When I was 12, my family moved from Vermont to Wyoming. As you might guess, it was quite a transition. Here I was: a New England boy used to rolling hills, abundant trees, air that was humid, and lots of little towns sharing borders with other little towns; but we were relocating to a sparsely inhabited desert plateau a mile and a half above sea level and surrounded by mountains – real mountains – not the green bumps we have here in New England.
I remember as we drove out, constantly quizzing my Father:
So Dad, we’re moving to Laramie, right?
So, what other towns are around it?
There aren’t any. Rawlins is the next town up on the highway, on the other side of the Snowy Range, about 100 miles away.
Huh, but … what’s in between? There must be towns in between!
Really? Well, but what’s in-between Rawlins and Laramie, then? There’s got to be something!
…The fact that every acre of land in the country wasn’t within some town’s boundaries, as is true here in New England, just did not compute for me. There was no such thing in my experience as a town that bordered on … nothing!
The emptiness and scale of the landscape there took some getting used-to. We lived 30 miles from the mountains to our west; but on many days they looked like they were within walking distance. In fact, it was easy to spot cars in the mountains at night, even from 40 or 50 miles away: you’d see their headlights moving across the horizon as they drove along in the dark.
I remember driving across that dark, empty, landscape myself, no signs of human presence anywhere, except for maybe an occasional road sign or fencepost. But, I could usually see my goal – the light of a house or establishment, maybe a small town, from dozens of miles away. That light was a clear beacon to steer by; but as I drove along, little dips in the ground, brush, rocks, small hills, would hide the light. My guiding star would vanish, only to suddenly re-appear at the next turn. And I was always amazed at how just one tiny light, even a single incandescent bulb, could be a beacon visible across miles and miles of emptiness.
But seeing that light required the darkness and that emptiness. In the daytime, when light flooded the landscape, that little bulb was unseen. If we’d been driving at night through a city, who would have even noticed such a light, lost among the millions of others competing with it?
In fact, if we have never known darkness, what good is a light at all? We come to understand a thing when we see how it differs from its opposite, and we come to value it when we realize the implications of its absence. We comprehend cold because we know and appreciate what it is like to be warm. We know and often seek out silence because we know of sound and avoid cacophony. We appreciate and desire a good meal because we have known hunger. We desire the company of others because we have experienced loneliness.
In discerning the difference between darkness and light I notice something else, which is that without darkness, light becomes very uninteresting. Imagine an artist who painted without using shadows or contrast of any sort. (Well, some do – actually.) But would the result be at all interesting? Usually not.
Life without contrasts – light and dark; noise and silence; cold and warmth – would be an empty and meaningless existence, but we would not know how empty it was unless we had experienced both the light and the dark.
We see this juxtaposition of light and darkness, and other things, throughout all of our readings this morning. This is deliberate, because the reason for the season – unlike what the popular saying claims – is not Jesus. True, Jesus is central – but we could have just as easily celebrated Jesus’ birth in the summer, since exactly when he was born (even if we knew when that was) has nothing to do with the timing of Advent or Christmas or Epiphany.
The reason for the season is the contrast between the physical and metaphoric darkness we all experience and share at this time of year, when the nights are long and dark, the old is dying, but the new has yet to spring to life. We are anticipating the light that we know is to come. In fact, this week is the festival of Epiphany, where we celebrate the arrival of that light. The word Epiphany itself means “an illuminating discovery” or that moment in which you suddenly see or understand something in a new or very clear way, which is why Matthew structures his narrative of the Epiphany around the journey of the wise men.
The term Matthew uses for the wise men – the Magi – tells us they were Persian priests and scholars – seekers of knowledge, looking for new revelations of the Divine at work. He writes that the rising of the star motivated them to journey far westward from their homeland, across the empty desert, to Jerusalem, and to the Temple of the One Living God.
