The Rev. Melanie McCarley
“Twinkle twinkle little star/ How I wonder what you are?/ Up above the world so high/ Like a diamond in the sky… I suspect all of us are familiar with this childhood lullaby. Stars in the night sky have captured the imagination of human beings from the time our ancestors first gathered around ancient fires, watching sparks fly into the darkened sky. It’s a fascination that remains with us to this day.
Perhaps you, like myself, bundled into a coat on the evening of the Winter Solstice on December 21st and stepped outside to search for the conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn, appearing in the night sky as a bright star—to catch a glimpse of an event that will not occur with the same brightness for another 60 years. It was cloudy here in Dedham that evening—yet I was still able to see it and marvel that this brightness in the night sky shone even through the cloud cover. Stars continue to capture our fancy—our wonder and our imagination in a way that even the era of technology (or the glow emanating from our iphones or computer screens) cannot dim.
Long before there were Kindles and iPads, televisions and movies, or electric lights of any kind to illuminate the darkness of the night, stars were both reassuring as well as entertaining. People would watch these tiny pinpricks of light, observing them closely night after night. And they saw how these luminescent orbs would appear to move slowly across the sky. So, entrancing were the stars that they engaged the imagination of our forebears. The stars became points in gigantic dot-to-dot pictures of great warriors, animals, gods and goddesses. In time, these early astronomers began to recognize patterns of movement, predicting the location of the stars according to the time of year. Among the things they learned, was that if they coordinated their journey with the stars shining in the night sky, those same stars provided guidance and direction.
This is what brings us to the wise men in the Gospel of Matthew, also known as the Magi. These men, they weren’t kings. They were astrologers. Many historians postulate they were practitioners of Zoroastrianism, a multi-faceted faith which centered on a dualistic cosmology of good and evil, light and dark. These wise men, they weren’t simply charting the movements of stars. They were looking for God. And the Bible tells us that in seeking the Almighty, they found Him.
Nor were they alone in their beliefs. Centuries later, the great Italian poet, Dante, would describe God in The Divine Comedy as “the love that moves the stars.” And James C. Howell, writing in our own era postulates: “God is determined to be found, and will use any and all measures…to reach out to people who are open.” People, such as the wise men who searched for the newborn King in a night sky and set out to find him in person, so many centuries ago.
There are many things about these wise men which impress me. Their willingness to study, their observation of the world around them, their conviction and their openness to seek knowledge in a distant place and among a foreign people. But most of all, this day, I am impressed by their willingness to wonder.
Another person captivated by the heavens, Neil Armstrong, once said: “Mystery creates wonder and wonder is the basis of humanity’s desire to understand.” In a world which prides itself on rational thought and science, the quality of wonder might easily be shifted to the backseat. Yet, Armstrong, and I believe the wise men, would agree; wonder shouldn’t be relegated to the rear—it should be honored with a place in the driver’s seat with its hand upon the wheel. Wonder is what propels us onward. Wonder is what led the wise men to seek the face of God, and find Him in the countenance of a little child.
Yet, that is not all. The wise men looked in the heavens, they studied. And then they prepared. They were willing to take unsettling steps far from their place of comfort and venture into the unknown. What’s more, the Bible tells us that eventually, they came to the realization that they needed to seek guidance in order to find their way to the new-born king. And so, they made their way to Jerusalem, and asked questions—questions which led them to King Herod. Which brings us to yet another quality of these wise men. They also knew when to be shrewd and to trust their dreams. When it became clear to them that King Herod was up to absolutely no good, the scripture tells us “they left for their own country by another road.”
What’s more, they knew how to express gratitude. They didn’t just show up—they brought gifts. Meaningful gifts—though, to be perfectly honest, the meaning of the gifts would probably have eluded Joseph and Mary at the time. Gold as a symbol of this child who would be king; frankincense as a symbol of deity and myrrh (an oil used for anointing the bodies of the deceased) as a symbol of death.
The magi provide us with a powerful illustration of what the journey of faith, and the journey of life, can look like when we focus both our intentions and our attention in the right places. They are grand examples of what it means to engage in wonder, to show forth willingness and to observe life around them, to take action and seek guidance; to respond with gratitude, and continued openness to the direction of God. My goodness, these sound almost like a list of new year’s resolutions of ways to be more faithful: Engage in wonder. Show forth willingness. Observe life around you. Take action. Seek guidance. Respond with gratitude, and continued openness to the direction of God. Over the centuries, and into our own age, the magi have helped to give us tools that can assist us in finding our own stars to follow towards the epiphanies God has in store for us. I wish you well in 2021 as you begin your journey of seeking God. In Jesus’ name. Amen.