The Reverend Kathleen Killian
The Second Sunday after Christmas/22
Star Light, Star Bright
When I prepare to preach on Sunday, I first read through all of the scriptures for the day, and then again, and again, as often as needed. It’s a bit like having a map and following the clues to its treasure. Certain words and phrases will catch my attention, and when I track them, an underlying current or theme to the day’s lessons often emerges. What I was struck by this week is the kinetic landscape of our scriptures, and all of the journeying words threading through them: coming, going and gathering; getting up, setting out, and returning; walking, leading, climbing—scattering—and more gathering—searching, finding, arriving, dwelling, but then leaving and journeying again, the heart of Jeremiah, the psalmist, the Wise Men, and even the Lord set on the pilgrim’s way.
After the quietude of the nativity, I think all of this motion and movement speaks to the depth and even complexity of the Christmas season, and how we ourselves traverse it’s sweeping and changing terrain; for we have only to step away from the manger to discover that the good news of the Incarnation, though unambiguous, is not always so straightforward.
So let us set out together into the peaks and valleys of Christmastide, first turning back to last week when Fr. John preached on the prologue to John’s gospel, which is always read on either Christmas morning or the first Sunday after Christmas. This means that no sooner is the sweet baby Jesus born on Christmas Eve than he is the Word made flesh, the Word who was with God from the beginning, and is God. The baby Jesus is the preexistent divine Word—a head scratcher to be sure! As quickly too, the prologue to John’s gospel portends of stormy and dark clouds gathering on the horizon, a reminder that the light born unto us will be rejected and refused—and that we can and do block its promise—or as Rowan Williams (104th Archbishop of Canterbury) puts it, wrap up the gift of the new born Jesus so tightly that we never hear a peep.
Immediately following, on the heels of Christmas Day, the Church celebrates three feasts: the feast of St. Stephen, a day to remember the first deacon and his martyrdom and to pray for our enemies and persecutors; the feast of St. John, a day to remember the apostle and evangelist and his long-lived witness to the light, and to pray for greater understanding of the gospel; and then the feast of Holy Innocents, a day to remember the slaughter of all the innocents under two by King Herod in his attempt to destroy the Christ child, and to pray for justice and all victims of terror and abuse.
This brings us to the New Year and the feast of the Holy Name yesterday, on January 1st, in which we celebrate the name of Jesus—a power unto itself—the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb—the name of redemption and salvation.
And if that’s not enough hill to climb, on this second Sunday after Christmas, the lectionary offers us three gospels from which to choose: the story of Herod’s plot to kill the newborn king and the holy family’s subsequent escape to Egypt—which could have been our gospel today; or the story of a 12 year old Jesus who remained in the temple when it was time to go home, escaping from Mary and Joseph’s attention, much to their consternation—which could have been our gospel today; or the story of the Wise Men who followed a star to the holy child in Bethlehem yet escaped from the clutches of Herod’s treachery—which is the one I chose and our gospel today.
The feast of the Epiphany on January 6th concludes the Christmas season, by celebrating the revelation of Christ to the Gentiles—we are the Gentiles who were destined for adoption—and the response of the wise men to that revelation, who themselves were first guided by an inner restlessness, as Pope Francis once wrote, their hearts open to the horizon. They could see what the heavens were showing them because they were open to something new.
We don’t know exactly who these wise men were—Matthew simply says they came from the east—and he doesn’t say how many wise men there were. Tradition has settled on three, most likely because of the three gifts given to the baby Jesus. Yet some early icons depict two or four, and one ancient text writes of twelve wise men. But whoever and how many these ancient travelers were, they were outsiders—Gentiles, Persians, Syrians, Arabs—outsiders who were drawn to the manger and the birth of Jesus. The message is clear: God welcomes all to share in the new life of Christ, though the road to Bethlehem is often long and fraught.
When the wise men first set out in search of the child, they went to Jerusalem first, which at that time was the center of power. And it’s where King Herod reigned, the manipulator of that power who was also afraid to lose it and thus very dangerous; his ruthlessness is a fact of history. The wise men had yet to discover that the Child they sought was not to be found where they had expected—in big city Jerusalem at the center of power—but elsewhere at the center of humility and vulnerability in small town Bethlehem. On the geographical map, Jerusalem and Bethlehem were actually near to one another, but existentially, in the map of the heart, these two places are at a far distance from one another.
I think it would be fair to say that all of us have lived in both “Jerusalem” and “Bethlehem”; in regions of the heart where fear, power and control have a stronghold, and in places of the heart more pastoral and of the gentler sway of hope and new life. Where we spend the majority of our time has something to do with the stars we have chosen to follow. Might we go after the star of happiness and pleasure, it’s twinkling light delightful yet fleeting? Or perhaps we follow the star of the past, its glow of those were the days shining so fixedly in our memories as to obscure God’s new life on offer. Sometimes the star of the self takes center stage, the blinding light of pride and ambition eclipsing a truer radiance.
Sometimes though, maybe often, we don’t exactly know by what star we are being led. The mystery of the star that appeared in the night sky that first Christmas has never been fully reasoned or explained—was it a comet, a constellation, or an unusual astronomical conjunction? We don’t know, we can’t know, and in the end, isn’t that more good news? to be left with wonder, the wonder of the wise men, and the wonder of the star.
Joni Mitchell once famously sang: we are stardust. And if ever there was a true mystery, it’s that we really are; no matter the star we might follow, all of us are formed from the heart of a cosmic star. Everything in the universe has but one source and is wonderfully created—human nature yet more wonderfully restored to reflect the dignity of all life—that we become diamonds and prisms of God’s first creative and unified light.
As was the wise men’s, ours is a pilgrimage of the heart. And so we must ask of this kinetic season of Christmas and its complexity of restive light and shadows, how are we moved by the birth of a child that is simple and singular yet has changed the entire course of history and the world, and is changing still the human heart? Through its peaks and valleys, may we follow God’s sacred and starry quest to its joyful end with enduring hope and trust.
On this ninth day of Christmas, and the second day of the New Year, I leave you with these words from the great Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner: A new year has begun. During this year, too, all the paths from east to west, from morning until evening, lead on and on as far as the eye can see, through the deserts of life with all its changes. But these paths can be turned into the blessed pilgrimage to the absolute, the journey of God. Set out, my heart, take up the journey! The star shines. You can’t take much with you on the journey. And you will lose much of it along the way. Let it go. Gold of love, frankincense of yearning, myrrh of suffering—these you certainly have with you. He shall accept them. And we shall find him, the One our hearts seek (from The Great Church Year).