A Christmas Star

January 6, 2019 – Epiphany of the Lord

Matthew 2:1-12

In mid-December, the scientific community sang with news that the blue comet – Comet Wirtanen – would pass close enough to earth to be visible by the naked eye.  Dubbed the Christmas Comet, this piece of ice hurtles through its orbit around the sun once every five and a half years.  This year that orbit brought it the closest to earth that it has come in centuries.

For about a week just before Christmas, the blue-green glow of the comet’s ice and dust could be seen in the night sky just beyond Orion’s belt.  Its steady light outshone all other celestial objects except the brilliant full moon.

I wonder if the star that alerted the magi in Matthew’s gospel to the birth of a new king was like this Christmas Comet, if that star held the same fascination for them that our tiny comet brought to sky watchers around the globe a few weeks ago.  But unlike our comet, observed in Australia and Florida, South Carolina and California, the star the magi observed at its rising was seen only by them.  These outsiders were the first to observe the birth of the king of the Jews.  Herod’s courtiers knew nothing of the birth, until he was visited by the magi.  The chief priests and scribes knew the prophecies well enough to point the magi toward Bethlehem, but even they seemed unaware that the prophecies they recalled had come to pass in their own time.  The brilliant star observed at its rising by the magi went unnoticed by the religious authorities.

When Herod and all of Jerusalem learned of the birth, they were frightened.  It’s easy to picture Herod’s dismay – this birth jeopardized his political power, his entire future.  But why Jerusalem?  This birth that should have brought the people such hope and joy, this king of the line of David, filled them with fear.

Epiphanies can do that.  The sudden perception of the meaning of something, that illuminating discovery or disclosure,[1] can leave us struck dumb in awe of the majesty we perceive, or rendered dumb with fear at the power we behold.

Like the meteor streaking through the pre-dawn sky, the sudden light can leave us breathless, confused, frightened.  This light that exposes everything, all of our faults and failings, our shortcomings and slights, can fill us with dread of the judgment to come.

Better, I think, for us to remember that first Epiphany, that star observed at its rising by a group of astrologers who watched the night sky for signs and portents, men who were not part of the church-going crowd, not of the Jewish establishment.  No, that first Epiphany came not to the faithful but to the pagans.  “Matthew’s strange story of foreign visitors arriving in Bethlehem [reveals to us] how this child will become known to the world as God’s Messiah – even the nations of the world will now arrive at a new understanding of God’s intentions through the Messiah. … [The story of the magi] suggests that God finds ways to attract others – or that others discover ways of finding God.”[2]

How do we read the signs of Christ’s coming?  Do we respond to the signs like the magi, arriving with joy, falling to our knees to pay homage?  Are we frightened by the coming Christ, searching for ways to protect ourselves from his rule as did Herod and all of Jerusalem?

Whatever our path to the manger, we arrive “due to the prompting of God, who initiates our asking, our seeking, and our finding.”[3]  The light of Christ appears in our lives in ordinary and extraordinary ways.  “When we tell the stories of our encounters with God – in community, in nature, in relationship, in the chambers of our own hearts – we give testimony to the ongoing revelation of the Word made flesh.”[4]  Like the magi of long ago, we share our discovery of the One who comes to save even us, the One who loves us even now.  The One whose light shines still in the darkness, and is never overcome.

[1] Merrian-Webster online dictionary

[2] Matthew L. Skinner, Connections, Year C, Volume 1, 158, 159

[3] Stephen Bauman, Feasting on the Word C/1, 216

[4] Barbara Brown Taylor, Feasting on the Word C/1, 217


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