I watched the IMAX film Dark Universe at the science museum with Eliza. When it was over, I said to Eliza, “Do you understand what dark matter is now? Because I have no idea!”
“I think that’s the point, Mom!” E. said with perfectly pitched preteen annoyance. “No one knows what it is.”
“Oh. Right.” Even so, I learned a lot watching the film. I hadn’t realized that what we can see and touch is only 5% of the universe. Or that the other 95% of what exists is invisible, mysterious dark matter and energy. Again and again, the camera zoomed out from our one galaxy to reveal the panorama of all the known galaxies twinkling in the darkness of space. I felt overwhelmed trying to grasp how mind-bogglingly vast the universe really is.
And then, last week, during one of my many outdoor adventures in the wildlife refuge near my parents’ home, a tree caught my eye. On its massive trunk, at eye level, several limbs had been cut off, leaving neat circles in the weathered bark. Inside these circles were cracks that spread out from the center, creating a star-like shape.
When I put these two experiences together, they seemed to mirror the message in today’s story from Matthew. The magi heeded a cosmic call. They encountered the wisdom of the divine in a star, a giant, ancient, faraway ball of gasses illuminating the night sky. And the star led them to the same sacred presence in a small, vulnerable human child in Bethlehem. Whether we zoom out or zoom in, we encounter common patterns. These patterns manifest in diverse ways and yet they remind us of the kinship of all things. In these patterns I perceive God, not as a separate being, nor as a dominating force. I recognize God as the connective tissue of creation, as the binding reality of love, revealed in interdependence, and mutuality.
The medieval mystic Julian of Norwich also saw a vision of the universe bound together by God’s love, its vastness small enough to be held. In her book Revelations of Divine Love she writes:
[Christ] showed me a little thing, the quantity of a hazel nut, lying in the palm of my hand, as it seemed. And it was as round as any ball. I looked upon it with the eye of my understanding, and thought, “What may this be?” And it was answered generally thus, “It is all that is made.” I marveled how it might last, for I thought it might suddenly have fallen to nothing for littleness. And I was answered in my understanding: It lasts and ever shall, for God loves it.
Today’s story from Matthew contrasts diverging worldviews and understandings of authority. One the one hand we have Herod, who was well-known in the ancient world for his brutal, tyrannical ways. The historical record reveals that he was continually putting to death his own family members whom he perceived as threats to his power—one of his wives and several of his sons. And of course, Matthew reports that Herod went to extreme lengths to eliminate the infant Jesus. After the magi acted to protect the baby, choosing to go home “by another road,” Herod retaliated by ordering all the children in Jerusalem under two to be executed. This horrific decision illuminates the aptness of Matthew’s observation that Herod “was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him.” This comment sums up life under a dictator, the feeling of empire, the emotional dynamics of systems of oppression everywhere. Fear is the real ruler. Fear spawns competition and violence. Fear holds in place a harmful, unjust status quo.
On the other hand, the encounter between the child and the magi represents another, deeper reality: love’s patterns, the gift of divine interconnection. There is an entirely different emotional tenor to their meeting.The magi are overwhelmed with joy. There is no fear, at least not fear of the kind Herod and his subjects feel. And yet there is certainly reverence, awe, and respect. The magi were inclined to kneel upon realizing that they belonged to something so much larger and so much smaller than themselves, something so amazingly beautiful, something so generously life-giving. The magi understood that the child before them would exercise that sort of authority, the authority of love. Quoting the prophet Micah, they told Herod that the ruler they were seeking was to be born in Bethlehem: “And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.”
Like his ancestor, David, Jesus would be a shepherd, a caretaker whose central focus was the well-being of the flock, the flourishing of the community. This shepherd would not control the sheep with the tactics of fear. He would not threaten, oppress, or kill to maintain his power. But he would be willing to die to make his message clear and that is why the magi’s gifts included myrrh, used to embalm bodies in the ancient world. Elisabeth Johnson, who serves in Cameroon as a professor at the Lutheran Institute of Theology, provides this fascinating description of myrrh:
The name itself means “bitter” in Arabic. Its yellowish-white resin seeps from the trunk of a small desert tree when wounded and hardens into teardrop shapes, as though the tree itself were weeping. Once exposed to the air, its color deepens into gold, then amber, and then scarlet—like drops of blood against the bark of the trees. The resin is bitter to taste, but when ground into a powder or burned as incense, it releases an extraordinary fragrance.
The gift of myrrh foreshadows how the shepherd Jesus will lay down his own life to show his love for humanity, to show that love is, indeed, the most real thing in the universe.
In Matthew’s scene of the magi at the manger, the world comes together. Not in order to promote the supremacy of Christianity. Not to say that Jesus holds all the truth. But to make clear to humanity that the connecting, mutual love of God is revealed in all our diversity of religion, spirituality, and culture. That is the meaning of Epiphany. “We can only be human together.” Archbishop Desmond Tutu said. In these days since his death, I learned that he regularly held interfaith services in the Cathedral in Cape Town. And I was reminded that he had a profound friendship with the Dalai Lama. In his work to end apartheid and his leadership of the truth and reconciliation process he often spoke about, and truly embodied the Zulu concept of, “ubuntu” which means, “I am because we are.”
Of course, these ideas sound really nice to all of us in the abstract—the kinship of all humanity, the universe held together in the love of God. The real question is how we center ourselves in these truths in the concrete and specific relationships and decisions of our daily lives, even as we navigate a world so full of fear. We have much to be legitimately afraid about. You know the litany. Our planet’s stress. The effects of this virus. Violence in our homes, streets, and schools. Organized white supremacy. Our slow, unsteady efforts to transform policing and our justice system. The huge numbers of people around us going hungry and lacking shelter. At the same time, we are also held captive to a manufactured politics of fear promoted by the Herods of this world. I don’t have the answers, just some questions for us to ponder together. Amid the bitter divisions we are living with, how can we experience what is sacred along with our opponents? What will give us the courage to be human together? How can we rekindle reverence, respect, and awe? How will we deal with our fears, both real and imagined, so they do not dominate us? Where will we look for the patterns of God’s presence? How will divine love be revealed among us?