Astronomers estimate that in our galaxy, the Milky Way, there are about seven new stars born each year. Now, that might sound like a lot, but there’s a catch. The Milky Way is big. Huge. It consists of about a 100 billion stars, and only about 10,000 of them are visible to the naked eye on a very clear night. So the odds that any of us will have the opportunity to see a new star in our lifetime is really, really small.
But two years ago, in March 2021, something extraordinary happened. A new star was born in our galaxy, and it was close enough, and bright enough, to be visible with the naked eye. It’s a nova in the constellation of Cassiopeiae. Astronomers have named it V-1405.
How many of you saw this new star at its rising?
I’m guessing not very many. I certainly didn’t.
I love Christmas, I’ve told you that before. I love the worship, I love the traditions, I love the art, I love the decorations. But every time we put a brilliant star at the top of a Christmas tree, every time we hang a big star over our nativity scene, every time we see a Christmas card with a bright star on its cover, we actually lose an important part of the story. Because the new star that rises in the gospel that we just read together isn’t so big and bright that everyone sees it. It’s not a blazing light that no one can miss. It’s more like V-1405, the new star of 2021 that nobody sitting here today actually noticed. The star in today’s gospel is there alright, but it’s hidden, hidden in plain sight. Nobody saw it, except a few wise magi from the East.
Think about it. If the star had been obvious, a blaze of light in the sky, Herod wouldn’t have needed the magi to lead him to the child. No scheming would have been required on his part, no secret meetings. He would have just sent his assassins to follow the star and take out the baby. The only reason in today’s gospel that the Christ child survives is that he was hidden, and only the magi could see the new star that would lead them to the place of his birth.
You see there are two great truths contained in our Christmas narratives and particularly in this story of the magi who come from the east.
The first truth is that God is with us. That’s the message of Christmas, that’s the truth we talk about all the time, it matters. But the second truth is almost at odds with the first. Because the second truth is that God is hidden. And that’s a challenge for us, because when God is hidden, it’s easy to forget that God is with us.
Today we celebrate Epiphany, a new season in our church year. The word epiphany means “to uncover” or “to reveal”. It is the time of year when we think about what it looks like for the hidden God to be revealed to us, the season when we uncover the God who is hidden.
Which is exactly what the magi do in the gospel that we just heard. The magi were astronomers, learned, wise people who studied the stars and interpreted what they meant. They had spent most of their lives studying and mapping the stars, learning their patterns and movements. And so, when the new star appeared, as subtle as that might be in the vast expanse of the night sky, they noticed that something had changed. A new star had appeared, and it moved in a new direction. The magi believed that the new star signified the birth of a king, and so they followed it. And when they arrived in Bethlehem and saw that the star had stopped over the place where the child was, they were overwhelmed with joy.
God is with us. God is hidden. Both of these are true. As John writes at the beginning of his gospel, “No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son who has made God known.”
I think that most of us would like God to be a bit less hidden, a little more obvious, somewhat easier to find. That’s not just our generation talking. People have been lamenting the hiddenness of God for millennia. The psalms are full of this lament. O God why have you forsaken me? How long will you hide your face from me? Why are you silent, absent, hidden? Are you really there? Is God with us?
We are challenged by the hiddenness of God. God can be subtle; God is a mystery to us. God’s hiddenness can feel like absence. Is God really with us? We need to learn to see the God who is hidden, and we need to help each other to see the divine in the midst of our lives and our world.
How is it that the magi were able to get a glimpse of the divine in the beauty of the stars? Is there something we can learn from them? Perhaps.
It didn’t happen overnight. The astronomers from the east had dedicated most of their lives to the study of the stars. They knew their patterns and they understood how they moved. They were ready when the new star appeared. Sometimes we have to put in the work, the spiritual work that prepares us to see the traces of God in our lives.
The magi were also paying attention. All the knowledge in the world about stars wouldn’t have helped them one bit if they hadn’t been paying attention at the time of the new star’s rising.
And finally, when the new star did appear, not only did they take note, but they took action. They followed the star. They thought it signaled the birth of a king, but only when they actually arrived in Bethlehem and saw the child, did they come to realize that this was much more than a king. They saw the divine in our midst, God with us, and they were overwhelmed with joy.
How do we learn to see the God who is hidden? It is a learning process. We too might have to study and get ready. We will need to be pay attention. And when we get that first glimpse, or maybe the second, or maybe the third, we just might have to get going and follow the star, wherever it leads us.
It helps to have a guide along the way. The child that the magi discovered is indeed God with us, the very presence of God hidden in human form. That child, Jesus, is the best guide we will ever have to knowing God. He is God the only Son, the one who makes God known.
It also helps to have each other. God may be hidden, but we get glimpses and hints all the time, whether we pick up on them or not. It may be an experience of overwhelming joy or it may be a moment of awe and wonder. The divine presence might be glimpsed in acts of kindness or in the beauty of creation. We need to talk about these things, to point them out to one another. It’s easier for all of us to get to know the God who is with us when we share our experiences of wonder and our acts of love. These are the small and often unnoticed ways that God slips into our lives. These are our epiphanies. So share them with each other. Sometimes we are the ones whose task it is to reveal God’s presence in the world. As the prophet Isaiah exhorted us so many years ago, “Arise. Shine. And people will come to your light.”
God is with us. God is hidden. Epiphany is when we start to uncover both of these truths. We learn to see the God who is hidden and is with us. How do we do that? I can offer no better counsel than the example of the magi that we read about today, and these simple words from the poem “Sometimes” by Mary Oliver, written two thousand years later:
Instructions for living a life:
Tell about it.
Homily. Epiphany January 7 2024, Trinity
Readings: Isaiah 60.1-6; Ps 72; Ephesians 3.1-12, Matthew 2.1-12
Image by Cliford Mervil