Following Stars

Hear a short recap of the Sunday service:

Watch the 11 AM Celebration of the Holy Eucharist

Though Rev. Ousley offered the sermon today (you can see the full version in the videos of 11AM above), Father Beddingfield’s thoughts follow here: 

Though January 6 is the Epiphany of Our Lord Jesus Christ, at Holy Trinity, we celebrated the Epiphany on January 3. Father Ousley preached a great sermon that can be heard in the link included in this email.

At one point in his sermon, Doug mentioned the power of a star—that great Star in the East which guided the wise men. 

I recently drove by the city of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, where a giant star shines over a hill.  But depending on the twists and turns of the highway, the star becomes invisible. That’s the way stars seem to be for me, and perhaps for most of us—at times, there’s a sign from God that seems sure and bright. But then, before we know it, there’s just darkness and we’re tempted to think we’re left on our own.

The Epiphany message can remind us that, like the wise men who followed a bright star to Bethlehem, but then it seemed to fade soon thereafter, We have our own version of faithful star-gazing which can dissolve into fear and darkness. But among the messages of today’s Gospel is the word that, no matter what, God is with us. God is still with us, giving signs to show the way, and watching over us.

In today’s Gospel from Matthew 2, wise men from the East see a star and try to interpret its meaning. But almost immediately they run into trouble. This is not going to be an easy star to follow. King Herod also has also seen this star, and he’s frightened. He’s threatened, and he determines to get rid of the potential competition. Herod tries to get the wise men to work for him, to go and see the star and the Messiah born under it, and to help Herod confirm the threat he felt so strongly. (These wise men have become popular in legend. Tradition has even given them the names of Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar, but no one really knows.) And yet, the wise men are not called “wise men” for nothing.

The wise men get a sense of where they need to go, in order to be faithful to God. And in going, they take risks: they risk professionally in that if they don’t find the Messiah, they could look foolish. They risk spiritually, since finding a Messiah might mean adjustments in their values, in their priorities, in their relationships. And finally, in following the star, they risk physically, since King Herod does not hesitate to kill those who cross him. But they make their way, with persistence and with faith.

In Matthew’s telling, the three wise men bring Jesus gold, frankincense and myrrh. While some commentators have suggested that these are simply gifts that wealthy folks might bring, others have suggested that each of these gifts has a prophetic overlay. The gold looks forward to the kingship of Christ, to Jesus as king of the Jews, as king of our hearts. Frankincense, like incense, is the stuff that priests use to make things holy and call down visual and physical prayers upon things, and so the frankincense looks forward to the priesthood of Christ. And myrrh, myrrh which was used as an anointment at death, foreshadows the suffering and death of Christ.

T.S. Eliot, in Journey of the Magi, captures this dual journey of the wise men—this sense of excitement at having found life—the life of God, no less. But also a sense that along the way, they will encounter death. Eliot imagines the wise men making this journey, “and such a long journey: The ways deep and the weather sharp….” They have times of trial and times of regret; hard times. But being led to the place, under the star, a wise man wonders. Eliot imagines one of the wise men pondering:

This: were we led all that way for Birth or Death?
There was a Birth, certainly, We had evidence and no doubt.
I had seen birth and death, But had thought they were different;
this Birth was Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.

The Epiphany is about revelation, the revelation that even though life in this world can be confusing, mixed with life and death and death and life; the Epiphany reminds us that Jesus Christ has come as the light of the world, not just as the awaited Messiah for the Jews, not just the charismatic leader of those who knew him when he was on earth, but also for any and all who would seek to know God more deeply; for any and all who may be looking.

A star appeared to the wise men in the East. Stars appear for us, as well. Sometimes we need one another in order to see them clearly. Sometimes we need practice in order to spot them. And sometimes we simply need to stand still, to breathe deeply and look, listen and wait.

Let us pray: O God, by the leading of a star you manifested your only Son to the peoples of the earth: Lead us, who know you now by faith, to your presence, where we may see your glory face to face; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

About John F. Beddingfield

Rector of The Church of the Holy Trinity (Episcopal) in New York City on East 88th Street between 1st Ave and 2nd Ave.
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