Beauty of Astronomical EventsA couple of years ago my daughter gave me a new tripod for Christmas. I was living in New Haven at the time. So I went over to the Green at dusk one day about 4:30 pm. The tree downtown was resplendent with color that year and huge too! I took a few shots and then I turned around to see what else there was to photograph until it got a little darker.
To my complete surprise the moon was rising over the Wachovia Bank building from the east. It was not a full moon, but almost. It was stunning and I took lots of photos of it. I have a small photo of it at home which is such a wonderful reminder of living in New Haven. The next night which was New Year’s Eve was the full ‘blue’ moon with a partial lunar eclipse, which was, astronomically speaking quite an event and happens, well, every now and again. Hence the saying, “once on a blue moon”.
Many people have a fascination with the sky and its astronomical delights. All you have to do is go to an observatory when there is a special astronomical event happening like a comet or a meteor shower and the place will be crowded with people seeking a peak at the night skies and the beauty and mystery that it contains. I think observing the skies is the human fascination with something so far out of our own atmosphere and realm. We all know that there is something much greater out there than ourselves and we seek to see what’s out there…who’s out there.
Story of the Epiphany
For the Magi in Matthew’s account of the Epiphany, they saw a beautiful star, one much brighter than all the rest of the stars that season, which illuminated the deepest and darkest sky. And they followed it. They packed their camels with food and water for the journey and set out with their caravan over many nights. And after some serious obstacles, they finally arrived in Bethlehem. My friends, this is far from a simple story that gets glommed into the pageant on Christmas Eve.
It’s about some foreigners, perhaps magicians, astrologers, or sage old men, maybe even of ‘kingly’ status who, upon seeing this unusually bright object that moved through the sky with the fluidity of a bird in flight in the winter’s night, set out seeking a new born infant, a king. That westward journey was long perhaps a year, maybe two from Mesopotamia to Judea. The terrain was not the most hospitable either.
And when these outsiders, Gentiles in every way and in all manner, arrive in Jerusalem they stop to ask Herod, the tyrant king where they could find Jesus, the little one who had been born king of the Jews. It’s unsure why they stopped for directions because the star had guided them so far and had gotten them to Jerusalem. Why wouldn’t the star just have continued a little further south to Bethlehem without this stop? It’s clear however that their path to the manger was not direct. But the star did not disappoint and finally got them to that particular place.
And King of the Jews? Curious. Herod was king of the Jewish people as appointed by the Roman Imperial Empire and no one was going to dethrone him. You see the political struggle that we find so palpable latter in the Gospel is already present. Herod was afraid, and all Jerusalem with him. He calls for his scribes, his inside people, and asks about this so-called, self-proclaimed king and where this was happening. Much to his surprise, he finds out that this subversive activity was close to home in Bethlehem a mere five or six miles from the epicenter of Jerusalem.
Then, secretly, he tells the magi to go to Bethlehem because that’s where they would find this baby king and after they pay him homage let Herod know so he too could do the same. Secrets never work, we know that. Herod’s intentions were not pure. He was not a man of integrity or trust. In fact, already then, he wanted Jesus dead. He realized that he had been tricked by those magi so he sent out a decree to kill all of the baby boys in and around Bethlehem. The magi, who had been warned through their dreams, then returned to Mesopotamia by taking an entirely different route home.
Seekers of Old
The magi were seekers. They came from a very long distance because of a spiritual longing and curiosity. They were not Jews but Gentiles, the first of the non-Jews to worship and pay homage to the Christ child, a recurrent message from Matthew’s Gospel. Their path to the manger was anything but smooth and their trip home was a testimony to the way in which their lives had been changed in their seeking. “Seek and ye shall find!” Jesus says later in Matthew. (Mat 7:7) Jesus’ message of inclusion, hope and justice was found and now they were taking that message, what they had seen and experienced home to people in far-away places who needed to hear that message also.
It was the day after Christmas that I went to an organ concert and international carol sing at the German Lutheran Church of Augusta Victoria in Jerusalem, a large and beautiful church on top of the Mount of Olives built by Kaiser Wilhelm II for his wife. You may or may not know that I lived in Jerusalem for a year. It was much more than a concert and sing along though. For me the experience posed a question that I still continue to think about long after the reverberating sounds of ‘Silent Night’ in the cavernous church were finally silent.
Rev. Ulricke Wohlrab, co-pastor of the church with her husband, gave a very meaningful message before we started our sing along. Her first words were, “What brings you here? Of all places that you could be, what brings you here? Holiday? Family? Friends? Perhaps a star. The magicians saw a star and followed it and found the Christ child.” She told the simple story of the magi with the deepest of meaning and the deepest of questions, what brings you to the manger of Christ? Of all the places that you could be spending your time, what is it about this birth, this place? What are you seeking when you look inside that manger?
I was profoundly moved by her words which brought tears to my eyes because there were times that I thought, what am I doing here? What am I looking for? What am I seeking to find so far away from home? I had come to this Holy Place, Jerusalem looking and hoping for transformation. And while it was transformative in all ways, I realized to seek is not a single event but the journey of your life twined with the Christ child’s life.
What does it mean to Seek?
When you seek it is a continual trek into the ways in which Christ really does save you at different times in your life. I was saved from confusion and loneliness that day at Augusta Victoria because my voice was joined together with others whose pathway to the manger was probably just as circuitous as mine had been. But yet, we were all there, in that place and at that appointed time loving God and praising Jesus, the Savior.
We all have a story to tell concerning our pathway to the manger and what we are seeking to find there once we have arrived.
Some people have no idea about who lies there but are willing to kneel long enough so that God’s mystery can be revealed.
Some people have mistaken ideas of who the Christ child is but are willing to ask questions and wait long enough to hear the answers.
Some people just come and kneel because they know that there is something of much grander substance outside of themselves.
Some people come because they have no doubt that there was born in the City of David a Savior who is Christ the Lord, the one who transforms lives.
What are you seeking? Why are you here today at the side of the manger? In your seeking you will find and that is the most fundamental promise that God imparts to us in this story of intrigue and love. In your seeking, you will find!