That they were from Persia is significant: our several readings from Isaiah over the Advent Season and this week remind us that Jerusalem and the temple were rebuilt following the conquest of Babylon by Cyrus, the great hero of Persian history. The Jew’s Babylonian captivity ended with Cyrus’s command for the Jews to return to Jerusalem. And now, Matthew tells us that priests from the land of Cyrus have come to pay homage to God’s child. So it is clear that Jesus is not just for the Jews, and perhaps Matthew is also reminding the Jews of the debt they owe; because God worked through the command of a gentile to end their captivity and rebuild the temple.
Now, the Magi followed the star from their homeland to Jerusalem, but they did not know where to go from there until Herod secretly sought the advice of the Chief Priests and Scribes of the Temple. And oddly, these who apparently knew exactly when and where the child was to be born, showed no interest in seeking out this babe who was to be their King. Like the Magi, they had great knowledge; but unlike them, they did not seek the light.
Then there is King Herod – a man who took the Judean throne by force and kept his grip on it with cunning and violence. He queries the Chief Priests and Scribes to learn where the babe was, and shared this with the Magi, but kept his real agenda is hidden from them – he wished to find the Babe purely to preserve his own position and power – which reflects the evils of Judean society and leadership that Jesus preached against so strongly in his later ministry.
And finally, there is the star. When the Magi leave the city, the text says, specifically, “the star they had seen at its rising,” not something like “the star they had seen ever since its rising.” So, the sighting of the star seems to have been a one time or sporadic thing, not on ongoing phenomenon. Also, the Magi pursue it by heading West, which makes it very clear the star is a metaphor or miraculous event; because if they saw it at it’s rising, as the scripture says, and it was a natural phenomenon, then they would have headed East, where all celestial bodies rise into the sky.
During their pursuit, the Magi apparently lose sight of it; which I imagine is similar to how I lost sight of my own goal while journeying cross the high plains and through the mountains of Wyoming – things nearby tend to obscure the distant goal. But after their visit to the City, the Magi know the specific prophesy, they know where to go: and find the star again, and follow it again, until it stops over a small house.
Then they enter the house, find Mary and the child, and open their treasure chests to present their gifts of Gold and Frankincense, which are traditionally seen as tokens of Jesus’ status as the Eternal King and High Priest. They also present Myrrh, which was known for its use in burial ceremonies. So, Myrrh was probably Matthew’s symbolic foreshadowing of his death.
Now, stars are visible only at night, and as I’ve noted, even tiny lights can be seen over great distances in the dark. So – and I’m sure Matthew intended this – we have a mental image of the Magi emerging from the shadows of the night into that house. The star they’d followed so far and for so long has finally led them to the warmth and light surrounding the child and Mary. Their Epiphany is at hand. God is no longer distant and removed from humanity, but right here among us. Emmanuel, God With Us, as Matthew says just a few sentences earlier in his Gospel.
And now that they’ve found Jesus, they receive a new revelation in the form of a dream, and are told to travel home by a different road. Yes, they are to return to where they had come from, but on a new journey, not a retracing of where they’d been before. They have no further need for Jerusalem, nor King Herod, nor the Chief Priests and scribes. They’ve paid homage to their new King, and now, having accomplished all they came to do, they turn their faces east to go back to their homes and their own people: the first missionaries to bear the Good News to the nations of the world.
Finally, let us return to the memory of that long ago journey to a strange land: finding our way across those featureless plains; cold, dark, and empty – not even a “city limits” or street sign to navigate by – just a single lonely light shining in the distance like a star, showing us the way. But now we realize the landscape is not as dark or cold or empty as we thought, because the light is here. We carry it with us wherever we go, and so it continues to beckon to all those who are wandering in the darkness – a beacon guiding the nations to a place of light and warmth, and the promise of an Epiphany of their own.
Delivered at ARK Community Church, Dalton MA, January 4, 2015; (Epiphany).
“The Risk of Birth” (Madeleine L’Engle, 1973)
Isaiah 60:1-6 (NRSV) – “The Nations Come to the Brightness of the Dawn”
Matthew 2:1-12 (NRSV) – “The Visit of the Magi”
Copyright (c) 2015, Allen Vander Meulen III, all rights reserved. I’m happy to share my writings with you, as long as proper credit for my authorship is given. (e.g., via a credit that gives my full name and/or provides a link back to this site – or just email me and ask!)