After a difficult year, maybe we all need a sign that God is with us in a troubled world, and we turned our eyes to the southwestern sky for a sign of hope.
Sermon on Matthew 2:1-12 and Jeremiah 31:7-14 / Second Sunday after Christmas / by the Rev. Tracey Kelly / preached to the congregation of St. James Episcopal Church, Hendersonville, NC / January 3, 2021
Good morning. Today is the first Sunday of 2021. Can I just say that again? It’s 2021! This is a year onto which we can lash all of our aspirations and hopes for regathering, rebuilding, and healing, and … well, normalcy.
My name is Tracey Kelly. I am honored to be your interim assistant rector as we journey into this new year together. This introduction to you feels far from normal. I’m standing here in front of rows of empty pews. Your faces are hidden from me behind a camera lens. But I am hopeful that in, due time, we will see each other face to face. Maybe we will even chat unmasked, with cups of coffee in our hands, standing far closer than six feet. Not yet. But our journey towards normalcy, led by hope, has begun.
The Great Conjunction
In our gospel reading today, we hear the story of a journey. Wise men from a foreign country travel westward to Jerusalem to find the child who was born the King of the Jewish people. They are led by an unusual star.
There has been much speculation over the years about that star. It led the Magi to Bethlehem, but maybe it was not a star at all. It could have been a comet. Or possibly, the conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn.
A couple of weeks ago, I brought my camera out into my front yard and set it up on my tripod before dusk. I posted a quick note on Facebook: “Waiting for the Great Conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn. Any minute now…” The response was immediate. So many of my friends were watching the sky in their own part of the world. But the clouds obscured their views of the celestial skies. “Please,” they asked me, “post photos of what you see!”
The Great Conjunction of 2020 occurred on December 21st. For the first time in 800 years, the alignment of Jupiter and Saturn occurred at night. And from our perspective they were close, very close – just one tenth of a degree apart. To the naked eye, the two planets appeared as a one large, very bright celestial object. With binoculars or a camera, even an iPhone camera, two distinct objects were visible – Jupiter and Saturn. It was a spectacular sight.
The media colloquially called it “the Star of Bethlehem” or the “Christmas Star.” It is a tantalizing thought. Perhaps what we were seeing in the southwestern sky on December 21st was the same celestial formation that the Magi saw in their country to the east of Judea, more than 2,000 years ago.
Much of what we think we know about the magi is speculative rather than scriptural. They were not kings. There are only two kings in this story – Herod and Jesus. Instead, they were magi or, in Hebrew, magos. “Wise men” or “astrologers” or “interpreters of dreams” are good alternative titles. The gospel never says that there were three of them. We only know that there were at least two. And the gospel only says that they were from “the East.”
It is possible that the Magi were Zoroastrian mystics. Zoroastrians lived in Persia and believed in one God and were careful observers of the celestial skies. We will never know with certainty what the Magi may have seen in the sky. And, of course, we all know that no celestial object can pinpoint one particular house on planet Earth.
It doesn’t matter.
The significance of Matthew’s star is not about what that star was. It is about what the star represents. The star represents the fulfillment of God’s promise.
The star represents hope.
A sign of hope
For generations, the Jewish people had been waiting for the promised Messiah and had been watching for a sign from God. And now, here it was!
In Luke’s gospel, it was an Angel of the Lord who gave the good news to humble shepherds on a field.
In Matthew’s gospel, it was the star, seen by foreigners in a far-away land who understood that something had shifted in the world.
It was a sign that God was doing something new! It was a sign of hope for God’s presence in a troubled world.
It’s the same sort of hope that Jeremiah’s words proclaim in our Old Testament reading. God speaks to a people who are about to be dispersed and separated. Even as a tragedy unfolds for the Israelites, God speaks of restoration and rebuilding. Families will be reunited. Communities will be rebuilt. God promises a homecoming.
“I will turn their mourning into joy,” God promises, “I will comfort them and give them gladness for sorrow.”
We all need a sign
I was surprised by how much interest my photos of Jupiter and Saturn generated. I was surprised by how many people were turning their eyes upwards to the southwestern sky at dusk to catch even the briefest glance of the Christmas Star. Something was going on.
Perhaps, something was stirring in people’s imaginations. Perhaps, as the year 2020 drew to a close, we are all looking for a sign, and longing for good news. Perhaps, we are yearning for hope.
Maybe the great planetary conjunction of 2020 is a symbol of our need, during a difficult year, for divine assurance that God is still here with us, in the midst of all the world’s grief and sorrow.
Inspired by my friends’ appreciation for my photos, I pulled out my camera on December 22 and this time attached my longest lens. Jupiter’s and Saturn’s positions had shifted a bit from the previous night, but I manage to get a few unremarkable shots.
But when I pulled the images off my camera and downloaded them to my laptop, I was surprised by what I saw. These were not telescopic quality images, but nevertheless I had captured Jupiter’s four moons and the oval shape Saturn’s rings.
I’m not sure why these photos brought me so much joy. Maybe it’s because I looked up to the sky and I could not see Jupiter’s moons and Saturn’s rings with my eyes. Shoot, I had even looked through my viewfinder with the lens fully zoomed in and the moons and rings were still hidden from me. Yet, they were there. All the time. Maybe the moons and rings reminded me of God, creator of all that is, seen and unseen. And even though God’s face is hidden, God is there. And God’s presence and promise is beyond what we can see or imagine.
A new year dawns
A new year dawns, and God speaks to us through our readings today of restoration, of regathering, of singing and shouting in joy.
Hope is ignited by the promise of a vaccine.
Hope appears in the midst of uncertainty and confronts the fear of the unknown.
Hope takes the form of families reuniting and communities reconnecting.
Hope comes as an angel appearing above a field full of shepherds and sheep.
Hope is manifested by a bright celestial object in the sky.
And the promise holds: God will turn our mourning into joy. God will comfort us and give us gladness for our sorrow.
© 2021 Tracey Kelly. All rights reserved
Photo credits: “Solstice Dusk,” “The Great Conjunction” © Tracey Kelly