January 02, 2022 – 10:30 AM
Saint Cecilia Catholic Community, Palm Springs CA
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.
One of the advantages of living in the Desert is that on a cloudless night, we have a view of the stars unlike that of those who live in the City where both air pollution and lights on the ground obstruct the full splendor of the universe of stars. In today’s readings, light, in particular the light of stars, is front and center.
Within the past few weeks, we witnessed a rocket launching the largest telescope in history into outer space to give humankind a window into the earliest days of the Universe when supposedly it all began with a massive explosion that scientists call “the big bang.” This telescope, unlike the telescopes that sit on a tripod in your yard with a lens focused on the stars, this telescope will view the universe by receiving radio waves generated by the light of stars and other objects like planets and comets.
What we see as light, however, is only very a small portion of what scientists call the electromagnetic spectrum. Most of that spectrum is invisible to human eyes. The radio telescope is able to receive information about objects that are too far away to see with our eyes even with the most powerful optical telescopes. The light sources that the new space radio telescope can detect, however, are infinite. New light sources will be discovered all the time as its mission continues over several decades.
The more we learn about the universe, the less we know about it. Knowledge itself is infinite, so much so that what we know can often best be expressed on a continuum between certainty and speculation. As we take in more information, more unanswered questions arise. The deeper we peer into deep space, the deeper it becomes. The space beyond our planet is, indeed, infinite, just like God. The magnetic spectrum itself is infinite. Hence, light is infinite. Hence, we can say that God is light and that in him there is no darkness at all, as the First Epistle of John tells us.
The visible light of the star that guided the Magi to the child Jesus represents an infinitesimal portion of the entirety of its light. We think we know what we see, but there is plenty we neither know nor see. Isn’t that somewhat like God?
God mediated by a star that gives us but a tiny glimpse of God’s universe. A star is a true disconnection between our earthly, concrete here-and-now now a reality and the greater actuality of the Universe. It reminds that much of God is yet to be discovered.
The Star of Bethlehem reminds us that God is truly a mystery, neither a conscious being nor an entity described and limited by human constructs. Mystery, by definition, introduces unknowns, despite humanity’s strong psychological need for certainty.
In the religious realm, humanity has actualized its needs for certainty by defining, or should I say, attempting to define, God. Some do so with the traditions of the Church; others do it with the Bible, and still, others do so with human reason. Seventeenth-Century scholar Richard Hooker attempted to use all three to understand and explain God but failed miserably. He did not account for, or take seriously, the vast unknown voids in what humanity knows about God, which is really very little. Hooker was grounded in the tangible, but God is intangible.
We should always be suspicious when religious leaders, especially prominent ones, attempt to define God for us. Those leaders want you to trust and obey them. However, they often do so for their own self-serving ulterior motives to enrich themselves and/or the institution to which they belong. They do that by answering your need for a God who eliminates uncertainty. The usual result is that your obedience benefits the leader more than it does you.
Since so much about God remains unknown, I can understand, given the human emotional need for certainty, why so many people hesitate to trust and believe in God and instead look to the secular world instead of God to ground their lives.
Yet as explained in today’s Gospel, the Star of Bethlehem, with all the uncertainties it contains and represents, guided the Magi to Jesus. Uncertainties notwithstanding, the Magi trusted the Star to lead them, just as we ought to trust Jesus to lead us to God despite our very limited knowledge of Jesus. Keep in mind that other than the four Gospels, very little literature exists to document the existence, events, and actions of Jesus. Start with the fact that we don’t know what Jesus did with the first thirty years of his life.
The author of the Gospel According To John reminds us that Jesus did much more than has been written about him by telling us that the world is not large enough to contain all the books needed to record everything Jesus did. The church asks us to act on faith alone despite a paucity of verifiable facts and information. That is a tall order for many people, particularly those raised in a non-religious home, and an even taller order for those who’ve left organized religion based on bad experiences with it.
But whether or not you accept the doctrinal formulations about God proffered by churches, stars, as light sources, illuminate your world. I could say that the existence of stars proves God’s existence, but what is important about stars is that they are much different from the electric lights we turn on and off with a switch. The light from a star comes from its own source of energy within itself. It does not rely on external power. The energy which created a star itself is its light source. And unlike light bulbs or even light-emitting diodes which last much longer than light bulbs, the light from a star persists for millions, or even billions, of years.
The radio telescope that was just launched will be catching the light from stars that no longer exist because the light from those starts travels and travels without end at, literally, the speed of light. More than any other object in the created universe, stars come closest to what God is like. God’s energy comes from God, not from an external source, and continues to travel everywhere with no final destination.
For the Magi in today’s Gospel, stars were quite significant. They were most likely Zorastrian priests from Persia, the ancient name for the country now called Iran. They were astrologers. Astrology is the study of the movements and relative positions of celestial objects as a means for predicting and characterizing human affairs and terrestrial events.
The appearance of Jesus to the Magi was in the realm of mystery, full of hidden meaning. The concept of mystery would be very familiar to them. The Magi were known for listening to their dreams in conjunction with their observations of the celestial bodies in the sky. They intensely listened to voices inside and above them and were open to hearing things that ordinarily would not make logical sense to ordinary people. They listened to what was in the depths of their souls to give their lives a sense of direction while simultaneously listening to the powers beyond and above them in the heavens.
