Recognizing Our Star

January 3, 2016 – Rev. Jan Hryniewicz
Text: Isaiah 60: 1 – 3 & Matthew 2: 1 – 12

A pastor had just begun his Christmas Eve sermon when all the lights went out…..a power outage. The ushers found some candles and placed them around the sanctuary. Then the pastor reentered the pulpit, shuffled his notes, and muttered, “Now, where was I?”

A tired voice called out, “Right near the end!”

That would never happen here, would it!? We were blessed with amazingly warm weather, no power outages, fabulous music, wonderful attendance, beautiful ambience, …and I think, a glowing Christmas spirit once again this year. I am grateful for it all!

And now….. 2015 is history, full of conflicting memories, both positive and negative! Do you feel you accomplished what you set out to accomplish….or is there much left unfulfilled for you?

I came across a suggested ritual and prayer for 2016: The suggestion is that we look in the mirror and study our reflection carefully. This is the prayer:
May what we see in the mirror delight us and what others see in us, delight them. May our family and friends, as well as God, love us enough to forgive our faults, be blind to our blemishes and tell the world about our virtues. May the telemarketers wait until after we finish dinner to call us. Amen!

It certainly has not been an easy year for this planet….for this nation…..for Syria….for thousands who have become refugees, for families who have lost loved ones as a result of terrorist attacks….for those whose homes have been desecrated by tornadoes, fires and floods. 2015… every past year , has had its share of challenges and catastrophes, achievements and victories……for each of us and all of us. There is much yet to be resolved especially as we enter an election year. Yikes! Surely there still is much darkness on the planet that awaits the penetrating, healing Light of God’s Star…. the love, understanding and peace that Jesus brought into the universe over 2,000 years ago.

Today, we celebrate that sacred Star and all it symbolizes.

As I’ve told you many times, I love Epiphany. It is, for me, a very personal…. sacred… holiday experience… a celebration of gratitude for the miraculous presence of God in my life and in the all of creation. It’s a holiday that the media and Madison Avenue ignore…. which enables us to experience it without commercial hype…and savor it as a deeply spiritual experience.

This one line insight from Carl Sagan expresses well the anticipation and joy of Epiphany for me:
Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known.

As an astronomer and astrophysicist , he was probably referring to extraordinary technological advances waiting to be discovered….new stars and planets in the cosmos…. and there will be many to astound us….but for me, it speaks to spiritual epiphanies….new understandings about the Divine Presence and my call to respond …to be and do new. Think of all the new we will learn this year…. insights and understandings, epiphanies to light our journeys.

Historically, in Christian tradition…. Epiphany, January 6, the last day of Christmas, comes with a variety of traditions, rituals and symbols. In some countries, carolers go from house to house; in many homes the Christmas tree is taken down and in some areas is burnt in a big bonfire. In some countries, for the children …epiphany is an especially joyous occasion because, associated with taking down the tree goes the “plündern” (raiding) of the tree. The sweets, chocolate ornaments wrapped in foil or cookies, which have replaced the sugar plums, are the raiders’ rewards. You can go home and unwrap and eat all the candy canes that have graced your Christmas tree!

The history of Christmas, (the festival of the nativity of Jesus Christ,) is intertwined with that of the Epiphany. In some religious traditions, the commemoration of the Baptism (also called the Day of Lights, i.e. the Illumination of Jesus) was also known as the birthday of Jesus, because he was believed to have been born then of the Virgin and reborn in baptism. In some records Christmas and Epiphany were referred to as the first and second nativity; the second being Christ’s manifestation to the world.

The term epiphany means “to show” or “to make known” or even “to reveal.” In many Western churches, it celebrates the coming of the wise men bringing gifts to visit the Christ child, who by so doing “reveal” Jesus to the world as Lord and King. It is sometimes called Three Kings Day.

As with most aspects of the Christian liturgical calendar, Epiphany has theological significance as a teaching tool in the church. The Wise Men or Magi who brought gifts to the infant Jesus were the first Gentiles to acknowledge Jesus as “King” and so were the first to “show” or “reveal” Jesus to a wider world as the incarnate Christ. This act of worship by the Magi, which corresponded to Simeon’s blessing that this child Jesus would be “a light for revelation to the Gentiles” (Luke 2:32), was one of the first indications that Jesus came for all people, of all nations, of all races, and that the work of God’s Spirit in the world would not be limited to only a few.

The story of the Wise Men…..the Magi….is a charming one, that captures our imagination. Kings from the east traversing for miles and months….following only a star in search of a fulfillment of a dream. ……Gentiles…..responding to an ancient Jewish Promise.

We have no way of knowing the contours of the journey the Magi made in search of the mystery of the birth of the Christ Child. We are told that they misjudged their destination, trusting their own assumptions that a king would be born in a royal palace….and so they went in search of this new born king….to the palace of King Herod. This error of judgment was to cost them dearly and result, indirectly, in the carnage at Bethlehem when Herod’s wrath was vented upon the infants and toddlers of that town. We know that, according to the gospel of Matthew, they came from the east…following a star….They were in search of something or someone they could hardly give name to….but they knew that a Messiah had been promised….and they longed deeply for the peace and hope that this Messiah would bring to the world. Following the star meant that they had to do their traveling in the darkness…and they didn’t know where they would be led. How like some of our journeys. …. when in the darkness we encounter unexpected light and insight.

There is an ancient legend that tells how the Wise Men for a time lost sight of the star. They had started out with high resolve, holy purpose, and hopeful expectation. There was something awesome about the providential magnetism that drew them together on this spiritual quest.

