When I was 10 years old, my church put on a production of the opera Amahl and the Night Visitors. If you don’t know the show, I recommend it to you—even if opera’s “not your thing.” It’s only about an hour long, it’s in English, and it’s delightful.
It’s the story of how the poor shepherd boy Amahl and his mother welcome the Three Kings into their home to rest for a night on their journey in search of the Christ Child.
I was excited about this show. I listened to it on cassette tape—remember those?—over and over until I knew it by heart. And I decided I was going to design the artwork for the program.
I knew there could only be one possible focus for my picture: the Star of Bethlehem. Here’s how Amahl describes it in the show: “Hanging over our roof, there is a star as large as a window, and the star has a tail, and it moves across the sky like a chariot on fire.”
Isn’t that magnificent? I could see that star so clearly in my head, and I tried to do it justice with my Crayola markers. I drew a BIG star that must have had at least a dozen points, and rays of light streaming in all directions, and a long blazing tail, and the whole thing was a visual riot of red and green and gold and blue and silver and yellow… I’m telling you, it was glorious!
I showed it to my mother. I told her, “Ask them to use this for the cover of the program!”
I’m sure she said something kind… but she told me, “Stuart is drawing the art for the program.”
Stuart was the director’s son. And I can still describe his picture for you, because I vividly remember sitting in my seat at the show and thinking, “They used this?”
It was a picture of a cobweb-filled corner in Amahl’s house, where his straw mattress lay on a bare floor, with the crutch Amahl uses to walk next to it. And above that, through a tiny window, if you looked hard enough, you could glimpse a soft glow to one side, suggesting a miraculous star.
I looked at that cover, and in my 10-year-old self-righteous indignation thought, “They should’ve used mine; it was so much better! They only used Stuart’s because he’s the director’s son.”
Of course, Stuart was also twice my age. And an art major. At Princeton University.
And though I couldn’t have told you so at the time, Stuart’s picture may have shown a lot more spiritual truth than mine.
On Christmas cards or in stained glass windows or as tree ornaments, the Star of Bethlehem is often so big, so bold, no sighted person could fail to spot it. Even in the carols: “Star of wonder, star of night, star with royal beauty bright…”
You don’t get the impression you’d need a telescope to see this thing. We tend to imagine, as I did in my fevered Crayola fantasy, the Star as some kind of sudden supernova, brilliantly blazing away in the heavens. Surely, a sign pointing to Emmanuel, God-With-Us, could and should be nothing less!
But Matthew gives us no reason to think Herod or his advisors have seen the Star. Herod asks the magi when it appeared. It is the Star the magi saw at its rising.
Could that mean nobody else had?
It’s possible. The magi were astrologers. They were professional Persian stargazers, studying the heavens for signs of deep meaning and great purpose… omens, portents, hints of what the future might hold. It’s exactly the kind of divination and fortune-telling God forbid Israel to practice. Only Gentiles like the magi would have been looking heavenward for a message; devout Jews had no reason to be searching for truth in the skies.
But Herod, the man the Roman Empire made puppet king of his people, was not a devout Jew. No devout, God-fearing ruler would be “frightened” by the news God is acting to fulfill ancient promises of a messiah—certainly not frightened enough to make all his subjects afraid with him.
But all Jerusalem knows Herod is not the righteous ruler we read about in Psalm 72, who defends the needy and rescues the poor, who has compassion on those who cry out in distress. No—all Jerusalem knows what we know about Herod from historical sources, what we know about him from just a few verses past today’s Gospel reading: Herod is petty and paranoid and dangerous even on his best days. How much more so when he’s afraid? What kind of ruler goes after innocent children with brute force and armed soldiers? Not one who truly knows and loves the God of Israel, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Maybe the magi saw something else no one saw—the Bible doesn’t tell us. But it does say the Star was there, so either others didn’t see it… or didn’t see it for what it was.
Because maybe it wasn’t the way I drew it when I was 10 years old: an over-the-top celestial spectacle, all gaudy and garish in its brilliance.
Maybe the Star was more like what Stuart drew in his picture: seen only by its soft glow… inviting but not demanding our attention, and our response… illuminating but not overpowering the humble, everyday corners of our world, of our lives.
The man had worked in downtown Philly for at least a decade. He said, “Working in Center City, I got pretty good at walking past homeless people, and ignoring people who asked for a handout. And that morning I tried to walk right on by the young couple sitting outside the Dunkin Donuts at 16th and Sansom, because I was late for my job and because it was so cold, too cold for the week before Christmas. But, I don’t know, maybe because it was the week before Christmas, maybe because they looked barely in their 20s, I felt bad, and I turned around and went back. And I bought them a $20 Dunkin gift card, because that would be enough for hot coffee and sandwiches. And I felt stupid doing it, and I knew it wasn’t nearly enough, and I didn’t even really try to talk to them that much when I gave it to them. I didn’t even ask their names.” And the man thought about that, and then he said, “I just hope her name was Mary, and his was Joseph.”
Sometimes, God’s power and presence do shine in unmistakable ways.
But at other times… maybe even most of the time… God’s power and presence glimmer and glisten around the edges of our experience.
Yes, the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness does not overcome it… but the light sometimes shines softly… never failing, but flickering… flaring up here and there in unexpected places, in unexpected people.
And you and I are called to see what others don’t see, or don’t see for what it is. The church is called to see and seek God where the world does not, and in whom the world does not. And we are called to celebrate and respond in ways the world will not, because these ways are not over-the-top, and gaudy or garish. They are the ways of compassion and service and justice and love commanded by the One at whose birth the star shone.
“The God who said, ‘Out of darkness light shall shine,’ has caused his light to shine in our hearts, the light which is the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Cor. 4.6), to whom be glory and dominion, now and forever.
Let all God’s people say Amen.
Preached at Advent Lutheran Church (West Chester, PA), Epiphany 2019