Three Kinds of Light

Scripture: Matthew 2:1-12

Let us pray: In the divine silence of our souls, help us, O Lord to discern the calling of your voice, to see that which your Light illumines, and to put into practice your will for us in this time and place.  Amen.

I would like to explore three kinds of Light in today’s story.  Since this Epiphany memory is only recorded in Matthew’s gospel, we always come around to it on or near January 6th, the date celebrating the arrival of the Magi “from the East,” regardless of the liturgical year.  January 6th is also the 12th day of Christmas; I recall growing up with a 12th Night Party in my parents’ home – there may have even been giving and receiving gifts between the grown-ups at those parties, even as the Magi brought gifts to Jesus so many years ago, that part I don’t remember.  I do remember Christmas cookies and fudge, though!

Christmas decorations stayed up around the house, artfully placed by my mother’s hand as centerpieces on old antique tables, side boards, and other family heirloom furniture.  Often, these centerpieces featured real candles flickering as guests drifted around in talk with small plates of delicious holiday party foods.  Can you picture it?  As a child, I was especially drawn to candlelight and firelight; I still am.

Light.  Light that flickers and moves, light that seems alive as it dances to some unknown wind.  What kinds of light does this story reveal?  Commentator James C. Howell writes, “Do we ever hold the truth in our hands but miss the living Lord? God is determined to be found, and will use any and all measures, even [astrology!], to reach out to people who are open.”[1]

The first kind of light found in today’s passage is obviously the light of the star.  From an early Celtic perspective, the “great luminaries of the sky”[2] are born of the “Father of Lights,”[3] wherein God expresses Godself.  John Philip Newell writes, “In the Western Isles there was the belief that a love of the lights of the skies, like a love of any aspect of creation, brings with it a type of grace from God.”[4]  But what was the star of Bethlehem, really?

Regression of the night skies to some 2000 years ago reveals a series of heavenly events that would have stood out as remarkable, especially to a sect of scientific observers who made a habit of reading the night sky and interpreting what they saw.  Spaced closely together in astrological time, there was a supernova that lit up the sky and remained visible even during the day time.  One of the periodic passes of Haley’s Comet made an especially bright visit to any watching from earth.  A bright equilateral triangle of the planets Saturn, Jupiter, and Mars held their geometric pattern in the constellation Pisces, the fish.  There may have been a few more, but those are the scientific phenomena I recall from a presentation some years ago at the Chemeketa planetarium. Medieval writers, contemplating what the light that went before “until it stopped over the place where the child was” (2:9) considered it could have been an angel that led them to Jesus.  The heavenly lights are all observable, remarkable, and beautiful in their own right; and in the theory of an angel, one of our faith mysteries worthy of glowing words.

But let’s look at a second kind of light layered into today’s reading – the interpretation of scriptures.  We actually acknowledge this and practice it every Sunday when we pray the Prayer of Illumination.  In this case, Herod calls for the chief priests and scribes and inquires of them where the Messiah was to be born.  They know their scriptures well enough to look it up, so they find out and they report back.  I find it fascinating that it took both the learned men of Judaism correctly interpreting their scriptures and the Magi correctly interpreting the skies to truly bring to light the staggering meaning of God’s Advent upon the earth.  Which leads me to the third kind of light:  Openness to the Divine.

Listening to, feeling, sensing within you the very Light of God at the core of your own being, this perhaps is the hardest kind of light to grasp.  The Magi, most likely of the kingdom of Prussia, steeped in their own tradition, were none-the-less moved by God to heed the divine prompting they read (in the stars of all places!) and were so moved by God’s message in the heavens to the world that they up and left their land, undertaking what, in their time, was a journey that may have been as long as two years to go and seek the one who was born King of the Jews.

Did they fully understand who this king was?  The Messiah of the World?  God en-fleshed among us?  I do not know, but to read a noble birth heralded by the movements of the planets and the stars and to be so moved by what they held sacred to seek out this new born king of a race and religion not even their own tells us two things.  One, they were open to and heeded the Light of God in their life.  Two, Matthew stakes all that he holds dear to press upon his congregation, and all later readers of his gospel, that Jesus came not only for the lost sheep of Israel, but as the Messiah of the whole world, including Gentiles of all kinds, even those of other faiths.

We observe this day the traditions of the past, the stories of our spiritual ancestors, and we wonder at the meaning of God’s arrival on earth.  We wonder, too, at the arrival of the Light of Christ in our own souls, and give thanks to the Spirit who implants in us the Word of God, that it might grow upwards and onwards in us and become for us our guiding light.  May all glory be unto the one who lived, died, and rose again for us, even him who is the Christ.  Amen?  May it be so.

[1] James C. Howell, “Theological Perspective, Matthew 2:1-12” in Feasting on the Word – Year B, ed. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010). Accordance edition hyper-texted and formatted by OakTree Software, Inc. Version 2.0


[2] John Philip Newell, The Book of Creation: An Introduction to Celtic Spirituality (New York: Paulist Press, 1999), 51.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

About Scottrick

Parent ~ Pastor ~ Poet ~ Author
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