Our sacred scriptures offer two stories about the birth of Jesus. We tend to conflate the gospels of Matthew and Luke, especially in our manger scenes and our Christmas pageants. It’s good to honor and savor both. Jewish scholar Amy Jill Levine writes that
“Each Evangelist has different concerns to be shared with readers. Our role as historians is to ask, “What would these stories have conveyed to the people who first heard them?” Our role as readers is to ask, “What do these stories mean to me personally, and what have they meant to my tradition over time?”
While we heard the story about the birth of Jesus tonight from the Gospel of Luke, I want to talk about the Christmas star that only shows up in the Gospel of Matthew. The star the Magi followed to find the Baby Jesus.
The ancients believed that astronomical phenomena were connected to earthly events. Miracles were routinely associated with the birth of important people, includingGreek & Roman heroes. The movement of stars informed calendars, mythology, dreams, prophecies & more. In our contemporary age, living in the city with artificial light, as most of us do, makes it more difficult to practice Stargazing. We rarely look up to study the skies. But three nights ago, on the Winter Solstice, the night sky over the Northern Hemisphere treated stargazers to a celestial event as Jupiter & Saturn appeared to meet in what astronomers call the “Great Conjunction” – appearing closer and more vibrant than at any time in 800 years. It was a rare spectacle for those with clear skies. Not so in the PNW, where rainy and cloudy skies on the longest night of the year blocked our view and we simply waited for others to capture this rare event with telescopes and stunning photos. This event provided inevitable speculation about whether they formed the “Christmas/Bethlehem star”
The last time there was a visible great conjunction was 800 years ago in 1226 – right after the death of Francis of Assisi, soon after the birth of Thomas Aquinas, who is considered the great doctor of the church, and halfway through construction of the Notre Dame cathedral in Paris. Before that, the most famous great conjunction occurred about 7 B.C.E.—auspiciously close to when scholars say Jesus was born. Close enough that some believe that great conjunction WAS the Star of Bethlehem.
The Star of Bethlehem is traditionally linked to the prophecy of Numbers 24:17 –
“I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not near; A Star shall come out of Jacob; A Scepter shall rise out of Israel.”
Throughout scripture, we find multiple references to God’s creation in the night sky.
Ps 8:3 “When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon & the stars, which you have set in place, who are we that you are mindful of us human beings – that you care for us?”
Ps. 147:4 – God counts the number of the stars; God gives names to all of them. Great is our Lord and abundant in strength; God’s understanding is infinite.
Isaiah 40:26 – Lift up your eyes on high And see who has created these stars.
One of the ways stars show up in Jewish tradition is by signaling the end of the Sabbath. According to the rabbis, the Sabbath concludes when 3 stars are visible in the night sky. Why three I wonder? And then I wonder if it is not necessarily about the number, but more about the spiritual practice of paying attention to the night sky and God’s grace.
For ancient peoples, stars were the greatest reminder that there was purpose in creation, a purpose that unfolded night after night as they watched the stars trek across the night sky. Right now, in the midst of so much suffering in our world, with so many people dying and suffering from COVID-19, with new mutations of the virus that “may be up to 70 % more transmissible” threatening our global planet; with political unrest and economic suffering throughout the world – these stories remind us of the limits of our human capacity. How wonderful, that God would give us such a sign of God’s presence in this year of all years. In displaying the Great Convergence, as God shone a light in the sky when Jesus was born 2,000 years ago, is kind of like God waving to us in the midst of our troubled world, and it feels, in an odd way, a bit comforting. It was not lost on me, that following the shortest day and the longest night of all of 2020, and following the Great Convergence, December 22nd dawned clear and bright. And Into this world God reminds us that God is still with us – Emmanuel.
And, so it was, according to the Gospel of Matthew, that the Magi found their way to Baby Jesus, using the Star in the sky as a guide. There is great debate about how this star apparently “went before” the magi to stop where Jesus was. Whatever it was, however it happened, something wondrous occurred as the Magi listened deeply to how God was speaking into creation and the natural world of the night sky – paying attention. Perhaps they would describe their experience with the more contemporary words of Madeleine L’Engle, “as the foundation for all other such glimpses of glory.”
In the Disney movie Moana, the protagonist wants to save her people and must restore the heart of the ocean. She meets up with the demi-god Maui & begs him: “Teach me to sail!” Moana doesn’t know how to sail, or how to use the stars as a guide. Maui replies, “It’s called Wayfinding, Princess,” which is an ancient Polynesian practice of navigating the ocean – observing the swells of the water & the stars in sky. It’s more than nautical skill.
“It’s not just sails & knots. It’s seeing where you’re going in your mind. And knowing where you are, by knowing where you’ve been.”
Navigating this pandemic and sometimes navigating our own lives is like Learning to Walk through the fog – like this morning, through rain and dark, stormy days, like on the Winter Solstice. Our journey to the manger is about Wayfinding and paying attention to glimpses of God’s glory & manifestation in our midst. It’s about remembering who we are, and to whom we belong – through the incarnation of God. Later, the first Christians who followed Jesus would be called the People of the Way. Could we be so bold to call ourselves People of the Way as Wayfinders? Trusting WHERE God is leading us, trusting THAT God is leading – even in the midst of the pandemic, even in the dark, giving us stars and planets and the moon to light our path.
St. Augustine said, “Christ was not born because the star shone forth, but it shone forth because Christ was born.”
Carl Sagan, astronomer & Astrophysicist, said that we, as well as most of the matter on Earth, are literally made of the stuff of stars – we are star dust.
“We are a way for the universe to know itself. Some part of our being knows this is where we came from. We long to return. And we can, because the cosmos is also within us. We’re made of star stuff.”
So…you Wayfinders you are made of star stuff…you are made of the light of God, the Christ light. You hold the One born in the light of the stable within your very being, the One named Emmanuel – born to be God With us and God within us. As we journey to the manger, may the incarnation of Christ be the foundation for all other such glimpses of glory.”