January 6, 2019

A Star to Follow, A Gift to Bear

Passage: Matthew 2:1–12

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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.  —Matthew 2:2

Everyone had long since gone to bed, but being a what you might call a hippy summer camp with what I now see as a limited understanding of setting rule for children, no one hollered at us to get in our tents, and maybe they didn’t notice us still awake, or had a hunch that we knew just enough about fire safety not to set the whole woods ablaze, so my best friend and I stayed up all night adding logs to the campfire, and when they ran out we used small branches, and then once we’d burned through everything we could find within a short distance of our campground, we burned even the smallest twigs to keep the fire going. We did this for no reason other than that we could—no one told us not to and despite the absurdity of it, we carried on.

It was early summer when the nights were short and the days were long, so as our fire grew smaller and smaller and we were about to resign ourselves to our tents, suddenly the sun began to rise. At first, the dawn light was like a fog rolling up the hill, turning the black night beyond our campfire into a dull grey forest, but then suddenly, the sun came up over the horizon and was ablaze with orange—that same bright color as our overnight campfire flame.

John Steinbeck describes a sunrise more poetically: “the stars still shone and the day had drawn only a pale wash of light in the lower sky to the east. The roosters had been crowing for some time… little birds chittered and flurried their wings. Dawn came quickly now, a wash, a glow, a lightness, and then an explosion of fire as the sun arose. It was a morning like other mornings and yet perfect among mornings.”[1]

It’s been a long time since I have intentionally set out to watch the sun rise. It happens every day, but somehow the actual work of “paying attention” to the sun seems to pass me by—and I’m sure that’s true of our spiritual lives, too, yes? That our actual work of “paying attention” to the daily wonders of God’s love seem to more often than not pass us by?

We are now in the sunrise of the Christian story. The season of Epiphany is the dawning of Christ’s light in the world. The season of Advent was a season of waiting: a time when we tended the fire and some days it seemed as if the flame might go out.

And then on Christmas Eve, we finally find just enough kindling to light our candles against the darkness, humming Silent Night together and awaiting the mystery of God-in-the-manger. But now, on this 12th day of Christmas (when, actually, our Orthodox friends around the world are only now celebrating Christmas Eve), the sun rises over the horizon and all the world (symbolized by those beloved wise men) know the dawning of this new light. The Magi welcome us to the sunrise of the Christian story.

The word Epiphany comes from the Greek: epi meaning ‘on’ or ‘upon’ and the word phaino meaning to cause to appear, to bring light to, to show, to uncover, to reveal, to disclose, to shine, to give light. Maybe you imagine a lightbulb going on over your head when you have an epiphany—that divine “ah ha!”[2] that sparks something new in you.

Epiphany is a sunrise kind of word—where light comes over the horizon, making a pathway for the day to begin. Epiphany is a season of revelation, watching for God’s presence to be revealed in a world-transforming way in Jesus Christ. In the novel A River Runs Through It, the author writes, “At sunrise, everything is luminous but not clear.”[3] That’s where we are in our faith story: light is beginning to shine, and yet the whole story of God’s revelation in Jesus Christ is not yet clear.

Every year in Santa Rosa California, I know of a group of people who meet for an Epiphany Sunrise walk. I wonder how it went this morning? Surely, at least, we know that the sun came up.

Interviewed in the newspaper, the organizer says that “when you walk and feel the Earth beneath our feet, when you watch the sunrise, watch the blanket of darkness slip from the Earth, you realize what a spec you are in the universe. That’s both freeing and humbling.... The sunrise brings a brand new day, a day that has never been before and will never be again. It’s a special gift to share.”[4]

There is something quite compelling to me about this idea: watching the sunrise break forth on the day in which we celebrate the breaking forth of God’s light to all the world? That’s the core of Epiphany, isn’t it? These foreigners, these outsiders, these wise wanderers, these learned stargazers from a far off land come to meet and kneel before the light of the world, the one whose light shines in the darkness and the darkness does not overcome it.

There’s something about an Epiphany Sunrise walk that might give us a metaphorical entryway into this new year, as if in this world full of distractions and full calendars, we need that contemplative time to push us toward noticing God in all things new.

When I was 15, I flew alone for the first time, traveling from Indianapolis to Tulsa to visit a boyfriend whose cross-country move had devastated us. I missed him like any lovestruck teenager would, and at the time, it was still 15 cents per minute to talk long distance (I can still picture my father handing me the phone bill), so it was cheaper to hop on a plane than to spend the weekend on the phone.

Still, I had never flown alone before. I was assigned a seat in the emergency exit, and was taken aback when the stewardess asked if I was prepared to perform the duties listed on the instruction card if in fact there was an emergency. You had to be 15 to sit there, so I barely met the age limit credentials, and talking about emergencies on airplanes sure does put you in touch with your own mortality pretty quickly. All the commotion regarding the emergency exit cued the woman sitting next to me that I was young and traveling alone, and she took me under her wing. I had a layover same as she did, and we even ate lunch together.

