Monday, December 19, 2016
Losing the Star
When I was a kid, I sold Christmas cards door to door to earn some money after lawn mowing season ended. I still like to look at the cards. There are all kinds, of course. Some with Santa or the reindeer, or furry little animals or cardinals or bells or candles. Some have a manger scene, a nativity of some sort. But the clear winners in my book are the Wise Men, those saddle-sore Magi, astride their camels and always, following that beautiful radiant star.
Comedian and sometimes theologian Dave Barry tells their story like this: We know from the Bible that the Wise Men showed up in Bethlehem and gave the Baby Jesus gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Now, gold is always a nice gift, but frankincense and myrrh - at least according to my dictionary - are gum resins. Who gives gum resins to a baby?
The answer is: men. The Wise Men, being men, didn't even START shopping for gifts until the last minute, when most of the stores in the greater Bethlehem area were closed for Christmas Eve. The only place still open was Big Stu's House of Myrrh. So the Wise Men showed up at the manger, handed their baby gifts to Mary, and headed for the eggnog. Mary looked at the gifts - which were not wrapped, nor were they accompanied by cards - rolled her eyes, tossed the gum resins to the goats (which ate them) and said: "Next Christmas,, we are going to have some gift-giving RULES." But the Wise Men didn't hear her, because by then they were over by the crib trying to teach the Baby Jesus to pull their finger. That's Dave Barry's take on it.
You can probably guess what might have happened if it had been three wise women instead of three wise men. They would have asked directions, arrived on time, helped deliver the baby, cleaned the stable, made a casserole, and brought practical gifts.
So, who were these wise guys anyway? These Magi nearly slipped in and out of history without being noticed and probably would have, had it not been for the little Prince they came to see. We know almost nothing about them. Legend counts them as three Wise Men, though the Gospel does not specify their number. Three gifts are listed and so it was assumed there must have been three worshipers. Eventually they were promoted to royalty and given names - Balthasar, Melchior, and Gaspar.
In 1158 three bodies were discovered in the Church of St. Eustorgio in Milan, and local politicians conspired to identify them as those of the three Magi. A few years later Emperor Barbarossa captured the city and took the remains to Germany where they were laid to rest in the Cologne Cathedral. Soon "The Shrine of the Three Kings" became famous. Visitors to the cathedral are still shown the tombs of these men who were among the first to welcome Christ to earth, though now the guides generally wink when they tell the story.
But there is something else about these mysterious gentlemen, a detail in their story that I had never noticed before. Apparently, these wise men saw the star when they began their journey. The star inspired them, a sign they somehow recognized, and they started on their way west toward Palestine. But somewhere along the way they lost the star. It wasn't constant, because they had to stop and get directions from King Herod before heading on toward Bethlehem. And then it says that when they set out from there, the star appeared before them and led them to the Christ Child. "And when they saw the star again, they were overjoyed."
Let me suggest that these noble stargazers have something significant to teach us this Christmas.
Life is like a journey, isn't it? We are all travelers in this world, looking for answers, for what satisfies, what matters, searching for what has lasting significance, ultimate meaning, supreme worth. Like the Magi we are on a long journey, we are all passengers, pilgrims, pioneers. You and I are seekers, sojourners, stargazers ourselves.
We begin our journey with such high hopes and noble dreams. We spot a bright star and go after it, so excited and enthusiastic. We can't wait to get where we are going, to reach our goals and fulfill our destiny. And then, somewhere along the way, we may lose the star. We find ourselves struggling to navigate, groping in the darkness, trying to find our way.
It might be a career setback, a broken relationship, a financial loss, the death of a loved one, or our own health crisis. It's a sudden, unexpected eclipse and you find yourself staring into the darkness. You've lost the star.
Sometimes we have to reroute. Sometimes in life we may find ourselves where we never dreamed we would be. Nothing looks familiar or friendly. This wasn't part of the plan. This place wasn't on our itinerary. Unexpected detours in life get us off track. We may have to make a course correction, reroute, recalculate.
A few years ago, Suzanne and I were driving back to Missouri, heading into St. Louis on I-64. I noticed a shiny new bridge over the Mississippi had opened, but my GPS had not heard the news. So, when I exited for the new bridge, my GPS showed my car going off the road, heading cross country straight toward the big river. "Recalculating! Recalculating!" As we cruised across that brand new bridge, my GPS showed the little blue car plunging into the Mississippi. Again, "Recalculating! Recalculating!" But amazingly enough, we came out on the other side and when the new highway merged with the old one, we were back on track.
There are times we do need to reroute, recalculate, we know that's true. But there are also situations where we need to hold fast, have faith, and keep going.
Other times we may have to start over, to begin again. Have you ever found yourself right back where you started? You never intended for it to happen, but it did. Wasted time, squandered opportunities.
Several years ago I was on a flight from Houston on my way to Ukraine to teach at the seminary there. I had routed my flight through London with a long layover so that I could go see our son who was finishing his college work at Oxford. We took off about ten o'clock for an overnight flight. I woke up about 2:30 and the nice British lady next to me said, "While you were sleeping, there was a volcano, and the turned the plane around." I laughed and said, "You know, that's the kind of thing that would happen to me." She pointed to the screen indicating our flight path and our little plane had made a U-turn and was headed back the way we came. They flew us all the way back to Houston. So after a nine hour flight we walked back into the same airport which I soon noticed will make passengers pretty testy. We dubbed it "The All-Night Flight to Nowhere."
Have you ever been on that flight? Maybe you had your itinerary all planned, but somehow, for some reason beyond your control, you got turned around. You find yourself right back where you started. It's time to begin again.
Who knows? Maybe we chose the wrong star to begin with. There are so many artificial lights, so much reflected, refracted light, at times it's hard to recognize the real thing, the star that is real and true, the star we can follow, the star that leads to where we long to be.
It's no easy thing, to navigate through life, to follow a star, but we can learn, we can do it. And in the darkest times, when thick clouds cover the night sky or a heavy fog descends, find your faith. It's your faith that will keep you going when you lose your star. It's faith that guides our feet when we have no light for the path ahead.
When I was a boy, my friend Bruce and I would watch scary movies together. This experience was intensified because Bruce's parents were funeral directors. We watched horror movies in the basement of the funeral home - Boris Karloff, Lon Chaney, Vincent Price, sometimes we watched Dark Shadows. Scary stuff for little guys like us.
What made it even more terrifying for me was walking home in the dark after the movies. It was only 10-12 blocks, but it seemed like miles to me. I imagined werewolves behind every tree, vampires in the shadows, Frankenstein lurching out of the darkness. So here's what I did. I would run between the streetlights. I felt safe in the light so I could stop to catch my breath, and then I would take off again, running from streetlight to streetlight, all the way home.
Not a bad approach to life, I guess. When you can't find your star in the darkness, keep moving ahead, follow every little flicker of faith until the sky clears and you can see your way again.
Those old Magi would tell us today if they could. It was worth it at the end of the journey, when they finally arrived, when they knelt before the newborn King. It was worth every long, weary day and every pitch black night, worth every minute and every mile, every step of their epic search.
Whatever darkness or difficulty or discouragement you face during this Christmas season. Keep going. Keep the faith. Somewhere out there in the darkness, your star still shines.