Imagine that you could look at the sky and know from the positioning of a star that it declares the birth of a king, a child with the potential to change the world in infinite ways in just 33 short years.
Imagine that you could look at a person and see the light shining from within them, that divine spark that we’ve each hold within us.
One of the most beautiful images I won’t soon forget is of each of your faces, illuminated by the candles that you held as we sang “Silent Night” together on Christmas Eve. We might have to start a new tradition of inviting groups of parishioners to come into the chancel that evening, to see what those of us up here can see: beautiful faces, glowing in the light of single candles, lit to remind us of the light coming into the world through the birth of the Christ child. The image of illuminated faces is a metaphor for the real, but invisible concept of the light that shines in each one of us, the divine spark in each of our hearts, the potential that each of us have by virtue of our existence as part of this human family, as beloved children of God.
Upon first glance, the Gospel lesson today appears to be one that we’ve heard many times, and so we know the story. It’s the passage that goes with the hymn “We Three Kings.” It’s the story of bringing gifts to the baby Jesus: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. It’s a predictable story, and one that we know well. But if we look deeper into the story, and we allow some outside, scholarly voices to guide us, we might uncover more details, that add even more luminosity to the story. Even with more facts, we get more mystery.
To begin with, in this Gospel lesson, nowhere can the word “kings” be found. Matthew tells us about three wise men, magi, which means not that they were magicians, but, according to scholars, that they were astrologers “who studied the heavens for portents of significant events.” Additionally, they were probably not alone, on horseback or camels, approaching Bethlehem, but part of a larger caravan that included servants and supplies, enough to make a journey of several weeks or possibly months.
We tend to picture three kings who ride up to Herod’s throne, get the word to go on to the baby in the manger, freshly birthed and scrubbed and a few days old, and then the wise men scoot off as if going down the block, led by a shiny star on top of the next streetlamp. But if we look closely here, we might also see that quite a bit of time may have passed since Jesus was actually born. If Herod is so threatened by what the wise men have seen: a star in the sky that foretells the birth of a king, a king who Herod realizes is not him, and he declares that all male children 2 or younger are to be put to death, then perhaps up to two years’ time has passed since Jesus’ birth occurred. This also puts a different spin on our images of the wise men coming into the manger; the phrase “on entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother” might refer to a toddling Jesus hiding behind his mother’s skirts, peeking around from behind her knees, instead of a brand-new, pink, puffy infant sleeping in a cradle.
To me, the most fascinating part of rediscovering the details of this Bible story is the suggestion that by the alignment of the stars in the sky, the magi could KNOW that a king had been born to the population. This is why they go and ask Herod: “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.”
When Herod hears this, we can imagine that sort of hollowed-out, cold feeling in the center of his chest, the kind of feeling you get when you hear news that you just don’t want to hear. These magi, these experts in telling of world events based on the stars in the sky, have come to look for the king of the Jews, whom they know is a small child, and who Herod must know, in one sweeping moment of unsettling certitude, is not him. This spawns Herod’s order to do away with male children two years and younger, a horrible, evil, plan to preserve his power, to rid the world of the one come to usurp him, a tragic decree because it causes the loss of life of so many baby boys, and yet not the one who was Herod’s target in the first place.
The reason that Jesus was able to live was due to the courage and the integrity of the magi, who, in keeping with the theme of dreams and visions in Matthew’s Gospel, had been warned in a dream that if they returned to Herod as they’d been commanded, to give word of where Herod could find the child, that Herod would not, as he had suggested, go and pay the baby king homage, but rather go and take the life of the child so that he could no longer be a threat.
The magi, whom we think we know so well because we’ve heard this story so many times, might have more to teach us than we originally thought. Upon first glance, the story is predictable: they see a star, they check it out with Herod, they go find Jesus, they give him gifts, they go on their merry way.
But when we unpack the details, we see the richness of the story, and the terror, too: the richness of the mystical skills of the magi to see important events foretold in the alignment of the stars. Terror at the reaction of Herod and the desire to maintain his power through the ending of many innocent lives, the way the effects of his decree must have rippled through families who were impacted by tragedy. The mystery of the dream that comes to the magi that causes them to disobey Herod’s order to return, and instead to continue back to their homes without telling Herod where to find the child.
The magi are trained to read the stars to find out major events happening in their day. But I’d like to suggest that they don’t just read the stars for the facts, they look at the stars and they see potential. They see in the night sky the telling of what might be, what is to come, what could change the world.
In fact, scholars also suggest that between the time that the magi first see the star, then go to Herod to inquire about the king, then set off for Bethlehem—they haven’t seen the star again since the initial sighting. It is after they leave Herod’s palace and are traveling away that the star reappears, perhaps just for them, just to guide them, and to take them to pay homage and bear witness to the birth of this tiny king, Jesus the Christ.
Upon first glance, this story seemed predictable, run-of-the-mill, same-old, same-old Christmas-time Bible passage, but as we uncover more and more of the details, we are more and more fascinated by the way in which the events unfolded following Jesus’ birth.
Upon first glance, many of our lives may seem predictable, run-of-the-mill, same-old, same-old. We get up each morning, we do our chores or our jobs for the day, we rear our children, we earn our paychecks, we go to bed at night, hoping for a sound sleep and another day to wake, feeling restful.
But when we peer into the lives of those around us, and certainly our own lives, and we really look, beyond the surface, beyond the assumptions that we can make that we’ve seen this all before, that it’s the same old tale, we realize that we each have a story, a unique and wonderful and painful and complicated story, about who we are and why we’ve done what we’ve done in our lives, about our hopes and dreams and who we can be when we let ourselves grow into the fullness of God’s image for us.
This past week, we celebrated the coming of the New Year, and though I’m not a fan of all of the hoopla that goes along with the celebration, with the year-end lists and the media’s emphasis on the changing of time, I would suggest that part of what the New Year’s holiday does, with the emphasis on making resolutions and having a fresh start, is to reconnect us with our story, each year. It’s the chance to look back over the past year, see what has happened, what has connected us to ourselves, to our friends and family, to new acquaintances and companions, and to God, as well as to see those things that pushed us away, that separated us from those around us, from ourselves, and from God. It’s a chance to say, I want this year to be different, I want this year to align more with the story of who I am and who I am called to be. It’s a chance to realize my potential, the potential that I see in myself, that others have seen in me, that God always sees in me.
It’s an artificial “fresh start,” a created holiday, a hyped-up cultural construct, but it can also be used to our advantage, to consider our best selves, to peel back the layers of what has become assumed, and to see what is authentic and original in us.
It’s a chance for us, perhaps, to consider what we might look like with our faces illuminated by candlelight, if we could see ourselves as others might see us in that moment. It’s a chance for us to consider the potential that we hold within ourselves, if we let our lights shine, if we give to the world the gift of ourselves, the best gifts we have to give.
There’s a beautiful quote by Marianne Williamson that had long been falsely attributed to Nelson Mandela; perhaps you’ve heard it before, but I think that it bears repeating as often as possible:
"Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, and fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small doesn't serve the world. There's nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won't feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We are born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It's not just in some of us, it's in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”
Jesus was one small child, but he bore God to a world in need, and he changed the world forever; we are each one small person, but we bear divinity and humanity and beauty: let us claim our light, arise, and shine for the world to see! Amen.