A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy Schenck on January 4, 2015 (Christmas 2, Year B)
“Wise men from the East.” There’s something exotic about “the East” from whence these Wise Men came. For Westerners, the Orient has long held a certain mystery or mystique. Sure this has abated with the advent of air travel and globalization but even still, and certainly for those in Bethlehem at the time of Jesus’ birth, encountering three strangers from a faraway land was shrouded in intrigue and curiosity.
Unlike the poor shepherds who first arrived at the manger, these were men of means and status. The gifts they brought may have been lousy baby gifts — gold’s a choking hazard, a flaming pot of incense is just a bad idea, and what infant really needs expensive embalming fluid — but these gifts were both lavish and symbolic. Gifts that foretold the child’s kingship, priestly life, and crucifixion.
The Magi were astrologers, the scientists of the ancient world; versed in magic and the interpretation of dreams. The word “Magi” itself referred to members of an ancient Persian priestly class for followers of Zoastrianism and it’s where we get the English word “magic.”
And, as long as we’re talking about language, I recently read that the Greek word used for “East” in this text literally means “the Rising.” In other words, these men came from the place where the sun rises. Directionally, the East; physically, the source of light; spiritually, the place of enlightenment.
There are, of course, layers and layers of metaphor and imagery about light and dark in Scripture. Just last Sunday we read the prologue to John’s gospel which includes the phrase, “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.” The prophet Isaiah writes, “Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has dawned upon you.” So, light is an ancient metaphor for salvation and this Incarnational event of Christmas, which we continue to mark and celebrate, is primarily about the salvation of the world.
Hence, the Star of Bethlehem. Now, everything I know about astronomy I learned on a sixth grade field trip to the planetarium at the Maryland Science Center. So I can’t really speak to the intergalactic phenomenon of this star that famously guided the three Wise Men beyond calling it the original GPS and one heck of a birth announcement.
But there is tremendous spiritual significance to this bright light announcing the birth of our Savior. This light was a signal that salvation wasn’t meant for just a select few but the entire world. Because the other thing about these Wise Men is that they were Gentiles — not only did they travel a great distance, but they also stood outside the original covenant between God and God’s Chosen People, the Jews. So we see in this encounter, the broad reach of God’s embrace of all humanity. Yes, Jesus came first to the people of Israel, in the form of those shepherds watching their flocks by night. But also to those beyond the covenant, to those who did not yet know and worship the God of the Law and the prophets.
Let’s face it, there’s no such thing as a “private” star. No one can claim possession or sole ownership of a celestial body. So this bright light that announced the entrance of the Light of the World was there for all to see. And that’s the thing about salvation — it’s freely offered to all who seek its light. Jesus didn’t come into the world to have his light be hidden under a lampstand but to be seen and proclaimed to all people.
The other thing this star signals is something much more personal. Something that resides deep within our souls. Because it’s one thing to notice an unusual phenomenon in the sky. These days we’d probably whip out our phones and take a picture of it or take a quick star selfie. But in the end the Magi didn’t just note the star or comment on it. It moved them to action.
So what would make these men pack up their camels and follow this star? I think they’re not much different from you and me in this regard. Because at the heart of their journey and ours is a deep yearning for communion with the divine. We all have a yearning to be closer to God that resides deep in our souls. The powerful pull of relationship with God draws us to follow that star in ways seen and unseen. Simply being here this morning is one tangible way that you continue to follow that star. Every week it alights directly above this altar and you can experience the pull of this star in the same way as those three Wise Men so many years ago.
As I wrestled with this very familiar text this week, and thought about the literal translation of “the East” as “the Rising,” I couldn’t stop thinking about that Bruce Springsteen song “The Rising.” It was written in the aftermath of 9/11 and ended up with a couple of Grammys. It tells the story of a firefighter climbing one of the towers after the planes had hit. It speaks of the darkness and confusion and rising despair as he continues his ascent.
And yet, there’s also a note of hope sounded throughout the song. If September 11, 2001, was our national day of Good Friday, the song sounds the Easter message of deliverance amidst the ashes. There’s even an overt reference to Easter morning and Mary Magdalene’s recognition of Jesus, “I see you Mary in the garden, in the garden of a thousand sighs. There’s holy pictures of our children, dancin’ in a sky filled with light.” And that haunting, building chorus, “Come on up for the rising” can easily be interpreted as a call to resurrection.
Some of you may well be thinking, “Why is he talking about Easter imagery on the 11th day of Christmas?” But it’s all about two sides of the same salvation coin. The Incarnation and the Resurrection are both ends to our our salvation and not ours only but the salvation of the whole world. You can’t have one without the other.
So as we come to the close of our annual celebration of Christmas — and I do hope you’ll all take some of these poinsettias after the service (not during communion — after the service) — I encourage you to be aware of the “rising” in your own heart. Pay attention to it this year; nurture it; allow it to illuminate your soul and inspire your actions. Allow that star to draw you ever nearer to the heart of God. Watch for it, give yourself over to it, and let its light shine upon you.
© The Rev. Tim Schenck