Following the Christ-star
I have always had a deep, profound connection with the star in today’s gospel lesson. I couldn’t always have told you why, because until fairly recently I didn’t recognize that I was on a journey, following the Christ-star. All I knew then was that there is something in me that rejoices in the star arising at the birth of Christ into our world. “How,” I wondered, “could our world, how could our whole creation, not in some way signal that God had entered into the created realm? How could the heavens themselves not rejoice that God had become one-with-us?”
In fact, to tell a story on myself, for years THIS star was my quest. The church that I attended then had was an elaborate nativity set, much like the very fine one that we have at the Church of the Resurrection. The set was put up on Christmas Eve (as Ken Gay did so lovingly here). All the usual characters were present: the angels, the shepherds, the animals, the manger, and Joseph, Mary, and baby Jesus. The magi were present, too, but they were not anywhere near the manger. The magi—and their camels—were placed a long way away. As the season of Christmas passed, the magi got closer and closer to the manger, finally arriving with their camels and with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh on the first Day of the Epiphany.
The manger scene was beautiful. I loved what I saw. BUT I was troubled that there was no star. As I saw things, the scene was literally missing the star of the show. (This is why I was especially delighted by our Christmas pageant last week, to see that all the first hosts who worshiped the Christ child were present, including the star.) For four years in that other church I tried to get a star added to the scene.
At first I talked to the Rector, who assured me that the star of the scene was Jesus, and Jesus was right there in the manger, thank you very much. OK, so he had a point. But, I wondered, what was Epiphany without the star, the star that guided those first Gentiles to worship Christ? Without the star, how would those Gentiles have known that God had been born into our world? Without the star, how would those astrologers have known where to go to find the Christ child? How could we, most of us who are not Jews, be followers of the Christ-star, without the magi’s witness?
A kind observation would be that I became fixated on having a star over the manger. I brought in—auditioned—all kinds of stars. Big stars, little stars, silver stars, gold stars, cardboard stars, metal stars. A Vietnamese man I worked with even made a Christmas star, complete with a light inside. Have you seen a Vietnamese Christmas star? They are beautiful, with transparent paper of various colors covering a bamboo frame, and they often have garland, gaudy garland, lots of gaudy garland. Just about everyone who saw that Vietnamese star shuddered a bit, as they pointed out how this star wasn’t a good fit for that church. The star was too big, too colorful, too, well Vietnamese (and, don’t you know, there wasn’t a single Vietnamese person in the congregation).
Then I accidentally stumbled onto the greatest lesson I have ever learned about being a leader in a church. I stopped asking the priests, and started asking the altar guild. Actually, I didn’t ask the altar guild, I began talking about how nice it would be to have a star over the manger, and I wondered aloud how a star might appear there. Viola!
Every year at Epiphany, I wonder anew about that revelation of God’s birth among us that inspired those foreign astrologers to leave everything they knew and set out to see God born among us.
As I was reflecting on my history with the Christ-star this past week, I was startled to discover something that I had completely missed about the story of the magi. Verses nine and ten of our gospel lesson today say, “When they had heard the king, they set out; and there ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy.”
What I now realize, closely reading our lesson for today—particularly these verses—is that they hadn’t been following the star at all, despite what we sing in “We Three Kings.” The magi had seen the star “at its rising,” had understood the significance of the star, and had set out to discover the child whose birth the heavens had heralded. But they hadn’t seen the star all the way to Judea—hadn’t, in fact—followed the star on the way to Judea, or they wouldn’t have had to stop in to visit King Herod and ask the king where the Christ-child was.
No, the magi’s journey had been in faith—moving toward the star. They required a stop at King Herod’s palace, King Herod’s place, to get new bearings. So they were very happy, indeed, to see the star again when the star appeared over Bethlehem. The magi were so happy to see the star again that (as scripture tells us) they were “overwhelmed with joy.”
So what difference does this magi story make in our lives today? If we reflect closely, we can see that the magi’s journey closely matches our own journey of faith. The star is always there, always pointing the way to Christ, but we don’t always see the star. Other stars are there, also. Some discernment is required, discernment and prayer and faith, and even occasionally stopping at the wrong place to get new bearings.
I wonder, as we begin 2013 this Sunday, if we might not identify with the magi? We are beginning a one-year season of discernment, a year of moving forward in faith as we discover where the Christ-star is pointing, discover where the Christ-star will lead us this year.
I know this about the journey ahead. Sometimes we won’t be able to see the star as clearly as we see the star now. We know all too clearly, NOW, that the way that our church exists now cannot be the way that we will exist next year. Beloved as our parish is, we must choose to change, in some important way, somehow, as Christ’s star will lead us this year. Somewhere along the journey we may not see this so clearly.
I am quite confident that when the magi set out from their comfortable homes, they did not expect to arrive at a stable. They were learned and revered, the most able scientists of their time, yet they ended up kneeling in hay (and maybe a bit of, um, dirt) at the end of their long trek. But they had found the Christ child. Those sojourners had not come empty handed, either. They brought precious gifts to offer the Christ child.
What precious gifts will you bring to THIS manger, as we journey together to wherever the Christ-star will lead us?
- Will you bring money? We will need cash for our trek—we have all these camels to feed, and all these strange places to visit in search of Christ?
- Will you bring prayers? We will need a profound prayer ministry as we journey into the unknown. We will need your prayers to keep the Christ-star visible to us?
- Will you bring yourself? We will need you here, not just on Sunday, as we do so well, but also to leave our comfortable home in search of Christ?