Star of Wonder, Guide Us

Christmas 2 (Epiphany transf.)   from the Rev. Linda Mackie Griggs

Matthew 2: 1-12                                                                                5 January 2020

We three kings of Orient are,

bearing gifts we traverse afar,

field and fountain, moor and mountain,

following yonder star.

A colleague of mine told me of a job interview in which he was asked by a seasoned old rector, “You’re not on some kind of journey are you?

I have to say that this is one of the saddest things I’ve heard in my vocational life; an utter dismissal of one of the most vital aspects of a life of faith. How can a life of faith be lived without some sort of trajectory? The spiritual journey moves forward, backward, and may even occasionally stall for a time—but wherever it goes it forms us, if we choose, as children of God, and offers us, through our questioning, struggle, and moments of epiphany, an opportunity for humility, self-awareness, and a heightened sense of perspective, all of which are vital in a time when many people’s perspective is blocked by anxiety and fear of wars and rumors of wars. Now more than ever the spiritual journey is not an optional side excursion in a life of faith; it is the soul of the trip.

The Eastern sages from afar can teach us something about journeying. Later tradition tells us that they were kings, and that there were only three of them, but Matthew tells us what we need to know; that an undetermined number of outsiders read signs in the stars and followed them westward to a foreign land where their inquiries about a new Jewish king sounded alarm bells in the halls of power.  These outsiders followed the star first to Jerusalem where they asked directions of Herod, who consulted his own wise ones, the chief priests and scribes. Note that when they read the signs in scripture: “`And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.'” –the scribes and chief priests did not feel prompted to accompany their Eastern counterparts and seek the promised one in Bethlehem. I hadn’t noticed that before–they stayed put. Why? Because part of their job was to keep the peace in the Jewish community in order to keep the Roman occupiers at bay.  This alleged Messiah was a threat to King Herod’s authority. And when King Herod wasn’t happy, nobody was happy. So the Temple authorities remained in Jerusalem and kept the peace, while Herod plotted murder. And the magi journeyed onward, unaware of the danger that followed in their wake.

There are those who say that a journey is more important than its destination, and that’s true in a lot of cases, but not all the time. Sometimes the journey is formed by the destination. Or, in the words of J.R.R. Tolkien, “Not all who wander are lost.” For all we may enjoy the picturesque image of the Wise Men on their camels trudging through the desert, we must never forget that the Epiphany story is not about the kings; it’s about what they seek: the Christ Child. The star they follow has revealed the birth of this Messiah, this promised one, and the Magi will not rest until the God-shaped space inside of them is filled.

“When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy.”

Matthew says that they brought three symbolic gifts: gold for a king, frankincense for a God, and myrrh presaging death. But there was a fourth gift, given before all the others.

“…they knelt down and paid him homage.”

This is a specific term; the Greek word “proskyneo” means that they prostrated themselves, lying face down upon the ground in front of the child Jesus. This gesture was their first and most important gift. For all of the symbolism of the gold, frankincense and myrrh, the gesture of offering them was physically a political act; something offered by kings to a king as in a diplomatic mission. But the act of complete humility and obeisance shown through prostration—paying homage—was a gift, not of tangible objects, but of their devotion, their very selves. These outsiders from the East, prompted by Creation itself, had wandered for months in unfamiliar and dangerous territory—wandering, but not lost— focused on offering their lives to a Jewish Messiah. When the star rested at last, it revealed the Christ as Savior to all of God’s people throughout the world, eliminating the boundaries between insiders and outsiders—a theme that would mark the life and ministry of the One to whom the Magi now offered their lives.

This first Epiphany was not the end of the journey. Where spiritual journeys are concerned there is no such thing. The God-shaped space, once filled, becomes dynamic—a source of invitation, challenge and vocation; an inner stirring that reveals a new way of envisioning the world, leading to a shift in priorities, even a dramatic change in one’s life.. And so the wise ones went home by another way—a new journey in new territory, to a home that might not look the same to them, because they were not the same.

What are we to make of this as we enter a new year—a year that for many doesn’t so much beckon as loom with uncertainty and anxiety? We can’t avoid remembering that Matthew’s story of the Magi ended with the warning in a dream of Herod’s evil intentions toward Jesus, prompting them to avoid Jerusalem on their way home. Thwarted by the Magi’s dream, Herod sent his soldiers to kill all toddler boys throughout the region—an unspeakable event that the Church now commemorates three days after Christmas as the Holy Innocents. The proximity of these two diametrically opposed remembrances—Christmas and Holy Innocents– reminds us that the world into which the Christ Child was born did not immediately become a painless paradise. It remained as broken and wounded as our world is today. So it is crucial that we must also remember that this is exactly why the prophet Isaiah named the child born in Bethlehem Emmanuel—God with us. Journeying with us. When fear and anxiety grip our hearts, we must remember that in this Epiphany we celebrate the star’s illumination of the promised Messiah who said, “Do not be afraid”; whose own journey reveals that Herod does not get the last word; that cruelty and injustice and war and terror and Twitter do not get the last word. It is the Christ who reveals on this Epiphany that love, life and hope will have the final say.

“You’re not on some kind of journey, are you?”

Well, I hope so. Unlike the wise ones, we no longer follow the Star. Now we seek to follow Jesus; called to live our lives as if lit from within by the star that finally rested over Bethlehem. It is my prayer for each of us, and for this St. Martin’s community, that by God’s grace we will find what we seek and that the journey itself will form us as dreamers and co-builders of God’s Dream for all of Creation.

Glorious now behold him arise,

king and God and sacrifice;

heaven sings alleluia;

alleluia the earth replies.

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