Every year, my sister Rachel sits down with her junior high science class and they have a serious conversation about stars. They talk about the role of stars in navigation, their use in determining the seasons, when the time is right to sow seeds and harvest crops. In December, they considered the appearance of the "Christmas Star," two planets, Jupiter and Saturn, which hadn’t crossed paths in a way visible to the human eye in over 800 years. The alignment of these planets produced one bright star-like light on December 21st, the exact date of the solstice. An extraordinary sign in what had been an eventful year.
Sometimes when talking about stars, my sister’s class reflects on the work of an astrophysicist, the late Carl Sagan, who wrote: “The nitrogen in our DNA, the calcium in our teeth, the iron in our blood, the carbon in our apple pies were made in the interiors of collapsing stars. We are made of star stuff”.
Rachel says the beauty of being made of star stuff is that all humans, all animals, all plants, all life is made from elements carried in the womb of a star and then birthed through the death of a star. We are all made of star dust and will eventually be star dust again when our own star, the sun, dies.
The whole thing “has an ashes to ashes feel to it” she says.
Today on the feast of the Epiphany I ask you: how do humans use stars, particularly the people we encounter in the sacred texts we read this time of year?
The magi in our gospel reading, or the wise ones as they’re sometimes called, they use the stars to discern a shift in the universe, a change in the celestial sphere which they believe governs the rise and fall of rulers. In religious art, the magi are portrayed with black or brown skin, some say there were Zoroastrian priests or kings from a region in Persia where astrology was a common practice amongst the religious caste. In other traditions, the magi are Chinese royalty in accordance with ancient documents which chart travel along what would become the Han dynasty’s infamous silk road.
In our Western Christian interpretations we say there are three magi and we name them Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar, one for each gift (gold, frankincense, and myrrh) offered before the Christ-child. But in Eastern traditions, Syriac churches, for example, celebrate as many as twelve magi (reflecting the importance of the number 12 in the Bible).
Whoever the magi were and however many they were, one thing is clear: they are wisdom seekers---looking to a power beyond themselves that could help make sense of the earthly powers under which they lived. They notice a star that isn’t usually visible suddenly appear and they consider this a cosmic universal shift with local implications.
Once the magi see this star at its rising, they make their way to Jerusalem, a seat of political and religious authority. The magi have enough of an influence among the citizens and residents of the region that King Herod is deeply troubled when they mobilize. You see, the newborn the magi are seeking is rumoured to be made of king stuff: he’s of royal lineage, his arrival heralded as a Virgin birth---a common way for the birth of powerful rulers in the Roman Empire to be storied. Herod is threatened by the magi’s inquiry and he does what fragile rulers do when their kingdoms start to crumble: Herod threatens the magi’s lives and orders them to return with the exact coordinates of this baby, so that this threat to his authority can quickly and definitively be snuffed out.
When the magi do find the Christ child they are overwhelmed with joy. The reference here is to the kind of joy Elizabeth has when she learns her niece Mary is carrying a child promised to be a saviour, a saviour particularly for the marginalized and the vulnerable. The kind of joy the magi experience can be likened to Ruth’s joy, Ruth an ancestor named in Jesus’ family tree who, when she learns her work in the harvest has resulted in an engagement to the wealthy landowner, she is overwhelmed with joy, joy that she and her mother in law will not starve. The magi are overwhelmed with joy because they are relieved. Having been ordered to find the child or else, their lives are now no longer in danger.
I don’t know about you, but I think I could have understood if the magi returned to Herod, told him where to find the baby, and washed their hands of the whole thing. But, the trouble is, when you’re someone who believes your life is held not in the destructive powers of this world, but, as the old hymn goes, “in the sun, moon, and stars in their courses above”, there’s always another way, another risk you are called to take. Which is exactly what happens: having been warned in a dream, the magi make the very brave choice not to participate in Herod’s rule and they look for strength beyond themselves to guide them home by another road.
The magi use the stars to discern a cosmic shift in the universe that has local implications. How, then, ought we to use the stars in our own lives?
Every year in this Cathedral church, paper stars are hung from the ceiling throughout the Advent and Christmas seasons. This year, people were invited to write a prayer on one of these stars and mail it in so that the prayers of our community could be together in a year when we couldn’t physically gather. To me, these stars reflect the hopes and dreams and deepest cries of citizens and residents in and around the regions of Vancouver that we call home.
They represent the desire at the heart of the magi’s journey: the appeal to a power greater than ourselves for an incarnation, a new way of life to rise up and challenge everything that makes our world unjust, a new power that will dismantle the systems and authorities which make people fear for their lives or leave people hurting in their relationships. And these stars represent thanksgiving to God for the ways that power is already at work.
My invitation for you today on the Feast of the Epiphany is this: would you take a moment, wherever you are, to imagine a star? Imagine its immeasurable beauty and its incarnate worth, and would you place inside that star whatever it is you’re holding in your heart? We are all made of star stuff and it’s beneath a star that the Creator of the Universe chooses to lay their head.