We prayed at the beginning of the service about the magi who discovered Jesus by the leading of a star. Aren’t we like those magi, I wonder? Aren’t we on a journey of discovering Christ in the dark night of our wanderings?
Maybe at the beginning of the New Year you are looking for something more in your life. Maybe, like the magi, you search for God in the midst of all that is wrong in the world today. You want to be on this journey of discovery. But you can’t find Christ. You can’t see God.
How do we discover Christ?
We need guidance, to be sure. On the journey of faith, the symbols, rituals, and traditions – like the star – all serve this higher purpose: some guidance on the path towards Jesus.
Over the centuries, the stars have captivated explorers and those travelling on journeys. Astronomers, astrologists and theologians have all weighed in with their various explanations and interpretations of the Christmas star.
The Christmas star has been thought to be the result of a supernova explosion, a comet or a conjunction of planets as was the case this year with Saturn and Jupiter aligning up in the night sky. Medieval writers believed the magi saw a bright angel, which they mistook for a star.
In the German Lutheran tradition, the Christmas Tree came from Martin Luther who in the sixteenth century noticed the starlight shining through the trees where he was walking outside.
When he brought an evergreen tree into his house at Christmas, and put lighted candles on its branches, he pointed to the lights on the tree as symbols of the stars, and hence the light of the world that came that first Christmas.
Traditions and rituals always point to something beyond the obvious. As the writer of Hebrews says, “faith is the conviction of things not seen …[and] what is seen was made from things that are not visible.”In other words, faith is about how and why we see what we see.
The star of Bethlehem, then, was not meant to be a scientific, astronomical event. It wasn’t necessarily an extraordinary celestial event, but an ordinary star seen through the extraordinary eyes of the magi. They had “eyes to see”, a kind of seeing about which Jesus spoke in the Gospel.This is a seeing that appreciates the ordinary in an extraordinary way. That is faith.
We have to put our traditions and interpretations in perspective. We need to remember, as Saint Augustine long ago wrote, “Christ was not born because the star shone forth, but it shone forth because Christ was born.”Form follows function, not the other way around.
The magi were already on their journey to find God when God found them. And on that journey, they discovered love. Love was the signpost, the mile marker, on their journey. They discovered that God found them in the love of a baby born in Bethlehem. In humble estate. Surrounded by the love of ordinary parents. Their hearts were moved on an otherwise hostile, dangerous journey.
The journey to God is an eternal discovery and growth. Stars don’t stop. They keep moving. The constellations are in constant motion from our perspective. That the star “stopped” refers not to the ordinary motion of the planets but to the magi finally recognizing the Christ child surrounded by love.
God is not a fixed point but a moving centre within us and within all of creation. The farther and longer the journey, God continues to draw us into the immeasurable depths of God’s loving being.This journey of discovering and experiencing God requires of us not intellectual understanding nor study so much as an abandoning ourselves to, and marvelling at, God’s love when we happen across it.
The world does stop when we fall in love. But we move forward on this journey trusting that this love holds us and leads us into the unknown future. Dante wrote that God is “the love that moves the stars.”
All we need to do, is turn our faces towards that guiding star. And keep going. In Jesus, God has sent out a beacon of light, “that all who are lost in this great night might see it and turn towards it, in order to find their way home.”
James C. Howell, “Mathew 2:1-12” in David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary (Kentucky: WJK Press, 2008), p.212-215.
Hebrews 11:1-3 (NRSV).
Mark 8:18 (NRSV).
Cited in Howell, ibid., p.214.
Teilhard de Chardin, The Divine Milieu (Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2001) p.114-115.
Cited in James C. Howell, ibid., p.214.