At some point over lunch, our conversation turned toward religion, and I remember nothing of what was said, but I can remember the back-of-the-napkin sketch she made of the cross. I’m not even certain what she said about the cross, but it feels as if she must have said something profound, because it stuck with me. In fact, when Bill Evertsberg uses the cross to talk about the vertical and horizontal aspects of God, I think of her and that back-of-the-napkin sketch. Maybe she walked me to my gate, maybe not. I don’t know her name. I remember very little about her physical appearance, she was a white woman with maybe blonde hair?

She was an interloper, a Magi from some other place, carrying with her the three gifts of safety, accompaniment, and wisdom. The star that guided her to give me these gifts. The mother hen intuition of knowing the dangers of traveling alone as a young woman. But, she left as quickly as she arrived. I knew her for maybe three hours. She remains unnamed in my life story, yet there she is, traveling alongside me.

Maybe you have these people in your life, too? Magi who gave you the gift you needed, the gift that carried you on your way? Unnamed people who shifted your life three degrees toward the future that you now know as your life’s path?

That is the Magi’s tale. Unnamed. They are wise foreigners. Travelers. Interlopers. Jesus knew them for maybe three hours, and yet there they are, part of his life story, traveling alongside him. Without the Magi, the birth of Jesus would be unremarkable.

But the gospel writer is trying to cue us in here that this birth has the potential to change the whole world. It was virtually inconceivable in the Ancient Near East “for the birth of an important person to be unaccompanied by a stellar harbinger.”[5] If Jesus is anyone, then a star would attend his birth. Matthew is trying to tell us that the world will not remain the same.

Something important is happening here. Watch. See the light unfold.

The whole world is attuned to this sunrise moment, even people from the far east are coming to see it. And the powers-that-be don’t even notice—Herod himself, and his trusted advisors the priests and scribes don’t even see the star until the Magi come. And then, once they do see it, Herod doesn’t feel admiration, he feels fear. Herod feels the power of it and is frightened, the stability of his leadership and his standing as king is threatened by this birth. And so, Matthew tells us, Herod sets out to stop it all—Jesus’ life is threatened even before he’s able to speak one word of truth to anyone.

My seminary roommate worked in Tucson, Arizona the year before moving to Chicago with me. She was working for a little church—she took me there once—their whole sanctuary could fit inside ours, round and welcoming with room for a few dozen people to sit in concentric circles around the central pulpit. She told many stories of her time there, but two stuck with me.

One was of a man who slept on a mat in her office for weeks on end. After the 88 mile journey through the borderland desert with very little water and poor shoes, his feet were blistered and he was weak, ill from the sun, and every measure of trauma from the desperate hike through unsafe terrain. He looked older than he was, but he was in his early twenties at most. And he had no where else to go, and was escaping from unthinkable nightmares in his home country, so he slept there in her office on a small mat, content to be safe and sheltered, until the church could help him find his way.

The other story is of a woman who slept months later on that same mat, nursing her baby. Having just visited my brother and his wife and their seven-day old baby, I am reminded how vulnerable those early days can be—raw and exhausting. And this woman who slept on my friend’s office floor had lived through those raw, vulnerable days while crossing the desert dreaming of safety and a future with hope.

When I think of Mary and Joseph and their newborn baby whose life was under threat at such an early age, that they, too, must seek shelter in a foreign land, I think of that man’s raw healing feet, and the nursing woman’s courage crossing the desert.

And I wonder, too, what the gifts of the Magi meant to them in those days of escape, when Herod sought to kill them. Was it the gold brought by the Magi who made it possible for them to even begin to dodge the authorities? Was it the gold that allowed them to stay hidden in Egypt until the threat was not gone but at least diminished?

The Epiphany story is a Kenilworth Union story, it is our story, one of enough theological diversity, enough sparkle and wonder, metaphor and symbolism to invite all of us to the table for our own reasons:

  • God found in nature following yonder star.
  • God revealed in ancient scriptures in holy places in the center of Jerusalem.
  • God revealed to outsiders.
  • God revealed on a long hard journey.
  • God revealed in the reality of everyday life.
  • God revealed in gifts given at a critical juncture.

In this sunrise story of God’s light dawning, God’s Epiphany, God’s breaking forth into the world, this is not a perfect world, an idealized world, a fictional fairy land where all is well. The world of Jesus’ birth, and our own world, becomes a place where light is called forth because there is darkness, threat of violence, undue suffering, trouble, illness, power struggles, all the things that make our lives hard. And in all those things, some hope, some love, some transformation, some possibility arises.

The Magi bear gifts and depart as suddenly as they arrive. And yet, Jesus is sheltered and safe, revealed and made known for all the world, for all of us, for each of us, in human vulnerability so as to remind us that God can indeed meet us where we are.

May the God of sunrise meet you in all that life brings in this season of Epiphany.

[1]Steinbeck, John. The Pearl. 1947.

[2]Epiphany as described by Kyra Miller, January 5, 2019.

[3]Maclean, Norman. A River Runs Through It. 1976.

[4]Lockwood, Sunny. “Spring Arrives with Sunrise Walk.” Santa Rosa Press Democrat, 8 May 2015.

[5]Albright, William Foxwell, and C. S. Mann. Matthew. Yale University Press, 2011.