Year A, The Feast of the Epiphany 2020
Sermon preached at Trinity on the Green, New Haven
*with special thanks to the boys of the Choir of Men and Boys for their active participation in this sermon!
My father-in-law has taken up the hobby of astronomy in recent years – the hobby of stargazing. Having always been the one in the family to go to bed early, he now stays up late into the night to get the best and clearest view of the stars. The rest of the family finds this astounding. He showed us his newest and most impressive telescope when we visited back in October. He takes great joy and delight in it all, and it has caused me to slow down and occasionally notice the night skies with a renewed sense of joy and delight.
The wise men “observed his star at its rising.” I asked my father-in-law, who is a very thoughtful person of faith, if his hobby of stargazing had any impact on his thoughts on the Feast of the Epiphany, which we celebrate today, the Feast of the Wise Men visiting young Jesus and his mother. I asked him this, especially considering the star that the wise men followed. He in turn sent me a link to a forum of amateur astronomers, who were also arguing this question: what was this Star of Bethlehem? (1) A popular theory is that the star was really a planetary conjunction – where 2 or more planets line up closely together in the sky. Or maybe it was a comet. Or perhaps, although unlikely, the star of Bethlehem was a supernova – a supernova being when a large star basically explodes. Interestingly, whatever it was, an unprecedented amount of astronomical activity happened in the 5 year period from the years 7 BCE to 2 BCE and has been documented, with nova, comets, eclipses, and a host of rare conjunctions. Maybe that’s just a coincidence?
Of course, there were cynics on the forum, who said the star had to be fiction, and then another who said it had to be “miracle, a miracle seen only by the shepherds and the Magi–and by definition, miracles are not natural phenomena. One does not need an astronomical event. Just go with the story. Were it an actual astronomical event, seen by anybody, the king’s astrologers would have noted it, and it would not have been a surprise to the king requiring the killing of the two-years-and-under innocents.”
I hadn’t truly appreciated until now that the Bible makes good mention of space related phenomena. The early books of the Bible tell of the importance of stars. The Book of Amos says, “Seek him that maketh the seven stars and Orion, and turneth the shadow of death into the morning, and maketh the day dark with night: The LORD is his name:” In the Book of Job, reference is made to 3 constellations of stars – the Bear, Orion, and the Pleiades. In the Book of Genesis, the LORD tells childless Abram that his descendants shall be as many as the uncountable stars. The psalms also make many mentions of the stars, the Morning Star, the sun and the moon. And we draw on all of that in our own Eucharistic Prayer C, commonly referred to as “the Star Wars Prayer,” one that never seems to get prayed at Trinity – the one that celebrates “the vast expanse of interstellar space, galaxies, suns, the planets in their courses,and this fragile earth, our island home.”
The celestial bodies, and in particular the stars have long held meaning for the people of God, as this one star does for the Wise Men.
My father-in-law and I agree that neither of us actually feel the need to determine the science behind that star of Bethlehem – the star that guided the Wise Men. The importance of the event, marked by this star, is the broadening of the story of God beyond Israel to all nations – with the ancient-world view that events in the heavens reflect earthly happenings. The true importance of this feast is that Jesus is revealed to the Gentiles – to all nations – all people – even and including us.
There are many theories on who the Wise Men were – They may have been magicians, or Zorastrians. They may have been Court priests, serving the rulers of Persia, in what is present-day Iran (a country that has been in the news this week). Or, like my father-in-law, they may have simply been stargazers. As star-studiers, they may have interpreted the heavens, and told leaders of their meaning. As such, they could pay a heavy price if their message was not what their rulers wanted.
And as much as we have grown accustomed to “We Three Kings,” there is only mention of three gifts, not three individuals. And the names Balthasar, Melchior and Gaspar is an Armenian tradition: they are not listed in our Biblical account.
Whoever they were exactly they were likely quite learned. And they were seekers. They were risk takers. They wanted to see and experience God. The line I love the most in our Gospel story today is that when the Wise Men saw that the star had stopped, when they had found Jesus, “they were overwhelmed with joy.”
It is also important to recall that the Wise Men went home by another road. They resisted King Herod. They trusted the warning in their dreams. I often wonder if they eventually got caught and were punished. It is always fitting in our times and as Christians to ask ourselves what or who might we need to resist. What or who might we need to say a loud and solid “no” to. Some things may be obvious: I hope we will all resist anti-semitism, at all times but especially in the wake of a slew of recent anti-semitic attacks, to stand up with and for our Jewish kin in the wake of these attacks. We must say no to war, to demand that our leaders work for peace and justice in our world. And as we remember the slaughter of the innocents in the season of Christmas, the killing of all boys aged 2 years old and younger and under by King Herod, the passage that comes immediately following our story today, we must resist separation of families at our border, and the keeping of children in conditions that are resulting in trauma, disease and death. In this season of Epiphany, there are likely many things and people to which we must say NO.
And to what and who do we need to say YES? What star do we need to follow in this new year to journey closer to Jesus?
If you are one to take on a New Year’s Resolution, I hope you may also consider an Epiphany resolution – nothing restrictive. No high standards to live up to, no pounds to lose, or habits to break. Instead, what is one thing to take on that could lead you even closer to Jesus? Can each of us try one thing that has the potential to lead us to be overwhelmed with the joy of Jesus, like the Wise Men experienced?
In this new year, may we strengthen ourselves and each other in our mission to learn, grow, serve, and love each other. May we try to be as wise, discerning, and generous as the Wise Men. May we find time to gaze at the stars, to appreciate their beauty, and to thank the God who made them. At the heart of the story of the Epiphany is that the Wise Men found Jesus, and were overcome with joy. At the heart of the story of the Epiphany is that we have also found Jesus – and with that sense of joy, may we cling to the hope that a better world is possible.