Star of Wonder, Star of Night,
Star with Royal Beauty bright,
Guide us to Thy perfect Light.
(as printed in Hopkins, Carols, Hymns, and Songs, 1st ed., 1863)
Today is Epiphany. The day in the church calendar year where we celebrate the Magi coming to Bethlehem to honor Jesus after following a star ‘in the East’ for many years. I don’t know how many Christmas pageants that I’ve participated in where the 3 Kings had star billing. In my head I can see the 3 boys with paper crowns and some mama’s purple velour tunic making their way up the church aisle with old bottles of perfume and a bag of gold foil coins. Then the humble kneeling in front of the dolly in the manger (or the real baby if one of my friends had a kid brother or sister of an appropriate age that year), and the gentle placing of the gifts in front of Mary. I love those memories. Its Christmas Eve wonder at its best, even though I never got to be Mary or the Angel Gabriel and one year I was even stuck being a shepherd in some Dad’s ugly brown bathrobe.
According to the book of Matthew, the Magi attracted the interest of King Herod I of Judaea by announcing Jesus’ birth: “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). Having already learned the place of Jesus’ birth from the priests and scribes, Herod extracted from the Magi the exact date on which the star heralding the birth appeared as confirmation of the biblical prophecy. He then sent them to see the baby, basically ordering them to tell him where this baby was. The Magi went on to Bethlehem, where they worshipped Jesus and offered him gifts. (You know, Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh) Warned in a dream not to return to Herod, “they left for their own country by another road” (Matthew 2:12). The ensuing slaughter of young male children in Bethlehem by Herod in an attempt to kill the baby Jesus is commemorated on the Feast of the Holy Innocents.
So there’s this huge cognitive dissonance for me between my longing for the sweetness and innocence of the Christmas Pageants I grew up with and the harsh reality of the story of the birth of Jesus. We never talk about the jealous King who assembled his whole government to figure out a strategy to deal with the birth of Jesus. We forget the long journey of scholars (not kings, as we sing about in our Christmas Carols) who are trying to follow what they know is right and solid direction, even though the prophecies they studied were not part of their own religious heritage. We forget that the journey didn’t end with the scholars worshiping Jesus, but instead with Mary and Joseph escaping with their child into Egypt because Herod had ordered that all the mass murder of all boy children under the age of 2. We never talk about Joseph having to wait until Herod dies before he can return home; and then not even being able to go to his hometown; instead he had to settle in Nazareth; a town nearly 200 kilometers north.
I long for the comfort and the sanitized Christmas pageant version of Epiphany, but I’m wondering is there is a something about the grittiness and the desperation of the biblical Epiphany that can hold a message for us in our second Covid January.
You see, we have our own scholars – looking at the data – reading the science – and pointing all of the time at the way out of it all. And we have our government, holding meetings where they hear from the scholars but instead of following the star of hope that points the way out, they are threatened. “But if I do that then I may not get re-elected in the next federal election”. The scientists go forward, following their hope, paying homage to their hope, but then are forced to separate themselves from the government because they know that the government isn’t about hope – the government is about power.
And then what happens? Well – I really hope that we don’t get the Covid equivalent of the mass murder of the “Slaughter of the Innocents”.
I do hope this. And its not a ‘vain hope’. This is Hope based on what I know of my peeps – you, my Bethel Friends, about what it means to listen to science, to look for God’s hope in the science and to speak against the government. I have Hope because I know that you will not stand for people who are vulnerable and innocent in our society being sacrificed to jealous political leaders. I have Hope because I know that when you pay honour to the infant Jesus, you hold in your mind all of the warm childhood memories of paper crowns and your dad’s bathrobe, but know also that as adults that you are charged with caring for the ‘least of these’.
And that, my Bethel friends, I think is the ‘Star of Wonder’ that we need to follow this Epiphany. One that in the words of Micah 6:8 requires us to “Do justly, love Mercy and Walk Humbly with our God”. At the end of this all, after our own escape to Egypt, we won’t be returning exactly to the place that we left; but we will return to a place where we can settle and we can thrive.
Because that’s our Epiphany – isn’t it.
Blessings today and remember you are Loved