astrological Perspectives.” This colloquium brought 20 specialists together to “engage with recent theories for the Star of Bethlehem.” Perhaps the star was the conjunction of Jupiter and Venus, or maybe Jupiter and Saturn were in a triple conjunction in the constellation Pisces, or it was a comet or a super nova. The hot new theory is one proposed by Michael Molnar which has to do with astrology and astronomy and ancient coins and I don’t really understand it but he wrote a 208 page book about it, if you’re interested.
The bottom line is that we don’t know exactly what the star of Bethlehem was, but those of us fascinated by it, drawn to it, are in good company.
Yet despite the prominence of the star in our imaginations and our artistic endeavors, in reality the star must not have been that prominent. Certainly it wasn’t something that your average person wandering around the hills would have noticed in the night sky—that pre-electricity night sky that was crammed full of shimmering dots of light.
If everyone had noticed this particular star, then Jesus would have gotten more than those three presents. People would have been flocking from every direction to pay homage to the Christ child. But only the magi came. Three of them. Or maybe two. Or maybe a dozen. We don’t know how many, but we do know it was a limited number. A few people who noticed and followed this astronomical anomaly.
So I’ve been thinking some about why the magi noticed that star when so many others missed it. Even the scribes and scholars in Jerusalem who should have been paying attention to the signs failed to notice this particular star. So why did the magi see it?
While we don’t know exactly who the magi were, we can assume that they had some training in looking at the stars; that they studied the heavens; that they had charts and scopes. And they paid attention. And they had the patience. They must have been paying attention to the sky, keeping notes for months, for years, before they saw this new shining light. And they had each other. How ever many magi there were, we know there was more than one. This journey from the east to Bethlehem is not a journey anyone would take on their own. And they had courage. There might have been other astronomers in other places who noticed the star, but only these magi made the trip.
So there are a lot of reasons why this particular group is the one who noticed and followed the star to the Christ child.
Does that mean we should all be astronomers so that we can recognize the signs God writes in the stars? Of course not. One of the beautiful things about scripture is that it tells us of many ways that God speaks to people; many ways that God has led people to Jesus.
We have Mary who’s just minding her own business when the angel shows up and the Holy Spirit places Jesus in her womb. We have the shepherds who are doing their not very glamorous jobs, hanging out in the fields watching their sheep, when the angels show up and tell them about Jesus. We have the disciples doing their not glamorous job of fishing when Jesus walks along and says, “Hey guys. Drop your nets. Follow me.” We have Zachaeus who wants to see Jesus so he climbs up into the tree and that’s when he sees Jesus. We have the woman who has been bleeding for years and in desperation makes her way through the crowd and reaches out to grab the hem of Jesus’ robe.
An angel. A job. A stranger’s voice. A new perspective. A deep need. There are so many things that, if we pay attention, if we step out in faith and follow, can lead us closer to Jesus. So many stars.
This morning, as part of the closing blessing, you will be given a star word. This is a tradition I learned about from other pastors in one of my Facebook groups. It is a tradition I participated in a few years ago, and a tradition I wanted to invite you all to participate in this year.
Your star word is not a magic word or a good luck charm. It is simply a word for you to cling to and contemplate in this new year. Maybe you will want to write or draw or sing or pray about what the word evokes for you—if you love it or struggle with it or long for it. The word might rest in your heart as a promise or roll around in your head as a challenge. You might hang it on your bathroom mirror to consider each morning or tuck it away in your Bible only to stumble across it months down the road when you somehow need it again. Or it may find its way into the trash can and that will be that.
I can’t make any promises about your star word. I only know that three years ago, my word helped get me through the year of my dad’s death and our move and my mom’s arrival. I can’t promise that this star that you will receive as a blessing this morning is your one particular star. But it might be. And at the very least I can tell you that there are stars out there to follow. There are points of light that God reveals to you—if you watch and wait and pay attention—glimmers that will draw you across even the most treacherous landscapes and into the holy presence of Jesus.
Thanks be to God.