After Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, Magi from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “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: 1-12; NRSV)
The first constellation I learned to recognize in the night sky was Orion – the Hunter. Most of the others made no sense to me (how could anyone think Taurus looked like a bull?), but Orion I could see. The four corner stars marked the outline of the hunter’s body; the three aligned stars in the middle were his belt; and those fuzzy stars just below the belt were the sword at his side.
Only many years later did I learn that, in some parts of the world, the three stars of Orion’s belt are also called the Three Kings – because during the seasons of Advent and Christmas, they march steadily across the sky from East to West, like the Magi on their way to Bethlehem.
Of course, the Magi were not actually kings; as much as medieval Christians liked the image of foreign kings bowing down before their personal savior, there is nothing in the gospel to suggest they were royalty. Matthew, from whom we receive this part of the Christmas story, never makes these visitors out to be kings. They are called, simply, Magi. Persian astrologers. Students of the stars.
Modern-day students of the stars teach us that the star just south of the “Three Kings” — the “sword” that hangs from Orion’s belt – is not a single star at all, but rather a nebula, a great cosmic cloud within which thousands of new stars are forming. It has been described as a stellar nursery, a celestial cocoon. The Orion Nebula is some 1300 light years away from us; meaning, that it takes more than a millennium, for the light of those new stars to reach us.
By the time it reaches earth, that light has been a long time coming.
The stars reveal to us the ancient history of the cosmos. When astronomers look to the most distant edges of the universe, they are seeing the light of stars that burned long ago. When the Magi looked to the stars, they were studying a text more ancient than the Prophets.
It was against this backdrop of ancient light, that they detected a new light. A newborn star. And seeing it, they pursued it. They asked Herod: “Where is the newborn King? For we have seen his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.”
I love this translation. Some other versions of the Gospel say simply, we have seen his star in the East. But the Greek word Matthew uses means, literally, rising – as in, sunrise. We have seen his star at its rising.
I used to picture this new star as somehow brighter and bigger than all the others – brightest and best of the sons of the morning, as the old hymn goes – but I have begun to doubt that. If it were that obvious, then surely everyone would have been talking about it. But it took these devoted star-gazers, these students of the night sky, to notice it. So now I imagine it as just one star among many, hardly noticeable in the throng. Only the Magi recognized it for what it was: a new light in the old sky. A sign of hope, rising.
We live in time when there are many things on the rise, most of them troubling. You know what these are; you can name them yourselves. Gun violence is on the rise. Hate crimes are on the rise. Anti-semitism is on the rise. Global temperatures are on the rise. World hunger is on the rise. Extinction rates are on the rise. Wildfires are on the rise. And, as the past week has made evident, international tensions are on the rise as well.
In light of this reality, in the glare of these headlines, it can be hard to see any signs of hope. Any new star on the horizon seems pale and dim, compared to the fires burning here on earth.
The Magi, though, took a long view. They trained their eyes on the night sky; they grew accustomed to the ancient light of the heavens. And they saw there a sign, made visible only by the darkness; a tiny light, on the horizon. But it was enough, to make them leave their homes, travel great distances, offer their treasures, and ultimately risk their lives in disobedience to Herod — all in pursuit of that new star.
On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.
We gather here, today, to honor the Magi. Here, following their example, we take the long view. We look at the present, against the backdrop of an ancient light. And we search, together for new light on the rise.
This is the quest of the Magi – not merely to find the new star, but to follow it.
So on this Epiphany Sunday, I offer you this charge: Keep watch. Search for hope at its rising — and when you see it, pursue it. Offer your greatest treasure in its service. And do not be afraid to take a new road home.
Sermon by Rev. Liza B. Knapp, January 5, 2020,
for the First Church of Deerfield, MA.