Initial travel conversation soon changed from trivialities and social amenities to the call, which kept calling them on, the vision, which kept renewing itself, the mysterious star that beckoned them forth with its silent invitation. Riding over the desert sands they began to speculate on what would happen when they arrived. Obviously, being men of considerable prominence, they began to take pride in the fact that they would be the first to discover and recognize the new king.

Soon, however, they began to quarrel among themselves. Who would make the first gift presentation? Who would do the speaking? Whose gift had the most worth, would be the most useful, or symbolized the most devotion? Without meaning to, and yet because they were human individuals, they became alienated from one another. So many petty thoughts filled their minds that they began to fight among themselves. The night of the first quarrel, the star was gone!

For a time they wandered aimlessly, arguing frequently, despairing alternately. The star had disappeared. So had their hope and enthusiasm. The noble adventure seemed doomed; their aspiration as ashes in the chilled desert darkness. They became lost and wandering nomads, far from home, with journey uncompleted, treasure unshared, quest unfulfilled, hearts unresponsive, eyes unseeing, and souls void of all inspiration.

Then one night, lost and forsaken, they stumbled on an oasis in the wilderness. Other travelers had already arrived and were gathered about a shallow well that had gone dry. The first arrivals had already used up the little water that was to be found at the bottom of the well, and were now waiting for either help or death. Then it was that the Wise Men, with no arguing, but in genuine altruism, brought out their water bags and emptied them into the well that the others might drink. Suddenly, the bleak camp of despair became a place of hope, hospitality, and happiness. But the most miraculous thing of all was that, while together, they emptied their water bags into the well, looking down into the water, they saw the reflection of the star. Once again they found their way. The star they lost in self-seeking, they found again in humility. That which had become obscured by petty pride became obvious again in sacrificial sharing.

The holy light of God’s direction became evident once more as they sought to alleviate the human needs of others. The hard lesson became the guiding principle of their lives, the healed estrangement became the miracle of a new relationship. And so the little legend becomes a parable of great truth: “that love must be in our hearts if the light of Christ is to shine on our path, guide our steps, and show us the secret of successful relationships.”…

The journey of the wise men… so like the inner journeys we take…in search of the presence of the divine in our lives.

So perhaps Epiphany is for us, a life altering moment, when we experience the Spirit….. when we have made a conscious commitment to change our lives and move in a different direction….. when we have invited God to be more present and surrendered to the power of God’s spirit…..when we experienced a cleansing of our mind and body which led to the renewal of our spirit.

Once again, the wisdom and insight of Fr. Richard Rohr that always inspires epiphanies in me:
You cannot earn God. You cannot prove yourself worthy of God. Knowing God’s presence is simply a matter of awareness, of enjoying the now, of deepening one’s own presence. There are moments when it happens. Then life makes sense. ….I am able to see the divine image in myself, in you, and eventually in all things. Jesus pushes [ this kind of ] seeing to the social edge. Can you see the image of Christ in the least of your brothers and sisters?

When we are open to the many epiphanies of life, we discover a new way of seeing and being, a deeper awareness of God’s spirit in all of creation.

George Frederic Handel, who composed the magnificent Messiah…. was born in Halle, Germany, on February 23, 1685. The composer was in despair. Struggling to earn a living in London, he knew days when he could not afford to buy meals. One night in 1741, depressed and defeated, he wandered the lonely streets; it was almost dawn when he returned to his shabby room. On a table was a thick envelope. It was from Charles Jennens, the man who wrote his librettos. Examining the pages, he found them covered with Scripture texts. Wearily, he tossed the pages aside and crawled into bed. But he could not sleep. The words he had read returned to him: Comfort ye, comfort ye, my people, saith your God … The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light … For unto us a Child is born … Glory to God in the highest … Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Too stirred to sleep, he got up and went to his piano. The music flowed from his heart….rich, majestic, triumphant. He began to write. Night and day for three weeks, he wrote feverishly. He forgot sleep, food, rest. He refused to see anyone. At last, on the day the work was finished, one friend managed to gain entrance. The composer was at his piano, sheets of music strewn around him, tears streaming down his face. “I do believe I have seen all of Heaven before me, and the great God Himself,” he exclaimed.

Millions of people have been able to believe that. The first audience to hear the composition — in Dublin in 1742 –gave it the greatest ovation in the city’s history. Weeks later, London heard it for the first time, and again it was a triumph. The King was so impressed during the Hallelujah Chorus that he rose to his feet — a custom that still prevails.

This Christmas, in churches and concert halls around the world, millions of people once again found hope and faith in the message that has become the most beloved composition of all times . Handel had truly experienced the miracle of the incarnation of God …. a glorious epiphany of light into the darkest moments of his life.. A window was opened ….a gift…a blessing was given which enabled Handel to create one of the greatest musical compositions of all time….words and music that continues to bless and inspire people today.

Like the Magi, We are all seekers of the Divine…. And I pray that we will keep our eyes on the Sacred Star that guides us that each one of us will recognize the star that is already within us! A Star to light our own way, as well as the way of others.

Mother Theresa advised that we love those people and things that God places in our path. We don’t have to go in search of ways to be of service… shine our lights.

Joyce Rupp writes: “ Holy One, you who reveal, make manifest your presence. Open the eyes of my heart. Awaken my unattuned spirit. Bring me to full attention, so that I come to [recognize and] know, in my every moment, your radiant star of guidance.” Amen.