January 3, 2016
According to my mother, I was always singing when I was a little girl. Legend has it that one of our neighbors told my mother that she always knew when Amy was around because she heard this little voice singing. I remember loving a wide variety of songs and music. I had a Doris Day children’s album and some of my favorites from that were “High Hopes” and “Que Sera Sera”. I loved Disney songs and pop songs. I was greatly influenced by my older sister and brother. So I knew James Taylor, Blood, Sweat & Tears, Simon & Garfunkel and The Beatles as well as I did the soundtrack from Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. I once asked my mom what my favorite song was when I was a child. With all of these stories about my constant singing and my love of music, I thought perhaps she would reply “Jeremiah Was a Bullfrog” or “You’ve Got a Friend.” But no. My mother thought for a moment and said, “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.”
It’s not that I was disappointed. Not really. I guess I envisioned that the song I loved as a child would be a slightly more complicated number than that little ditty about twinkling stars. Maybe my mother meant it was my first beloved song. Either way, I do remember being very small and looking up into the night sky – which was very large – and belting out “Twinkle, twinkle little star, how I wonder what you are.” Perhaps I thought that if I sang loudly enough or long enough, the twinkling stars above me would respond.
But if those twinkling stars ever sang back to me, I didn’t hear them. The stars I gazed at were not of the singing or the talking variety. The only talking star I’ve ever heard of was the one the magi saw and followed; the one that announced the coming of a new king.
I realize it is a stretch to say that the natal star was a talking one. Matthew does not record that the star got the magis’ attention by shouting down, “Yo! Wise men! Up here!” No. In Luke the angels proclaimed to the shepherds through words and song that the savior had been born, but in Matthew this magnificent star just shone.
In my imagination, and in every artistic rendering I’ve ever seen of Matthew’s nativity story, the star that led the wise men was bigger and brighter than any other star in the heavens. Maybe it was. Maybe it wasn’t. But the text does not read that way. It reads that a star appeared that proclaimed the birth of a king. The wise men from the East saw this star, recognized what it meant and followed. So it could have been a huge star. I know that there are various scientific theories postulating what these Eastern men saw. But whether it was a magnificent and large star or a different star in some other way, the magi understood its message. It may not have literally been a talking star, but it proclaimed the birth of a new king to them. And they listened.
What do we know about these wise men? Coming from the East they were most likely from Persia. Coming from that distance, they probably did not make the trip to Bethlehem on the same night Jesus was born. It could have taken up to two years for them to arrive. Herod’s evil and horrific decree to massacre children two years and under gives credence to that. We do not actually know the number of these magi. We assume there were three because there were three gifts, but the text does not offer any more detail about the size of their traveling party than that. I read this past week that the coming of the magi was also the first and last time men were invited to a baby shower because they brought the most impractical gifts anyone could ever imagine.
Stereotypical jokes aside, it is probable that these wise men were astrologers. Let’s not assume that the word “astrologer” meant the same thing then as it does now. I doubt the wise men were writing horoscopes for the Persian Daily Sun. But they were readers of stars. They looked to the stars for guidance. They saw their world through the stars. Because they were readers of stars, they were attuned to meanings and nuances the stars might offer. When the natal sign appeared, they saw it. They recognized it. They understood it. They followed it.
I do not say all of this as a way to debunk what happened in the heavens on the night Jesus was born. Nor do I offer it as a way to take the mystery and magnificence out of that precious moment. The older I get the more I appreciate mystery. I’m grateful I do not need to know everything. Yet what I do want to emphasize is that the magi did not need a literal talking star to get their attention. They were already looking.
If God meets us where we are – which to me is the essence of the incarnation of God in Jesus – then would that not be true for these wise men, these Eastern astrologers? God met them where they were. God came to them in the way they could understand and recognize. It would stand to reason that God would meet us in the same way. I think what trips us up though is that we think the only signs God gives are through talking stars or burning bushes or angels showing up in our kitchen. When those things don’t happen, when we don’t see those kinds of signs, then we think that God just doesn’t offer many signs these days.
But here’s the thing, I think God puts signs in front of us every day. Maybe they are more subtle than talking stars, but maybe they aren’t. We might not be attuned to the messages of the heavens, but what about falling ceiling tiles? The big church gave us plenty of signs that we had to make some hard decisions.
My first inkling of a call to ministry came from a literal sign; a highway marker on Interstate 64 in Richmond, Virginia that said Union Theological Seminary and Presbyterian School of Christian Education was this way. My mother read those signs and speculated that maybe one day, I might attend those institutions. Her suggestion seemed completely and utterly ridiculous, but well, here I am.
My point is that the Epiphany was a sign to Persian astrologers that a king was born. This king was like no other. These men were willing to travel far from their home to pay homage to this king. Maybe to others around them, their decision to follow a star was a bit nutty. But they trusted in that sign. When a warning came to them in a dream, they stuck by that sign as well and went home by another way.
It isn’t that I don’t believe God still sends us messages through big, extraordinary signs. If a talking star is needed, then so be it. But if we believe that is the only way God gives us signs then we miss the smaller, subtler signs that are all around us. Sometimes I wish God spoke to me through talking stars. That would be easier. Then again if God did speak to me through that kind of sign, I might refuse to believe it. But God meets me, meets us, where we are. Signs, God’s epiphanies, are all around us. God speaks to us through crumbling buildings and empty coffee houses. God gets our attention through billboards and highway markers. God’s word comes to us through the unlikeliest of people in the most improbable of situations. God’s message of call and love and hope is all around us; in the heavens, on the earth, in the people sitting next to us, and perhaps even from the person in the pulpit. You never know.
Let all of God’s children say, “Alleluia!” Amen.