As I begin my remarks this morning, I want to explain the guests I have up here on the pulpit with me. You may recognize them as Balthasar, Melchior, and Gaspar – the names given in popular tradition to the three wise men or three kings or three magi who figure in the story of the birth of the teacher Jesus in the Gospel According to Matthew. Some of you might recall that about a month ago I was making a point about consumerism which was also an excuse for me to talk about Star Wars – pretty much exactly the sort of thing you’d expect if you know me at all. And I observed in an off-hand way that on any given Christmas you can expect more action figures to be sold of Yoda than of the three wise men. And the next Sunday three of you handed me a package before the service containing what I must say is very nice set of three wise men action figures – fully articulated and sculpted with attention to detail. So to you, Leo, Nancy, and Gabe Petino, I give my thanks not as much for the toys – lovely as they may be – but because I am deeply heartened anytime I am presented with solid evidence that someone was listening to something I said during worship.
But in addition to thanking the Petino family, I have these guests up here on the pulpit with me today because today is Three Kings Day, also called Epiphany, in the Christian tradition. Three Kings Day – in Spanish the name is Dia de los Tres Royes Magos – honors the group of important travelers from the East whom the author of the book of Matthew said came to visit the infant Jesus and his family shortly after his birth, baring gifts. They found their way there, according to the story, by following a star.
The Gospel of Matthew calls these travellers Magi, which was the Greek term for a Zoroastrian, a very popular religion at the time. The Greeks associated Zoroastrians with astrology and other means of predicting the future; that wasn’t a particularly big part of their religion, but they came to be so closely associated with them in the Greek consciousness that we get the English word ‘magic’ from this misunderstanding. Which just goes to show that unfounded stereotypes are not a uniquely modern occurrence. So if they were Zoroastrians, these Magi – in the Book of Matthew they come in a group, but their exact number is never given – were likely from the Parthian Empire, travelling from somewhere in modern Iraq or Iran.
They came to Jerusalem, they explained, because they had seen a star rising in the sky, which indicated to them that a great king had just been born, and so they set out to look for that king. After consultations in Jerusalem, they travelled on and that star they were following actually moved through the sky ahead of them, guiding their way. Finally, it stopped and held still again – for anyone who is not an astronomy buff, this is a very strange series of things for a star to do – and there underneath where it had stopped, was the house where Jesus and his family were living. And so the Magi were able to meet the child they had been looking for, and to give him the gifts they were carrying with them.
Now, try to think about this story, from the point of view of these astrologer characters. They see a star in the night sky, a sign of something strange and new at work in the world, and set out to follow it. In doing so they are leaving behind their country and their religion; their arrival does not herald or symbolize some mass conversion. For over five hundred from the beginning of Christianity, Zoroastrianism was one of its primary competitors. This is a Macy’s and Gimbles, Pepsi and Coke type of rivalry. And this star that the travelers are following – it moves in a way that no star moves, and hangs so low in the sky that it can clearly point out a single house by its position. It is no normal thing, and in an era when people all over the world were studying the night sky for signs of the future, it was not the sort of thing that would go unnoticed. What a wondrous event, to see what others cannot; and what courage it would take to follow such a strange star, on an even stranger journey.
The actual details given about these people and their experience in the one Gospel that mentions them are very slight, which may be why there are so many additional folk traditions about the Magi to fill in the gaps – like their names, or even their number. There is however at least one very obscure ancient document from outside the biblical canon which offers an entire narrative focused on these figures. The Revelation of the Magi was written in Syriac, a language closely related to the Aramaic spoken by Jesus and the other characters in the Gospels, and which was one of the common languages used by many early Christians. In this story, the star the Magi follow to Bethlehem is an actual character – it comes down out of the sky and talks to the Magi. It is both a star and a person, and everyone who looks at it sees it in a different way. Which is strikingly similar to the way that different human cultures have, for thousands of years, looked at the same web of stars in the night sky and seen different things there, investing the same distant balls of burning hydrogen with wildly different meanings.
Consider the constellation of seven stars you probably know as the Big Dipper. The light from each of those distant suns takes roughly one hundred years to reach us here, and their position in our sky has changed very little in the few million years that there have been humans on Earth to watch them. In Ireland, they are called the Starry Plough. They are Otava, the salmon net, in Finnland and in India, the same set of stars are known as Sapta Rishi, the Seven Great Sages. According to the Taoist astrological system of China, there are two secret stars in that arrangement, bringing the total to nine, and those who can see these otherwise hidden lights are destined to lead a long life.
