My brother John is always working on a project. Recently he finished building a sauna, a gorgeous little structure incorporating recycled materials, solar lights, and a wood stove. I was very excited to try the sauna out when we visited them at Thanksgiving time. After we heated up, we cooled off by going outside in our swimsuits and bare feet. One night I lay down flat on my back on the frozen ground. Steam rose up into the night air all around my body. They live in the woods, far from city lights. The night was star-studded and clear. It was magical. I felt the wonder of the universe—both my smallness within its vastness and my interconnection with everything. And I felt the truth of Michael Higgins’ words:
It is of stardust we are /Molded by vapors and fragments /From the making and breaking of galaxies.
Each Gospel writer has their own way of describing the beginnings of Jesus. In Luke’s version, there is the census, the journey to Bethlehem, the stable and the manger, and the angel anthems to the shepherds. In complete contrast, Mark opens with the baptism of Jesus as a fully grown adult. And John approaches the story more philosophically than biographically. According to John, Jesus is the human embodiment of the eternal Word of God and Light of Life, the wisdom through which God creates the world.
Today, however, our reading comes from Matthew’s account of Jesus’ life. Matthew opens his Gospel with a genealogy designed to prove that Jesus was descended from David, through his father Joseph, and therefore was eligible to be the long-awaited Jewish Messiah. Of course, there was a complication. Mary was “with child” through the Holy Spirit, not Joseph. So an angel came in a dream to assure Joseph that there could be more to fatherhood than biology. In just one brief sentence the baby arrived and was named. Though the magi show up in the very next verse, we know that months or even years must have passed before their visit. We know this, because after the magi came to Herod looking for Jesus, Herod ordered the murder of all children under the age of two.
Each of the Gospels address the larger political and social implications of Jesus’ birth in some way. And yet, Matthew’s is the only account that draws our attention to the star and the star-watchers. This move suggests that the Gospel writer is affirming, in his own time, and in his own way, the epiphanies that have come to us through indigenous wisdom, modern science and space exploration. Earth, humanity, and the universe are all interconnected. And this unity of everything is key to understanding who we are and knowing our place and purpose. Again, in the poet’s words:
We are the broken bits of our cosmos / Moved by traces of embedded memory, / Of hopes unrealized and fading. / The promise of our as yet uncreated wholeness remains, / However weak.
In addition, Matthew frames events in the cosmos as providing insight about the meaning of events on earth, specifically, the Christ-child’s coming. The wise ones, or magi, are shrouded in mystery, though mythologies abound about them. Tradition gives them names but the Bible doesn’t tell us even how many of them there were. They are often portrayed as kings; however, the term Matthew uses, “magi,” refers to astrologers. Perhaps they were Zoroastrian priests from Persia; they were known as “magi.” Whoever these people were, they surely took the stars seriously as a source of guidance. They observed an unusual star, they interpreted it as a sign of a momentous event, and they followed its path for months or even years.
Interpretations of Matthew’s Gospel rooted in colonialism argue that the appearance of these foreigners to worship Jesus is a clear indication that God intends to convert the whole world to the Christian faith. However, I believe that the story of the magi can just as easily point us away from competition and supremacy and toward an epiphany of Christian humility and respectful cooperation with others. The story, as told by Matthew, certainly suggests that the appearance of Jesus will have meaning for the whole world. Jesus will prompt people of different ethnic identities, of social and economic standings, to come together. This Jewish Messiah will live in relationship and form community with non-Jews. The joy of the magi, their reverence, and their gifts, all express how significant this meeting with Jesus was for them. And yet, in this story, there is no criticism of the magi’s belief system, no account of them being told their religious or cultural practices were wrong, no moment when they were converted to a new faith.
To me, their kneeling to the child and calling him a king communicates their giving honor to what he represents. This little one, made of fragile stardust, who embodies the divine—not in spite of, but because of, his utter vulnerability—offers an alternative to Herod’s reign of terror. This child would grow up to give the world a contrasting vision and set of values, a different interpretation of leadership and power, a transformational vision of what it means to be human. Both the star and the star-child join other messengers in other times and places, all beckoning humanity toward a more inspired way of being. Again, Higgins says it best:
Our wonder invites us to make a journey / To stand against the false certainties / Of lesser tasks and poorer versions.
I learned recently that if you cut a branch, any branch, of a cottonwood tree, you will find a five-pointed star shape inside the branch. Native peoples live in sacred relationship the cottonwood trees; they tell a few different stories about the significance of the hidden star. These are not my stories to tell. What I can say is that these stories, like the story of the star and the magi, remind me of the interconnection of everything—people and trees, trees and stars, earthdust and stardust mingling in each of living creature, the vast fiery wonders and the small quiet marvels of the universe perfectly mirroring each other.
A final truth I glean from the story of the Epiphany is about who God is. God’s scope of concern and influence extends far beyond humanity, far beyond earth, into the infinite reaches of the universe. God is not like a man in the sky. God is more like a star. God is an all-pervading presence of creativity and possibility, of mystery, wisdom, and energy, of the sort of love that enlarges the heart until it is able to hold everything.
Matthew gives us a Jesus who reminds us: stardust we are; we are kin to the entire universe. Matthew’s Jesus is heralded by the star-watchers. Matthew’s Jesus is a Jewish Messiah who brings unity yet celebrates diversity. Matthew’s Jesus points us toward a God who is like a star.
That’s Matthew’s Jesus. What about your Jesus? Who is Jesus for you? That’s a question we’re going to explore together during this season of Epiphany, this time of light and revelation, manifestation and unveiling. I want to do this in a playful, low-stress, hopefully liberating way. So would you please take the small paper that’s with your bulletin, or a scrap you have at home, and write down whatever one sentence response comes to mind right now? Who is Jesus for you? Please leave your scrap of paper in the basket in the back. Or, send me an email. I will be sharing the responses next week, anonymously. And I will be asking the same question again next week, and each week of Epiphany. I hope you will say what you are really thinking. I hope you will feel free to change your mind, to contradict yourself, to evolve. I hope you will have fun with this. Amen.