St Bride's: Sermons

Guiding Star

Guiding Star
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I make a point each Christmas and Easter of visiting the national gallery.  I find that it's possible to engage devotionally with art even though removed from devotional space by selecting the art relevant to the season; the images resonating with reading of scripture.  The national gallery has a 'star trail' at present which gives attention to how stars are portrayed in different works in its collection and so during my recent visit I gave some particular attention to this.  For example, in his 'Mary with the Christ child' Duccio painted stars on Mary's clothing using real gold to reflect the shimmering light of heaven. Carlo Dolci's 'adoration of the kings' includes a resplendent guiding star that outshines even the opulent dress of the kings and their precious gifts.  In Lippi's 'adoration of the kings' the star is portrayed like a firework, a star bust that reaches all the way down to the virgin's head, connecting heaven and earth.

One of the things that has struck me this year when hearing the story of the magi from Matthew's Gospel, our Gospel reading this morning, has been the differing responses to the star's appearance.  Herod we understand was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him.  The magi on the other hand, when they saw the star, rejoiced with exceeding great joy.

Back in 1999 ahead of the solar eclipse that year, my wife Sandra and I consulted maps of arc of totality and took our summer holiday on the Black Sea in Bulgaria knowing that, weather permitting, we would be able to see the eclipse from the grounds of our hotel.  I recall reading beforehand how eclipses and unusual cosmic events have very often been regarded as ominous portents.  For example, the ancient historian Josephus noted that a star stood over the city of Jerusalem just before its fall in 70 AD and a comet was seen as a dark omen ahead of the Battle of Hastings in 1066.

I remember the experience of that solar eclipse very well.  Initially when it had apparently begun there was no obvious change.  Only our pin hole camera showed that a bite had been taken from the Sun's disc.  Gradually though the quality of the light changed, green turned to grey and colour leached from the landscape.  As it darkened, the birds started behaving oddly, apparently confused by the unexpected falling of night.  It was uncanny.  Then totality.  A great cheer went up.  No sense of a portent of doom but then we live in an age where we have a very different understanding of the heavens.  I found myself struck silent, I remember that my eyes filled, I was close to tears.  The Sun's corona and the glistening of solar flares were shockingly beautiful.  It had for me the sense of being a very precious and fleeting moment, one which held a great sense of gift, awe inspiring.

What are we to make then of this report that Herod was troubled at the sight of a star and all Jerusalem with him, and does it have any relevance for us?  I think it is relevant.  When the heavens defy prediction there is the sense that order is challenged.  That can be very unsettling.  Scripture tells us of course that in Christ all is made new.  In his second letter to the Corinthians Paul says "if anyone be in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold the new has come".  Whether this is something that we welcome and embrace or not is far from straightforward though.  We are very often quite attached to much in our lives even though at the same time there are other things that we'd like to see changed.  We might ask ourselves whether the things that we're attached to and things that we'd like to see changed in our lives and in the world, are those things that lead us into the love of God?

Herod we know feared anything that might challenge his power. Cosmic portents were to him menacing and unwelcome.  Apparently the people of Jerusalem felt likewise.  I imagine that they might have been weary of change for other reasons, realising from experience that any burdens of change were likely to fall on them.  The magi on the other hand looked forward to a new dispensation.  When they saw the star they rejoiced with exceeding great joy.

Now whilst we in the Western Church give prominence to the visit of the magi at Epiphany, in the Eastern Church the focus is primarily on Christ's baptism.  The scripture tells us that at his baptism the heavens were opened and the spirit of God descended.  Eastern icons present this as a shaft of light descending vertically to Christ who is surrounded by the waters of the river Jordan (I have a small example that I'll place at the back of church if you'd like to see it later).  It's an image that can tell us something important about baptism on this day when we have welcomed Joseph into the body of Christ. 

Before Christ, baptism was used as a cleansing ritual for gentiles who wished to observe the Jewish faith.  It symbolised a change of direction.  John applied the practice to Jews calling all to repentance of their sins.  Christ's baptism is seen as the first step to the cross because in it he symbolically takes on the sins of the world.  In the icon the shaft of light and Christ's body create a vertical path through the dark waters of the Jordan, just as at our baptism Christ creates a pathway through our human sinfulness.  We die to sin, the old passes away, and we rise to new life in him, a new creation.

The Royal Hours, prayers read on the eve of the Epiphany in the Eastern church, summarise this as if in Christ's words - "O prophet, come and baptize me who created you... for I am in haste to slay the enemy hidden in the waters, the prince of darkness, that I may now deliver the world from his snares, granting eternal life in my love for mankind".

That is something we can all rejoice in with exceeding great joy.

Amen

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