The story of the wise men coming from the east to visit the birthplace of the Christ child is one of the staples of the Christian story. It is an account replete with unintended consequences. They are astrologers who ponder what they see in the sky; they come to Jerusalem to ask about the star they have seen and give Herod sleepless nights as a result. They arrive in Bethlehem and lay the foundations for modern gift giving by dropping off gold, frankincense and myrrh.
The story concludes: “When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them went the star they had seen at its rising (or, in the east) until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped they were overwhelmed with joy.” Matthew 2:9-11 At Christmas we sing of that joy.
This story told in the 21st century gives us pause. What exactly is going on? We might conclude that it gives credence to the astrologer’s speculation. Maybe there is something to their pondering the course of stars and planets. That is not a very comfortable conclusion for those of us in this bastion of reason.
Maybe it is simply best to focus on the gifts that were brought and to develop a theology of gift giving to undergird what has become an exercise in capitalist frenzy. I have often thought that the whole of the Christian story might be recast in terms of gifts given and gifts received. We learn to give to others out of our gratitude for what we have been given. I am often struck by how little I understand how much of my life depends on the generosity of others.
The broader Christian community has concluded that this story is an epiphany. The word is defined as a “sudden manifestation of the essence or meaning of something”. I have always had trouble with the word and often needed to be reminded of what it means. I think it is because when folk use it, it always sounds a bit judgmental. To be told you have had an epiphany has always seemed a reminder of my failing as in “I should have known that.”
In this tale, the sudden insight into meaning speaks of the notion that the birth of Jesus means something for the Gentile community, i.e. Jesus is not simply the promised one of Israel, but he is the salvation of the Gentiles; his birth has implications for the whole of humanity. This insight has become the foundation of the feast of Epiphany which is traditionally celebrated on January 6th.
It is a provocative insight and one that ought to give us pause in this day when we talk about diversity as a good that is difficult to achieve and is a goal that occupies much time on college and university campuses. At the beginning of the story which demands much attention from both Christians and Jews, we have a reminder that the human family is one and of concern to the Creator of heaven and earth.
My dream for the future as we step into this new decade is two fold and captured in the poems we share this morning that are printed on your program. Call it an epiphany for the New Year if you wish! First, I want us to reaffirm the sacred nature of the work we do with the people in this community. What we put our hands to in the educational endeavor is sacred work. On the laboratory bench, in the classroom, on the playing fields, we are shaping lives that will have profound impact on the course of our world. It is not too much to say that we are shaping eternity. My dream for the New Year is that we will have a renewed recognition of the importance of what we are about.
Secondly, we are valued. If you must, think of it simply as a sense of self worth, but as a Christian I would like for us all to know that beyond the worth we affirm, we are objects loved and cared for by the one who called creation into being. As a result our ability to love has given us the opportunity to love others and in so doing to shape humankind. My dream this new decade is that we will begin here and now, on this day in this place, to make this work real here at MIT.
Let us pray:
God give us wisdom to use our gifts in the service of this community.