Granted, it took us until a week into Epiphany for us to do it, thanks to delays owed both to the typically capricious winter weather we have here in New Hampshire and to the holiday themselves, but today our small Bible Study group finally reached the end of an Advent survey through scripture relating to the nativity of Christ!
To be sure, it’s been an enjoyable journey. This morning’s discussion centered on the visit of the “wise men from the East” as recorded in Matthew 2; arguably one of the most romanticized parts of the Christmas narrative, what with all the layers of tradition and myth that have been attached to the story over the centuries. And while I have to confess that I still kind of prefer telling the story with all those flourishes intact, there’s something to be said for the stripped down, biblically correct version, in which we’re introduced to these foreign “magi” who are moved to make a long and difficult journey from Persia; following a star, of all things, across the harsh desert wilderness, all so that they might pay homage to what they understood was a powerful king who’d been born among the Jews.
It’s that image, I suppose, that’s the strongest for me when I think about those “three wise men;” the very idea that this journey had to have taken place largely in the dark of night makes it all the more remarkable, and might I add, by its very nature “faith-filled.”
The thought of it has actually brought back memories of the many times as a young man I used to go to my father’s little “hunting camp” deeply nestled in the woods of Northern Maine. One of the things I really loved about that camp is that it was just about two miles from anywhere; and the journey to get there required a walk across pastures, along old tote roads and through a fair amount of forest. Over a number of years, I walked that walk countless times: day and night, in all kinds of weather, somehow managing to find my way without getting hopelessly lost, which admittedly, wasn’t always easy!
I remember one time in particular; I’d gone into camp to spend the day with Dad and some of the other men who were there for the weekend, but for some reason I had to leave that night (Actually, I probably had to preach the next morning; alas, such is the life of a pastor!). And so, trusty $2.99 Eveready Flashlight in hand, I set out to make my way to the main road and my waiting car. It was November, with a bitterly cold wind in the air and a little crusty snow on the ground beneath my feet. And since there was a new moon, it was also incredibly dark; so dark, in fact, that truthfully I barely knew where to go.
The first part of this walk was an old logging road that’d grown up to the point where it had become not much more than a footpath, winding about three quarters of a mile through black growth knolls, ridges and spring holes. Eventually, this came out to the edge of a large hay field, across which was another dirt road that connected with the main road. As I said before, I’d known this old tote road like the back of my hand; on this particular dark night, however, it was as though I was walking a trail I’d never traveled. There was nothing that appeared the least bit familiar to me; and the increasingly dim light of that cheap flashlight made every tree look pretty much the same. What’s more, there wasn’t enough snow on the ground to pick out any footprints, and even the ruts that had worn into the road were deceiving. Again and again I found myself wandering off the trail and into the woods, only to have a fallen tree or some of what we refer to in Maine as “pucker brush” remind me that I was most definitely headed the wrong way!
In fact, the longer I plodded along the less sure I was of where I was actually going, and I was getting more than a bit nervous about ever finding my way out of those woods! So you’ll understand my joy and relief when suddenly, looking skyward, I saw above me a literal canopy of stars, the heavens displayed in all their glory and wonder, with one star in particular shining prominently: the North Star, right there off the edge of the Big Dipper constellation; the very same star that I’d been taught at an early age could serve as a compass in the heavens!
I remember laughing aloud, because I knew immediately that I’d made it; indeed, somehow I’d already found my way to the edge of the woods, and what’s more, I’d gotten there without realizing it and despite my best efforts. But now, even though I still had “a ways to go” on my journey, I could move forward with faith because the promise of my destination was about to be fulfilled. Simply put, I knew where I was, where I was going and perhaps most importantly, now I knew which way to go in getting there!
Long ago, there were some ancient astrologers – tradition tells us there were three, but it’s also been suggested by some scholars there may only have been two, or perhaps as many as twelve (!) – who needed to find out about the birth of a newborn king in or around Jerusalem, and thus set out on a journey from the place we now know as Iraq to find him. Despite the wonderful picture we have of them arriving by camel to the manger on that holy night of the child’s birth, it’s likely that they paid homage later – perhaps as long as two years later – and the time spent finding Jesus was fraught with danger, political intrigue, and ultimately a hasty retreat home “by another way.” We are assured in Matthew that the Magi did indeed bring the child those familiar yet exotic gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, but as the old adage suggests the real gift might well have been in the journey itself, and in that nightly vision they had of a bright and shining star at its rising; a light that spiritually speaking, at least, still offers us that glimpse of heaven and of the one who is the good shepherd of our lives.
All I know is that to this very day, every time I stand beneath a starlit sky (and particularly on those evenings I find myself in an unknown location), I am compelled to seek out the North Star! Yes, it does give me a clear sense of orientation that I find very comforting wherever I happen to be; but I also must say that the act of simply finding that particular beacon in the sky serves as a reminder of the larger journey of life on which I walk. It’s the way of faith; and though most often it’s a joyous journey, it’s also sometimes a dark and rugged terrain on which to travel, for it’s all too easy for me to fall off the pathway as you go. I need a light to guide me, and that light is Jesus Christ, who is Light of the World and my own assurance that though I may well have a long ways yet to go on my journey, I will indeed be guided by that perfect light…
…knowing, I pray, where I am, where I’m going, and perhaps most importantly, which way to go in getting there!
c. 2014 Rev. Michael W. Lowry