Epiphany: Star of Wonder, Star of Light
Many of you probably noticed the news stories about the “Great Conjunction” that happened just before Christmas - the planets Jupiter and Saturn appeared closer together in our night sky than they have in hundreds of years. Many speculate that this periodic close conjunction of planets in the night sky is what was understood to be the Star of Bethlehem - the star that the Magi, the visitors to the Christ-child we also know as Kings or Wise Men - the star they used to learn of Jesus’ birth and to guide them to find the child after they traveled from distant lands in the East.
Of course, since it is 2020, this era of “Fake News” that we’re in, the internet was immediately inundated with photoshopped images claiming to be images of the Great Conjunction, images that looked remarkably like the Star of Bethlehem in artwork of the Nativity of Jesus. The real thing didn’t look quite like that, and of course we in Central New York couldn’t see anything but clouds anyway. But the real, unaltered images of this visible-one-in-a-lifetime conjunction of planets still brought some hope at the end of 2020, such a long, hard year. People seemed really excited to observe this special astronomical event.
Why is that? Why were folks so excited about this event in our night sky? I can’t answer for everyone, of course, but I think we are looking for any signs of hope we can find this year. And something that we can interpret as confirmation that the story of Christmas is true, that God is really with us, that there’s someone we can lean on and trust to build us back up when everything in our world seems to be falling apart? Well, I think this Bethlehem Star - this convergence of planets - symbolizes our hopes and dreams in the midst of a season of great trial, grief, and hardship.
Today is Epiphany Sunday. The word Epiphany is from a Greek word that means literally “coming to light,” or “shining forth” - words easily connected with a shining star in the sky. Epiphany is the day when we celebrate the Magi, Wisemen from the East, coming to see Jesus and bringing him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Their visit to Jesus is significant because it represents that Jesus is light to the whole world, celebrated even by these foreign strangers, not just the people of Israel, not just a chosen few. Jesus is the light of and for the whole world.
We really know very little about these Magi. The Magi appear only in this passage from Matthew. Matthew describes them as men from the East, which maybe may have meant they were astrologers from Persia, interpreters of stars and dreams. That word Magi signifies that these visitors were priestly astrologers, perhaps Zoroastrians, an Eastern religious tradition. The idea that they were kings comes from a verse of a Psalm that talks about kings bringing gifts to the Messiah – a loose connection at best. The number three was just layered onto tradition over time, perhaps because three gifts are named, along with traditional names for each of three wise men. But again, these ideas are not mentioned in the Bible. What the Bible does tell us is that these wise men came to the palace of King Herod looking for a newborn king, since they had seen a star that was significant to them.
We don’t even know why the Magi would be interested in seeing a new king of the Jewish people, since they themselves were not Jewish. But we do know that when they were looking for this new king, they expected to find him at the palace. Instead, at the palace, they find Herod. Herod, known as Herod the Great, was a powerful and ruthless leader. Israel was occupied by Rome, and Herod was a Jewish King with Roman approval, because Herod made it clear he would do what Rome wanted. He tried to figure out which Roman leader would end up with all the power, and then he ingratiated himself to whoever that person was. He was a lavish spender, building up wealth for himself, and living extravagantly. And rumors swirled that Herod would make sure anyone who questioned his power was thwarted. Still, though, opinions about his popularity as a ruler are mixed - some people loved the tyrannical king, glad to have someone advocating for a better position for Israel with the oppressive Romans. (1)
When the Magi show up announcing that they are looking for a child who is the new King of the Jewish people? Herod is petrified, and Matthew says others are too. Of course Herod is afraid: he’ll do anything to hold onto his power, and here is a threat to his rule that wasn’t on his radar, a complete shock to him. He stops at no lengths to make sure this child is eliminated. He misleads the Magi, and has all the children who might potentially be this king the Magi are seeking slaughtered, which happens just after today’s reading. There is no way Herod will let go of his power easily. And why would he? Who voluntarily gives up power, prestige, control, and wealth?
It’s harder to immediately figure out why everyone else was afraid of the Magi announcing the arrival of another king. If Herod was generally, well, a jerk, why would anyone be upset to hear about another king arriving? I go back to thinking about how excited we’ve all been about the Bethlehem Star - or planets, that is, and how much we’ve needed a sign of hope, something to ground us, something to make everything feel ok. As much as 2020 is a unique year in our lives, the longing for hope, grounding, and feeling like everything is going to be ok is not unique. Sure, Herod was a tyrant - but at least you could depend on that! At least with Herod in charge, you knew your place and what to expect. He was no King David, but at least someone was in charge, someone who was making sure Israel was ok even if it was occupied by Rome, as Herod held on to every bit of power he could get. Whoever the Magi were talking about, this new ruler, was a total known.
Herod is threatened by Jesus because Jesus exposes the fake “everything is going to be just fine” that Herod has been peddling. Jesus is a threat to Herod because from the moment of his birth, Jesus is a ruler in a way Herod is not - by giving away power instead of grasping it, by being among the people - the poor especially - instead of over them. Jesus is a threat because while Herod tries to ingratiate himself with everyone who is more powerful than he is, Jesus only aims to do the will of God, whatever it costs. And Jesus is a threat because while Herod wants to lull people into thinking he’s giving them what they want, Jesus is able to give what we need. What we need is God with us, and the ability to trust in that promise. And Jesus gives us that, always. The year we’ve been through - it’s been hard. And we have difficult days yet to come. But it will be ok - not because everything will be made easy, but because God-with-us is just that - with us. Maybe sometimes even we, like Herod, feel threatened by Jesus, with all the ways he upsets what feels known and stable. But the Magi recognized that Jesus was the real deal, and Herod was just a substitute that wouldn’t hold up to scrutiny. An epiphany - Jesus is a light that shines truth and hope on the world.
I want to share with you a poem from Ann Weems, meant for Christmas, but I think it works just right for our Epiphany celebration today, too. It’s called “Star Giving.”
What I’d really like to give you for Christmas is a star…
Brilliance in a package,
something you could keep in the pocket of your jeans
or in the pocket of your being.
Something to take out in times of darkness,
something that would never snuff out or tarnish,
something you could hold in your hand,
something for wonderment,
something for pondering,
something that would remind you of
what Christmas has always meant:
God’s Advent Light into the darkness of this world.
But stars are only God’s for giving,
and I must be content to give you words and wishes
and packages without stars.
But I can wish you life
as radiant as the Star
that announces the Christ Child’s coming,
and as filled with awe as the shepherds who stood beneath its light.
And I can pass on to you the love
that has been given to me,
ignited countless times by others
who have knelt in Bethlehem’s light.
Perhaps, if you ask, God will give you a star. (2)
On Epiphany, we celebrate that God indeed gives us a star, more wondrous than any planetary alignment, shining a light and hope into our world more vibrant than any celestial body: Jesus Christ, light of the world. Let’s pass on the love and light we find in God-with-us, gift for the world, source of hope, and ground of being. Amen.
Drawn from wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Herod_the_Great
Ann Weems, Kneeling in Bethlehem, The Westminster Press, 1980. Found at http://www.breadnotstones.com/2012/12/star-giving-ann-weems.html.