Epiphany Sunday – January 07, 2017 – 10:30 AM
Saint Cecilia Catholic Community
Rev. David Justin Lynch
Isaiah 60:1-6 Psalm 72:1-2;7-8;10-13
Ephesians 3:2-3A;5-6 Matthew 2:1-12
+ In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
My mother was an actress. She tried, but failed, to get me to follow in her footsteps. But I loved the theater, so I worked behind the scenes as a lighting technician, designing the lighting for productions, setting up the lights, and operating them during the show. Lighting is a very necessary part of theater, because if the theater is dark, you can’t see the actors. One of my mother’s favorite sayings was a quote from Shakespeare, “All the world is a stage.” We are characters playing a role, living out a plot, and speaking lines in the drama that is life itself.
Just as in the theater proper, lights are important in life. Lights fulfil many functions. They warn, like the lights on tall buildings that tell airplanes you shouldn’t fly low here. Lights instruct us, like traffic and railroad signals. Lights illuminate indoor rooms and outdoor stadia. All these lights are lights that humanity created for its own purposes. The star that the Magi followed, however, is different. God made it for God’s purposes, one of which is to guide humanity.
The notion of being guided by a star is ancient. Before sophisticated navigation equipment was invented, mariners at sea used stars to guide them to their destinations. In today’s Gospel, a star told the Magi where baby Jesus was. It was a very special star. Astronomers have hypothesized for generations as to whether some celestial event caused a bright star to appear in the Middle East around the time Jesus was born. Some believed it was a supernova explosion, others a comet or a conjunction of planets associated with specific constellations that would herald the birth of a king in Israel. But we need not detain ourselves with a scientific debate over the various explanations for the genesis of that star. The spiritual meaning of the star of Bethlehem, and how it is experienced, are what truly counts for us in the twenty-first century.
Our lives are full of signs and symbols. We use these two words interchangeably, but they mean different things. A sign conveys objective information, like where something is located, the presence of danger, or what we can do or can’t do. Signs are both verbal and non-verbal. The exit signs over our doors are verbal, showing where the doors are, while the sign on the bathroom door is non-verbal, communicating that it is open to all genders. Symbols, however, require interpretation. Symbols are almost always non-verbal. The same symbol can mean different things to different people because different people react to them in different ways. Our church is filled with icons and statues. Each person viewing them reacts to them in different ways, often colored by their pre-existing prejudices and opinions. For example, Catholics and certain breeds of Protestants each react differently to a statue of Mary, the Mother of Jesus. A Catholic sees a representation of someone due the highest form of veneration, known as “hyperdulia”, while some Protestants consider the same statue as idolatrous.
All symbols have what are called “referents,” that is, the person, place or thing that the symbol represents. The things to which a symbol refers can be either concrete or abstract, that is, to a concrete object, a person, or a concept. Take for example the crucifix. Its referent is the death of Jesus, which has many meanings for both Christians and non-Christians.
The Star of Bethlehem, however, is both a sign anda symbol. It is a sign because, in the context of the Gospel, it conveyed objective information, that is, it pointed the way to the location of the baby Jesus. In the cultural context of the ancient world, astronomical phenomena, like an unusually bright star, was the sign of actual events on earth, such as the birth of important rulers and heroes. However, the star was also a symbol. It had a subjective meaning to those who viewed it. The tradition of a heavenly sign appearing about the time of Jesus\’ birth was seen as a fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies, understood as messianic promises. But the Magi were not Jewish; most likely they were Zoroastrian priests from Persia, in modern times called Iran. Their association with the Star of Bethlehem therefore directly points to yet another referent: the universal significance of Jesus. The encounter between Jesus and the Magi was his first biblically recorded interaction with the non-Jewish, gentile community. Herod, however, had a completely different subjective reaction to that Star than the Magi did. He saw the birth of Jesus as a threat to his power. Herod had no intention of worshipping baby Jesus. He wanted to kill Jesus. When the Magi did not return to Herod, he ordered the murder of all male children under two years old.
In the Eastern Christian tradition, the Star of Bethlehem was not an astronomical event, but an angel sent by God to lead the Magi to the Christ Child and the world to the dawn of a new light of knowledge, a different style of relating to God than that to which the Jewish community was accustomed. Suddenly, God was present and personal, not off in a distant heaven. That present and personal God became human to make a difference in our lives, to lead us on a journey to become one with God.
On that journey, we have, and will experience, guiding stars leading us to new beginnings, directing us to changes in our lives that make a difference in who we are and where we are going. Some people are inspired by the example of another person such as a saint, a relative, a boss, or a friend. Others are inspired by a book, sometimes the Bible, and still others by historical events such as the civil rights movement or the anti-war movement. My own guiding star, however, has not been any astronomical constellation, but Jesus Himself, stripped of all the stuff that Christianity has laid upon Him for its own institutional purposes, which, more often than not, can be reduced to the desire of religious leaders for their own personal power, glory, and wealth. My guiding star is simply Jesus the person, both human and divine.
Jesus was who inspired me to become a priest. I’m not following in the footsteps of anyone in my family into ministry, nor is my calling based on the example set by a particular person or group, or some event in human history. I am here to do what Jesus did, to the best of my ability, to celebrate the Eucharist, to preach, to heal, and most important, to love.
Jesus Himself is the guiding star to which I have been advancing and will continue to advance. Like the Magi, I journey to Jesus bearing whatever gifts I possess, to place before Jesus, meager as they might be, as you should, too. Each of you has a unique gift to offer our parish community, whatever it might be, and I want you not to be afraid or embarrassed at any time to offer whatever you have to us, be it money, taking part in the liturgy, teaching a class, or representing us in the world outside the church walls. Your gifts to our parish are your gifts to Jesus. Know that even if you make a mistake, that you are forgiven.
In offering your gifts, whatever they might be, you are allowing Jesus to be your guiding star in two ways. One, Jesus will guide you towards happiness and making the most of who and what you are. I am sure you all have many goals that you are trying to accomplish, at work, at school, and here at church. Something is leading you onward in your journey of life. For many people, it is money or other material ambition. But you are going to get there much more quickly with Jesus than without Jesus. Jesus guides you towards your goals by being a light that illuminates your life.
The qualities that Jesus illuminates for us, more than anything else, are wisdom, courage and love. To succeed in life, you have to be smart, courageous, and kind. Act wisely, courageously, and with compassion. Here’s what I mean. Jesus tells us to be “wise as serpents and gentle as doves.” So, like the Magi, I try to be smart, to avoid being trapped by the Herods of this world, who thought he could trap the Magi into telling where Jesus was. The Magi, by going home by another road instead of returning to Herod, saved the life of baby Jesus. Later on in His life, Jesus was the subject of persecution by the religious establishment of His day. He was a threat to the power structure. He was the victim of some very evil people who wanted Him to stop doing what He was doing, and were willing to kill Him if He didn’t. Jesus, however, had guts. Jesus didn’t back down to save His own skin. His response? Love your enemies. Love your neighbor as yourself. Love one another as I have loved you. Not easy to do, when a gang of thugs wants to kill you by crucifixion, but Jesus did it.
Jesus is the guiding star that will lead us on our journey to be the best we can be with what we have. Jesus lights the stage of life where we play our roles, speak our lines, and live out our plot. Jesus has come to light the paths of our lives. When you let Jesus illuminate your life, you will be smart. You will be courageous. And most important of all, you will be loving.
Jesus is the light of the world, the brightest and best of all stars. You who follow Jesus will not fear darkness, but will live, filled with light, and you will be a light to others you encounter, to inspire them to follow Jesus. AMEN.