Hanging high overhead, the stars endure as perpetual and silent witnesses. On the subject of stars, the poet Robert Frost wrote these words:
How countlessly they congregate
O’er our tumultuous snow,
Which flows in shapes as tall as trees
When wintry winds do blow!–
As if with keenness for our fate,
Our faltering few steps on
To white rest, and a place of rest
Invisible at dawn,–
And yet with neither love nor hate,
Those stars like some snow-white
Minerva’s snow-white marble eyes
Without the gift of sight.[i]
But if the blind and silent stars could appreciate the curiosities of the world they shine down on, some of the most curious tidbits might be found in the lives of those people gazing back to study the stars in return. In the late 1500s, for instance, Tycho Brahe was the bad-boy of European astronomy. He was a flamboyant and quarrelsome fellow who once lost most of his nose fighting in a duel, and thereafter wore a replacement reportedly made of gold and silver, but more likely actually of brass. He kept a pet moose with a tragic fondness for beer, and hired as his attendant a dwarf he believed could see the future. He was also a pioneering astronomer, who coined the term ‘nova’ for a new star and created an essential record of the motion of planets over time.
There was also so much mystery surrounded his death that his body was dug up and examined two different times trying to determine exactly what did him in. He was long thought to have died of entirely natural causes, but as recently as nine years ago there was some evidence that he may have died of mercury poisoning. There is even a tabloid rumor that he was murdered by a jealous associate, due to a disagreement they held about the configuration of the universe. Let it never be said that star-gazing is an entirely safe and uneventful past-time. The last exhumation in 2010 seems to have settled the case, however: he died not from any sort of poison or foul play, but from a burst bladder.
The dangers of watching the heavens intently were much more real for Galileo Galilei, another European astronomer of the generation after Brahe. His name is now somewhat synonymous with the idea that the Earth revolves around the Sun; an idea that is pretty popular now, but in his day was rather more controversial. Galileo observed the moon, planets, and the stars through his telescope, and recorded what he observed. After doing this for a long enough period, he concluded that the simplest explanation for what he saw was that the Earth, and all the other planets he could see, revolved around the Sun. The problem with that elegant explanation was that the church took it as an article of faith, based in large part on several passages from scripture, that the Earth was immobile, and that therefore everything in the sky must be moving while the planet we are all on stays put. Where Galileo lived, in Italy, there was only one “The Church”, and disagreeing with it meant more than a frosty reception from certain relatives on major holidays.
Not unlike a modern academic, Galileo spent years arguing for the accuracy of his position and publishing in support of it. For the crime of believing his own eyes, and telling others what he’d seen, Galileo was imprisoned and tried for heresy. He eventually recanted, denying his previous position, in a move that must have been terribly dispiriting for him. It did allow him to live however, though his books were banned, and he was placed under permanent house arrest. In the years after his defeat, however, a legend rose up in Italy about the moment when he was coerced into denying that the Earth revolved around the Sun. It was said that he followed his official statement to the court with the Italian phrase ‘E pur si muove;’ ‘And yet it moves.’ The story is almost certainly not literally accurate, but it is the very essence of something that never happened and yet is utterly true: anyone may be forced to lie, at the mercy of a force that is sufficiently powerful and unjust. But a lie cannot change the actuality of the truth. Even if we were forced to say that the Earth stood still while the Sun circled around it, it would still be the Earth that moved. There is a depth of meaning to the truth that no earthly power can change.
It was thought once that the stars
were entirely unchanging, and so they were used as a metaphor for the eternal
and immutable. Now we know that they do change over time, only very slowly from
our point of view. Fitting, for we live now in a world in which the idea of a
pure and objective truth is a much derided, hotly contested thought. And still
it moves. Still, our senses bring to us some knowledge, limited as it may be,
of the world that surrounds us. Still, we share our experiences with others in
order to better understand who we are and the conditions of this universe we
have found ourselves in. Still, the heart calls us to attempt what even our
blessed reason cannot fully accomplish: to seek after peace and justice, to
love even when there is no special gain or profit to loving. And still it
moves. So it is that even today, in this marvelous and disorienting day and
age, when we know that the lights in the heavens are distant balls of helium
and hydrogen, we still have the capability – the need, in fact – to follow
stars. Like the Magi of the Christmas story, each of us has a star to follow,
some purpose to accomplish by our living in the world. Whether you believe that
it was given to you, or that you chose it for yourself, ultimately does not matter.
What does matter is that you should follow it with courage, and reverence, and
humility towards the other travelers you will encounter. For know this: also,
like the Magi, each of us has gifts. And they can accomplish more, can mean
more, when they are used together. So as you follow your worries and your
cares, your hungers and your ambitions, may you take some time for the
not-altogether-entirely-safe practice of watching the night sky, and pick
yourself out a star to follow.
[i] From his poem, “Stars”