Stargazing and the Magi’s gifts

img_5115A few days before Christmas, as I drew back the curtains when I returned home after Morning Prayer and looked south, I saw a bright light in the sky, just to bottom left of the moon which was still visible. This light, brighter than the brightest star by quite a luminosity, was Venus, which has been particularly close at the moment. And Venus appears to travel through the day, so what first appears in the East moves to the West. This phenomenon is one of the origins of the phrase Morning Star, because it can be seen in the morning, and that carries many allusions. Christ is described as the Morning Star, reflecting the book of Malachi, and his rising brings healing in his wings (Malachi 4:2). The Great Advent antiphons, which enrich Evening Prayer in the final week of Advent, include a reflection on Christ as the Morning Star. And for a people who look for omens and signs in the sky, a travelling light resonates.

Last year (30th December 2015) the BBC programme The Sky at Night produced a special on the Star of Bethlehem. What lies behind this story? A number of candidates were discussed with allusions and references. A morning star is just one. A comet was another possibility and our own Peterborough version of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records the sign of the comet in 1066 warning with foreboding. The Battle of Hastings brought a change of government and regime, the Saxon Abbot of this place, Leofric, died around that campaign and was replaced by a Norman, which as victor’s history, the Chronicle prefers to rebels like Hereward.

Another candidate for the Bethlehem Star is a supernova, created by the death of a star. This is a powerful event dispersing the elements throughout the universe, the elements that make up our bodies. We are literally made up of stardust, the matter of the universe. So the event announcing a special birth may be one that brings the dispersing of the elements that make birth possible, that bring life. This is a life-giving, creating event and that has poetry to it.

Of course we don’t know that there was a star, let alone what it was. Matthew, as indeed are all of the Gospels, is a work of deep theology, not merely a chronicling of events. That said the Gospels carry snippets of observed life and the events of the day. So it might be that there was a bright light in the sky at that time. Another contender is a conjunction of the planets Saturn and Jupiter, which some have calculated appeared in the Jerusalem sky around that time, a once in a millennium event.

Observing the signs and being drawn in awe and wonder is the beginning of religious stirrings. We look around us, see marvels and are triggered to reflect on the deeper significance of what we see. The quest to know is an innate gift of the human soul and it makes us intelligent in an intelligible world. That reflecting leads us to ask more questions and test out theories, which is the basis of the scientific method, and faith is no less part of this enquiry. True faith is a long way from being unquestioning. It struggles with the questions and goes on journeys of epic proportions to find answers and will not rest until it has found the prize. Some questions remain illusive but that doesn’t mean we don’t continue with them. The biggest threat to faith is not questions but superficial answers defended out of fear of the unknown and unknowing. A mature faith can live with untidy edges and shadows, which makes starlight and candlelight all the more evocative for us.

So the Magi, stargazing and journeying, among other things stand for the quest of faith, the asking of questions in response to the awe and wonder of the created universe and of this wonderful thing we call life. Religious faith is not the gap we can’t fill with other explanations, it is the sense we make of it, the way we live in response to it, and the hope we move forward in. So on to the Magi’s gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.

Gold is our choices, our power, our trading and the trustworthiness of doing what we say we will do with the resources we have. It is our money and the choices we make as we spend it. The justice of trading and earning is brought into the scope of this wondering and responding to that awe. Money makes things happen and brings relationships of power before this child who judges the world by his gold standard of love and mercy, reconciliation and salvation. Awe-and-wonder-science leads to choices and those affect people. When we lay gold before this crib we bring the justice of deciding what to do and what to make happen in this intelligible world.

Frankincense is a sweet-smelling incense. I hope you are enjoying it – it is the incense that we are using this evening: the real stuff. Incense is our awe and wonder, our worship offered to God in thanks and praise for this incredible life in an amazing universe of stars, planets, supernovae and comets. We can wonder and enquire. We can seek to live in harmony with the purpose which set it all in motion and keeps it there and reflect in our deepest being. Our worship, our seeking to live in harmony with God provides the lens through which to judge how we use the gold, the first gift.

Myrrh is perhaps the oddest sounding, but probably the most practical. This is the medicinal compound that cures so many ailments, not least gynecological complaints, so perfect at a birth. This is healing in a world of pain and suffering, of illness and discomfort. We bring our pains and struggle with a wonderful world that includes the pains and suffering, sometimes evil in cause. We bring them before the one who can resolve what otherwise has no resolution. In doing so we worship and adore and then seek to live lives of justice and peace.

Three gifts which relate to one another, but also connect with our deepest thoughts flowing as they do from awe and wonder in an intelligible universe.

The visit of the Magi is our journey in faith, in hope and in love. It is our journey to make sense of what mystifies and entices, and which elicits from us a response, a deep song of praise and thanksgiving, of awe and wonder. Out of that come questions about purpose and how we live in response to the sense we make of it. Three strange gifts of gold, power and money, choices and justice; frankincense where worship sings songs of praise that brings in turn a demand that we live the kingdom we adore; and myrrh, holding the pains, resolving what is otherwise unresolved. Stargazing brings us to ask very deep questions indeed and most profoundly what our response will be as we kneel and pay homage with the ancient travellers and seekers after truth.

Sermon preached at Peterborough Cathedral, Feast of the Epiphany, 6th January 2017


About Revd Canon Ian Black

Ian is Vicar of Peterborough, Canon Residentiary of Peterborough Cathedral and Rural Dean of Peterborough. He previously served for 10 years in Leeds, as Vicar of Whitkirk and as a member of the Chapter of Ripon Cathedral. He has also worked in Kent in Maidstone and as priest-in-charge of a group of parishes 10 miles north west of Canterbury. He was a Minor Canon of Canterbury Cathedral, a prison chaplain and Assistant Director of Post-Ordination Training for the Diocese of Canterbury. Prior to ordination Ian had a career in tax, both with the Inland Revenue as a PAYE Auditor and a firm of Chartered Accountants as a Tax Accountant. Ian is married with two sons. He is the author of three books of prayers: Prayers for all occasions (SPCK 2011), Intercessions for Years A, B & C (SPCK 2009) and Intercessions for the Calendar of Saints and Holy Days (SPCK 2005). His latest book is 'Follow me: living the sayings of Jesus (Sacristy Press 2017). He has been writing online since the mid 1990s.
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