January 4, 2015: Matthew 2:1-12

January 4, 2015

At the End of the Rainbow

Year B, Epiphany                                                      


            There are a couple of negative aspects of my commute across the HRBT (which I affectionately call Herbert).  However, there are a lot of beautiful things as well.  There have been amazing sunsets and sunrises.  There have been helicopters hovering with men suspended in the air below.  But by far, my favorite thing is the rainbows.  I have seen two and they have been spectacular.  This last one was so vivid that it seemed as though I could see where it ended.  It appeared to be right on the edge of Ocean View, which is on my route home.  I know there is no pot of gold nor leprechauns (those are all in Ireland).  However, I was giddy at the prospect of seeing the end of the rainbow.  But as I drove on, it seemed as though it was moving and when I got to the place where it should have ended, the rainbow was no longer visible.  I know it sounds a bit foolish for an adult to think she could find the end of the rainbow, but in that moment, it seemed possible. 

            I imagine it would sound just as crazy if I told you that I was trying to follow a star and messages that came to me in a dream.  Anyone who followed a star or messages sent to them in a dream would be considered a little odd today.  Yet we never question this story in the Gospel about wise men from the East.  There was a recent study by the Pew Research forum.  Adults were asked about their beliefs and feelings related to Christmas.  75% of those questioned believed that there were wise men who followed a star and brought gifts to Jesus.[1]  Given the overwhelming skepticism of religious beliefs today, I find this absolutely astounding.

So who were these wise men foolish enough to follow a star? The Greek word that is translated to wise men is magi.  That word can be interpreted in several ways, but the most viable translation is astrologer.  They were experts in the stars…interpreters of the night sky.  They observed this rising star and they followed it.  I bet even in that time when following dreams and stars was a lot more common, this was probably rather risky.

            We cannot be certain what the meaning of the star was for the magi, because we know so little about them. Something must have motivated them to take such a journey. It is evident that they were from a foreign land and were not familiar with the Hebrew Scriptures or traditions.  So that was not what was guiding them.  A popular belief in the Gentile world at the time was that each person was represented by a star which appeared at his or her birth.[2]  Another belief was that stars could be counterparts or angels of great men.[3]  These wise men, these experts of the stars knew that this star was special, that this star represented no ordinary man.  This star was so magnificent, so unique, that it must have represented someone special enough to be worthy of a long and potentially dangerous journey into a foreign land. 

            However, it is not the motivation that baffles me as much as the actual logistics.  One of the things I have always wondered about this story of the wise men and the star is how you follow a star.  I don’t know a lot about astronomy but it seems as though that would be difficult.  Usually when this story is depicted in movies, the star is simply brighter than the rest and it shines directly like a spotlight onto the nativity scene.  But there is no indication that this is true.  What was unique about this star was that it seemed to move.  Stars rise and set just as we see the sun rise and set. Yet this star never set.   The texts says that it went ahead of them and then stopped. 

There have been a lot of theories about this star over the years.  Some people have hypothesized that it might have been Hailey’s Comet or a close alignment of Jupiter and Saturn which would have caused a bright light to appear for a short time and then disappear.  Yet none of that fits with what the text says.  They couldn’t have followed a comet.  Camels don’t move that fast.  

            This star was guiding them.  It was almost a companion with them on this journey.  They knew that their journey was complete when it stopped.  That was where they found Mary and the baby Jesus. Now, if I was in that group, I would have been a little perplexed, maybe even disappointed.  This long trip in search of a great man, and this is where it ended.  It ended over a peasant family in the middle of an utterly unremarkable place.  They were more open-minded than I would have been.  They were simply overwhelmed with joy and they entered the home and knelt before this seemingly ordinary family. Then they presented precious gifts that were gifts worthy of a king.  

            What was it that gave them the assurance that this was truly where the star had led them?  How did they know that this child would be a king? We can never be sure of those answers, but I have a theory.  They had followed this star for a very long time. They had put their faith and trust in this star.  They were able to do that because of their knowledge of stars and their commitment to the stars.  We no longer follow the stars.  Yet we do follow a great light and that is the light of Jesus Christ.  We are followers of Jesus Christ.  As we move through this journey that is our life, that light should be a constant companion. There might be times when it will seem to be farther away than we would like.  Or it will seem so dim that we will wonder if it is really there anymore.  Yet the more committed we are to that light and following that light, the more we will realize that it is not the light that dims, but our own vision because we have let other things get in the way of that view.  We have stopped trying to see and search. We have stopped trying.

            Recently, I did a little reading about rainbows.  Apparently, there is no way to find the end of a rainbow, because it is actually a circle.  As long as you are on the ground, the end will always be just ahead of you.  In a way, I find that very annoying.  I mean, we all want to find the end and now that is impossible.  It seems that we are kind of preoccupied with endings or beginnings, when what is really important is the quest.  It’s the search and the journey. 

We follow Jesus not because he will lead us to the end of life, but because he leads us on a journey that never truly ends.  That means that we can never get too comfortable or too sure of ourselves.  Like the wise men and their assurance of the star, we can only be sure of Jesus Christ.  The moment we think we have it all figured out—that we have all the answers is the moment when we are the most lost.   Really, it is not the end, the beginning, or even the journey that is the most important.  The most important part is who is at the center of that glorious circle.  Who is at the center of your life?  That –that determines everything. 

[1] http://www.pewforum.org/2014/12/15/most-say-religious-holiday-displays-should-be-allowed-on-public-property/#majorities-believe-christmas-story-historically-accurate
[2] Jerome Commentary  p. 67
[3] The Interpreters Bible   p. 257