“Gifts for the Journey” Colchester Federated Church, January 5, 2020, (Matthew 2:1-12) Second Sunday after Christmas

Tomorrow is Epiphany—the day we celebrate the revelation of Jesus Christ to all nations, represented by the magi who come to worship the Christ child.  By the willingness of these wise people to follow the light of a Star, the whole story of Jesus’ birth changes.  We can celebrate Jesus the Christ as the light of the whole world, not just as an exclusive messiah to a select few.  It’s an important day in our Christian tradition, and it’s also a day that can be difficult to deal with in modernity.  The biggest question we may have is what’s up with that Star of Bethlehem—the Christmas Star.  We modern people like to search for facts, for proof.  So it’s not surprising that scientists have pondered what astronomical event the Star of Bethlehem could have been, asking what exactly was present in the night sky around the birth of Jesus of Nazareth.

Astronomers have proposed four theories as to what the Christmas Star could have been.  Joe Rao, an instructor at New York’s Hayden Planetarium, explains that the Christmas Star could have been a bright meteor, a comet, a nova or supernova outburst, or a grouping of the bright naked-eye planets that were confused for a star.  Scientists have dated some astronomical events around the time of Jesus’ birth and found the most likely explanation of what these wisemen from the East followed to Judea.

The most compelling case revolves around the constellation Leo and the planets Venus and Jupiter.  I hesitate to tell you this, but December 25th was probably not the actual date of Jesus’ birth (feeling like the Grinch up here with that revelation!)  But we know that Jesus was born sometime between 7-3 B.C.E.  Astronomers note that on August 12th 3 B.C.E. there was a close conjunction of Venus and Jupiter with the constellation Leo.  Venus eventually vanished due to the glare of the sun, but Jupiter and Leo remained in the night sky for ten months.  All of these astronomical events would have been important for the magi, who were priest-astrologers.  In some translations of the Bible, the Magi are referred to as astrologers—as in “Astrologers from the East showed up in Jerusalem.”[1]  They read the signs in the sky and tried to interpret their meanings.  Not sure they did horoscopes the way we think of astrology today, though Leo lining up with Venus and Jupiter would have been amazing for these wise people to behold.

And here’s where it all gets really interesting—in June of 2 B.C.E. (when the Magi most likely had their audience with King Herod), to quote Joe Rao: “Jupiter and the stars of Leo began to sink into the western evening twilight, Venus again returned to this same region of the sky for an even more spectacular encore.  The Magi certainly would have especially taken note that on the evening of June 17, Jupiter and Venus appeared even closer together than they did in the dawn skies of the previous August . . . Finally, at 8:30 p.m. local time they drew to within a mere 0.6 of an arc minute of each other while appearing in the western twilight sky.   To the Magi the two brightest planets must have appeared to coalesce into one and glowed before them like a dazzling beacon over Judea.”[2]

So there we have it, an analysis of the astronomical event that most likely was interpreted by the Magi (and the writer of the Gospel of Matthew) as the Star of Bethlehem.  Case closed, we can all go home now.  Seriously though, we modern people sometimes wonder how we understand the place of religion and science in our belief systems.  We wonder if the Christmas Star was an actual event that others could see in the night sky at this time in history or is it more metaphorical?  Turns out that there really was something happening in the night sky over Judea around the time that Jesus of Nazareth was born.

Though UCC Minister Robin Meyers reminds us that, “Beliefs are claims made that something is or is not the case.  In religion these claims are made about God and then elevated to the level of dogma . . . Faith, in contrast, is an orientation toward the mystery of God, best understood by many as unconditional love, not a list of claims that one can know with certainty what that mystery is or wants, or even whether it exists.  Faith, oddly enough, requires faith.  It is a form of trust, the ultimate form of trust.”[3]  This is why in the United Church of Christ we have a Statement of Faith that unites us as a denomination, not a set of creeds we have to adhere to in order to belong.  We’re non-creedal, not big on dogma.  In our congregation here at CFC affiliated with both the United Church of Christ and the American Baptist Churches, there’s plenty of diversity of belief.  And that’s a good thing!  We emphasize faith as “an orientation toward the mystery of God.”[4]  We encourage everyone to work out their own beliefs and we often do this together in each local church because all of us are on unique journeys of faith.

The reality is that there are some things that are beyond our human comprehension, and maybe they’re even supposed to be.  Maybe the meaning and truth found within our Christian faith and a connection with the holy is deeper than the historical or scientific facts we can ascertain using our modern methods of analysis.  One of my favorite professors in seminary always said that whether these stories in the Bible happened exactly as written or not, they remain some of the best and truest stories you will ever hear in your life.

This morning we explored one scientific hypothesis that the astronomical event we say in the Christian tradition is the Star of Bethlehem was actually Leo, Venus, and Jupiter in close proximity to each other at various dates in 3 and 2 B.C.E.  It’s wonderful knowing that there was some sort of phenomenon in the night sky that people saw at this time.  Now we know what those magi from the East might have seen and why they would travel to investigate what was going on in Judea since they were priest-astrologers and interested in what something like this meant.  But this scientific explanation doesn’t make the story itself that much more compelling.  Because it’s not really about that astronomical event in the night sky, even if we know what it may have been.

The deeper meaning of the story is about what that event led to.  Epiphany is about trusting God, it’s about getting outside our own comfort zones.  It’s about humility in recognizing that even if we’re rich and wise and powerful, God is always worthy of our love and devotion.  It’s about the unconditional love of God being extended to all people, even people whose paths are far different than any of our individual paths.  Because Jesus came into this world as not just a Savior for a select few, but Jesus and his teachings are for everyone willing to follow him.  At the end of the day, we’re all trying to follow that metaphorical Star of Bethlehem to get home to God—to fall on our knees out of pure love and devotion to the miracle of God in our midst.

Which is why once again this year we’re receiving the gift of Star Words.  Consider those words some Gifts for the Journey.  It might be clear right away what the Word may mean and how God is still speaking through that Word in your own life.  Your Star Word may make no sense at all, even after you’ve looked up the meaning in the Dictionary and sat with it for a while.  Though with everything that we sometimes give in the life of the church it’s important to be on the receiving end of gifts.  There’s nothing we have to do to earn that Star Word for the journey.  Though we are invited to follow and see where it may lead, perhaps relying on trust even when there’s mystery.

In the end, Epiphany is about hearing the story anew every year.  “And there guiding them on was the star that they had observed in the East.  It led them on until it came to a standstill above where the child lay.  Once they saw the star, they were beside themselves with joy.”[5]  Let’s be beside ourselves with joy at an event in the sky that led these priest-astrologers to trust God and venture out into the world to discover holiness.  And let’s you and I live into our faith and the unconditional love of our divinely mysterious God.  Let’s follow the example of the magi.  Let’s be bold and humble and trusting and open to holy adventures this year.  May it be so with us, and thanks be to God.  Amen.

[1] Robert J. Miller Ed., The Complete Gospels: The Scholars Version, Matthew 2:1.
[2] Joe Rao, “Was the Star of Bethlehem a star, comet . . . or Miracle?” December 23, 2011, https://www.space.com/14036-christmas-star-bethlehem-comet-planet-theories.html
[3] Robin Meyers, The Underground Church: Reclaiming the Subversive Way of Jesus, 118.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Robert J. Miller Ed., The Complete Gospels: The Scholars Version, Matthew 2:9-10.