In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, ‘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 2:1-2

It must have been an awesome sight, this star that heralded the birth of the Messiah. More than just a new star in the already shining heavens, more than something that only a trained astronomer could have noticed. It’s been suggested that what we called a “star” – the bright, blazing light that led the Wise Men out of Babylon and all the way to Jerusalem – was actually a supernova, visible in the western sky even during the day. It would have been a truly remarkable, awe-inspiring sight; a brand-new feature in a supposedly-unchanging heaven.

In other words, it must have been pretty shocking. Miraculous. Terrifying, even.

Because new things, even when they are explainable, can inspire fear, simply because of their very newness. New things are things that we haven’t fully explored, haven’t learned to control; they are things that can catch us off-guard and force us to see the world from a different, unexpected perspective. The new can break us open, rip away our defenses, expose our vulnerabilities and our fears. Imagine, for a moment, that such a thing were to happen tomorrow – a huge new light in the sky – and it probably wouldn’t be much of a stretch to think that a scant five minutes later, there would be hysterical predictions of the end of the world. There would certainly be voices crying out from various forms of media that this new light was a sign from God, but it strikes me as highly unlikely that many of these voices would see it as a positive sign, as the light of God entering the world anew.

Perhaps it is because we don’t do so well even with the light that we have been given, the light that we consistently focus on the places that are already pretty, the places that are easy to look at. Perhaps it is because we feel such a sense of control over the light that we have been given – the illumination that we can give to human-made structures, increasing our fear of natural and spiritual darkness. A new light might throw our deepest fears into stark relief: might show us more about our similarities than about our differences, might expose the fears that we prefer to keep hidden – fear of one another, fear of not actually being better than our neighbors, fear of actually being an integral and integrated part of God’s creation. A new light might illuminate more than we want to see.

Yet such were the Magi, these wise Babylonians and Persians, that they could see this new heavenly body as a sign of love and hope. They could see this explosion of light in the sky, and load up their camels with the most precious treasure of their time, not to squirrel it away for the coming apocalypse, but to find and worship the incarnate God. This new phenomenon, this miraculous vision, was to the Magi a call to seek something greater than themselves, and to make God known throughout the world.

In our house, at this season, Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is a tremendous favorite. The little book gets brought out and re-read. Videos ranging from Mr. Magoo to Patrick Stewart (with a detour over to the Muppets) make their appearances regularly, and in the car we listen to Patrick Stewart’s one-man show. There is something about the story that never really gets old – whether it is the promise of Scrooge’s redemption or the tender love of the Cratchit family, I don’t know. Usually, it all gets put away after Christmas day, but today I wonder if that is a mistake. Because in both the original story and the two Patrick Stewart versions, the ghost of Christmas Past is a being of almost blinding brightness. Whereas the other two ghosts present Scrooge from the point of view of others, it is this being of light who allows Scrooge to really look inside himself, to know and understand his own heart. It is this being who cuts Scrooge most deeply, who exposes the old wounds kept hidden, who banishes the shadows of time and distance so that all things, both good and bad, may be clearly seen. Scrooge experiences his past as though it were new. In the book, it almost seems as though the appearances of the other two ghosts will not be necessary, as Scrooge feels remorse for his treatment of his nephew, of Bob Cratchit, and even of the little boy who came caroling to his office door. The epiphany light seems strong and hopeful until the spirit returns him home, and begins to glow ever more brightly. And we begin to see this ghost of Christmas past not only as a light to bring clarity to the things that have been, but a call to live from then on with open eyes and an open heart. And Scrooge, overwhelmed by all that he has seen and felt; despite Marley’s warning and the ghost’s own claim to be working for Scrooge’s redemption snatches the ghost’s cap like a candle snuffer and forces it down over the ghost, trying to shut out the light, trying to ignore both the hope that the light offers and the opportunity it affords him.

Matthew’s gospel is very Jewish-centric. He tends to focus on Jesus’ re-interpretation of Jewish law, emphasizes Jesus’ status as a Jew and a reformer of Judaism. So it was interesting to hear Garrison Keillor, quoted in the Christian Century a week or so ago, remarking upon the strange birth narrative in this gospel. Matthew does not speak of shepherds and angels; it is not to the local Jewish community that the birth of the Messiah is announced, but to foreigners. It is the Wise Men from the East who tell the Jews that their savior is at hand; it is these Magi who correctly interpret scriptures that are not their own, who see the sign in the sky as heralding that appearance that the Jews had been waiting for. It is the Magi who offer homage and hospitality to the Christ-child, who see him as the light of the world and the child of God, while the authorities in Jerusalem, in the same bright light, see only a threat to their power and status. It is the Magi who leave their homes, the courts of Persia and Babylon where their own status is located, and go to the small Judean village of Nazareth, to kneel in the house of a carpenter and share his hospitality, to greet as an equal not a man, but a little child.

Because the epiphany of the Magi is not merely that this miraculous light might be a sign of hope to an oppressed people, but that it is as sign that God is moving, God is changing the status-quo, God is upending all of our human understandings of who is important and who is not; who is “in” and who is “out”; who is in the light, and who is not. The epiphany of the Magi is a sign of interest to these Eastern astrologers, but it is also a call that they need to follow. They do not sit back and say, “See, we may hope and trust in God, who has sent us this omen that all will be well.” God’s promise in the light of this star requires a response, requires an action on the part of these wise men; it requires a vulnerability beyond just that of accepting the new without fear. The Magi set out on a perilous trip across the Arabian desert, their camels laden with precious cargo – probably any robber’s dream come true. They set out without fully understanding where they were going, or what they would find, ending up not where the star was, but in Jerusalem, because they figured that one would be more likely to find the promised king in the holy city, rather than in one of the surrounding villages. They made mistakes. They made an enemy in Herod. They made themselves horrendously vulnerable, all for the sake of following God’s call.

What is our epiphany, then? We who know the story of the Christ child, we who know that the Magi made it safely, that the baby grew up strong and healthy, that God indeed love us enough to send his son to walk among us, we have known the light of the star over Bethlehem and we have followed it without much risk to ourselves. It is not new anymore, we need not fear it. Yet we do. The light comes into the world, as acts of kindness and people of great love, and we “like” them on facebook or retweet them on twitter. But the light is calling us, too – we who should know to keep our eyes and ears open, we who should know how to hear the call to follow; we who should no longer need a supernova to recognize God at work in our world. The light is coming into our lives. I wonder where that light might lead us, if we are willing to relinquish our power, our status? Might we be broken open and exposed to God, if we are willing to live in hope rather than in fear? I wonder what God is saying to us right now, and whether we are willing to accept God’s call. This is Epiphany Sunday, not just for those long-ago wise men, but for us as well. We have seen the light of God at its rising; may we not fear to embrace it.

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