Watching the star of Jesus, the Magi perceived an incredible, splendid event first foretold in the Book of Numbers, which tells us, “There shall a star from Jacob come forth, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel.” You will hear those words in the anthem the choir will sing today after communion.
In today’s first reading, Isaiah, the prophet speaks of the glory of the Lord shining upon the exiles returning from Babylon. The author invites us to rise up with joy to contemplate the revelation of the glory of God. The Bible is filled with light representing God’s glory. In the first chapter of Genesis, light was the very first thing God created in forming our earth. God’s presence was seen in a rainbow after the Noah’s Ark flood. Light is shown on the faces of Elijah, Moses, and Jesus at the Transfiguration. Again, God is light, and in him, there is no darkness at all.
Like so much about God and God’s creation, the star of Bethlehem was a mystery. The best available information is that it was the conjunction of the planets Jupiter and Venus, plus the very bright star named Regulus in the constellation called Leo the Lion. However, some astronomers have said it was a comet, supernova, or meteor.
Exactly which of those celestial bodies guided the Magi to the crib of Jesus, we do not know for sure. As a mystery, perhaps its existence as such communicated to humanity that everything around us cannot be condensed into a news story with verifiable facts.
What matters more than physical reality, however, is what that star symbolized for the Magi. A star, in the days of Jesus, symbolized the power and divinity of a king. Both for the Magi and for us today, the heavens proclaimed the glory of God, the light of Jesus, that shows us the way to Him.
By following the star to where Jesus lay, the Magi were our forerunners in faith. Their journey to Jesus was a response of faith, just like our life-long journey from birth into the arms of God. No one can find Jesus without searching for Him. The search for Jesus is essential, in and of itself, to finding Jesus and knowing Jesus when we find him.
The visit of the Magi affirmed the idea of the universal saving power of Jesus. Their visit was the fulfillment of God’s plan that Jesus was the savior of all humanity, not just the Jewish people. Their visit demonstrated that the Jewish nation into which Jesus was born was not the only group to recognize His significance. In fact, an alternate name for the Feast of the Epiphany is “The Manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles”, because the visit of the Magi was the first contact Jesus had with people outside the Jewish world. Their visit was a precursor to the writings and missionary activity of Paul the Apostle, who would later make clear that Jesus was sent to save not only the Jews but Gentiles as well, a point made repeatedly clear in Paul’s Epistle to the Romans and elsewhere in Paul’s writings.
Hence, in the visit to Jesus by the Magi, we see that God wanted to reveal himself through his Son, Jesus, not to a select people only, but to all nations. The immediate society into which Jesus was born, and the foreigners from the ends of the earth, are all members of the same family of God and share the same promise of a Messiah that God made to the Jews. God excludes no one.
Jesus, with all the mystery that surrounds him, is our best guiding star. He is who will lead us on our journey to be the best we can be with what we have.
The star that guided Magi, like all God’s dealings with humanity, illustrates and exemplifies in many ways how God leads us to Jesus. But God has other kinds of stars for us as well.
The star of science is the knowledge of what God does in nature. Look at the mountains, the ocean, and the desert. God did all of that.
The star of experience is what God has actually done for us and in us, and for others that we know. We have from God the gift of life itself with all of our talents and accomplishments as well as the people in our lives.
The star of history, as described in the Bible, is an accounting of God’s relationship with humanity, but God’s activity is described in other ways elsewhere as well.
The star of our longings is our need for nourishment, exercise, love, and the desire for companionship with others.
There are always stars somewhere to those who look up into the sky at night, but Jesus outshines all of them. We may not always know the way we are going, but we have the best possible guiding star in Jesus to illuminate our lives.
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. You have to 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, let’s be smart. Let’s avoid entrapment by the Herods of this world, who thought he could trap the Magi into telling where Jesus was, but instead, they returned to their home country by another road without interacting again with Herod. Then as now, humanity lives in a world that contains evil as well as good. The light of the star that is Jesus will enlighten our minds to give us smart solutions when the occasion demands it.
We can never exhaust our relationship with Jesus. He continually invites us to deepen our relationship with him. In seeking and perfecting that relationship, we are like the Magi as we seek greater knowledge and love of Jesus. As we celebrate Mass, we will come to know him ever more personally ever more deeply. That is the vocation we all have by reason of our baptism when we began our encounter with what will be ours for all eternity. What we must continually seek and accept is full union with God. That is the challenge this Epiphany feast presents to all of us.
Like the Magi, we, too have a very special gift to offer to Jesus. It is not gold, frankincense, or myrrh, but rather it is the gift of our life, the gift of who we are, the gift of our love that we bring and present to Jesus as our Savior. Every time we come to Mass, the one gift that we bring to offer is gratitude for all that God does for us and is the gift of our own love.
Many years ago, I was a stage lighting technician. I shined lights on people. That’s exactly what Jesus does. Jesus shines lights on us. 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 we love Jesus enough, Jesus becomes is the guiding star that will lead us on our journey to be the best we can be with what we have. To be a baptized Christian is to be a minister. When we were baptized, we were all commissioned to be ministers of Jesus, not by leading rituals, but by how we lead our lives in following the Two Great Commandments to love God with all our hearts, minds, and souls, and loving our neighbors as ourselves. That, my people, is Christianity in a nutshell. It’s not about the doctrines that you hold near and dear. It is not about obeying rules. It’s not about your sex life. It’s about our relationships with God and other people. Jesus is your guiding star to make that happen for you.
May the Star of Bethlehem lead you to Jesus, now and always.