“When the Star Is Gone”
January 6, 2013
Writing about the awareness of time that can weigh heavily upon us as a New Year begins, Samuel Miller once said:
Our bodies and our thoughts are woven of the threads of time; our days and nights are marks of her mastery; our deeds and desires are her children. Here as elsewhere in life we may lose our souls, from too much love of what is gone and too much fear or attention paid to what is not yet come. [But] time is now! The past is present, and all the future we shall ever know is present. The narrow alley in which we live may seem uncomfortably small and precarious, but it is also impenetrably deep and precious.”
We have gone one year further down that deep and precious narrow alley, wandering through a year that most likely will be remembered for its disasters—natural and of human origin—tragedies that still leave us shaken when we recall them.
The days pass, one after another, and no clutching will keep them. Yet they leave their marks upon us, upon our hands and faces, upon our spirits most of all.
So I begin to understand the wisdom of linking Christmas with the coming of the New Year. Early Christians began marking the birth of Jesus on the 25th of December because of the winter solstice. The days are beginning to get just a little longer once more. The light has triumphed over the darkness. What better time to celebrate God with us in Jesus? What better time to mark the advent of the one we call the light of the world?
Without our yearly celebration of incarnation—which concludes today—we would be reluctant to go into another year. Each year the weight of the past gets heavier—the things done that should not have been done, the things left undone that should have been done. Each year the weight of the past gets heavier—and so we continue to seek out this Jesus who tells us his yoke is easy, his burden is light.
This morning we hear again of the magi coming with gifts for the baby Jesus. In the face of all that we have been through, and looking ahead as far as we can see—which, admittedly, isn’t very far at all—this story invitess us into the light.
Oh, we call those ancient visitors the “Three Kings,” but not because we read that in the Bible. We don’t know their names or their ages. Matthew, who is the only one to mention these travelers, simply tells us that they brought three gifts to the infant Jesus. And one gift for each astrologer somehow seems right.
The Magi arrive with what they have. They open their treasure chests.
Look, now. Out of one comes gold. That seems a marvelous gift—fit for a king, fit for the one Micah said would rule Israel.
Another brings forth frankincense—offered as a form of worship to God. Yes, it seems right. Didn’t we just hear Isaiah speak of gold and frankincense being brought to the restored Jerusalem?
But along with gold and frankincense, these astrologers, these wise searchers, bring myrrh—hardly a present for a newborn child. Myrrh, after all, was used in preparing bodies for burial.
Now we are getting somewhere.
It is as though Matthew is hinting that this birth was not the point—or at least not the entire point. The birth of Jesus seems to push ahead toward something still to come. Remember the third king in the familiar carol singing of the future of the baby Jesus: “Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying, sealed in a stone cold tomb.”
Following a star will one day lead to following a cross.
Worshipping a child will one day mean burying the crucified.
And so T.S. Elliot’s Magi ask another question: “Were we brought all this way for birth or for death?”
It’s hard to say, isn’t it?
For birth or death?
This birth also means death—yes, ultimately the death of Jesus—but our death, too. And consequently it means a new life for us—a different life because Jesus lived and died among us, as one of us. He shared the sadness, the fear, and the frustration that we feel—and also laughed and hugged and felt the warm breeze on his face.
Sharing our life, Jesus invites us to live in ways that bring life and hope, courage and peace to others. Because of his life and death and resurrection, we are called out of ourselves and our concerns toward neighbors in need and a world in pain.
Howard Thurman put it well in his wonderful poem:
When the song of the angels is stilled,
when the star in the sky is gone,
when the shepherd and the magi have found their way home,
the work of Christmas is begun:
Find the lost
Heal the broken
Feed the hungry
Release the prisoners
Rebuild the nations
Bring peace among brothers and sisters
Make music in the heart
We rested beside the weary road and heard the angels sing.
The good news came to us once more: Christ is born.
Now, our calling is to bring that good news to a world that is sorrowing, sighing. God’s love that comes as—what?—food, medical care, shelter, human touch, clothing, even music and laughter.
Most of the work of Christmas happens beyond these four walls: in homes and neighborhoods, in offices, stores, and classrooms; in daily efforts to do what is right, to live with purpose, to follow as Jesus leads. Out in the world is where we will encounter the lost, the hungry, the broken.
The gift that we receive through this story is not certainty, but revelation—a making known to us what we can’t think through or reason out. The eyes of faith have seen and the ears of hope have heard what eyes have not seen and ears have not heard: God is with us—not just in the wonder and beauty of Christmas but also when the lights have come down, the tree has been thrown out and the angels have returned into the heavens. In all of our days and nights, in our living and in our dying, in our returning and starting over God is with us.
So we can be with one another, seeking to love as we have been loved. We can be with the world, seeking to bring healing to our city, our nation. We can even—and sometimes this is the most difficult—we can even be with ourselves in stillness, in acceptance, in love. Because the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, we can be at peace in our own skin.
This morning we are once again invited to the table, to this feast of Christ broken and poured out. It is a meal for those who are empty, who seek wholeness, who actively hope for peace and life. That is to say, it is a meal for people like you and me.
The star is the light of God shining in the darkest places, waiting always to be seen anew by our own eyes.
If we look, we might discover the truth with which Bach’s Christmas Oratorio concludes in its final chorale for Epiphany: “Christ has broken that which was against you. Death, devil, sin and hell are quite diminished, the human race has its place at God’s side.”
The light of God shines brightly, leading us still down this deep and precious narrow alley in which we live. This is the good news that shall carry us through another year: Not only each one of us, but the entire human race has its place at God’s side.