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Hitch Your Wagon To A Star: A Meditation For Epiphany

Is it a "yonder star," we follow, or an inner light?

Hitch your wagon to a star. That is the oft quoted advice of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Hitch your wagon to a star. That was the philosopher's way of saying that all of us need high ideals, a commanding sense of purpose, great ambitions.

On the twelfth day after Christmas, Christians around the world celebrate the feast of Epiphany. We remember that thousands of years ago those mysterious strangers were heading toward Bethlehem. As everyone knows, they came to Bethlehem "following yonder star."

According to convention they were three kings who made their way to the stable where Jesus was born. They made their journey in fulfillment of the prophecy of old: "The Lord will rise upon you and God's glory will be seen over you. The nations will come to your light, even kings to the brightness of your rising." According to tradition those kings had decoded the secrets of the stars; they realized that the mysterious light in the sky brought news of a new ruler. So they traveled toward Bethlehem in homage to the one who would eventually rise to a position of preeminence and power. (The image displayed here is from The National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. Further detail about the painting attributed to Fra Angelica, "The Adoration of the Magi," available when viewing the larger image at the National Gallery website. Following the hyperlink is highly recommended as the painting is exhibited online with a brilliance not often found in digital reproductions on the Net.)

But when the magi told their story to King Herod it touched off his paranoia and fear. Suspecting that Herod would want this pretender to the throne put to death, the three visitors paid a brief visit to the manger, left their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, but departed by another way.

So three ancient monarchs followed a star to a place where a child was born... so what? What does that series of events so long ago have to offer us, here in the modern world where star-gazing and even the title of King seem to convey such little power?

Before hitching my wagon to a star, I'd like to take a closer look at the fine print. I'd like to read the warning labels and make sure what kind of an adventure I'm signing up for. Before heading off into parts unknown, I'd like to check and see that the fail safe systems are in order, that the seat belts are fastened, and above all, that the landing gear is operational.

In fact, the story of Epiphany reveals as much about the dangers of star gazing as its promise. A careful reading of the Bible reveals a number of telling details. First, we notice that those strange and mysterious visitors to the manger are nowhere referred to as kings. Nowhere is it specified that there were three royal visitors to the Christ child. Though the Revised Standard Version of the Bible translates the Greek as wise men, the word is magi. It's in the plural to be sure, but we don't know how many of them there were; one ancient source puts their number at twelve. And the group might easily have included women. Only much after the fact have we come to imagine three kings beside the manger.

In fact these magi were common in the Middle East of that time. They traveled constantly throughout the Mediterranean world, sometimes playing the part of sorcerers and magicians, sometimes they practiced the burgeoning science of astronomy, they sold their services as interpreters of dreams, purveyors of wisdom and enchantment in the court of many a monarch.

The magi were descendants of the Medes, a people who once constituted a great empire. But the Medes were conquered by the Persians and they lived henceforth as a subject people. Once they mounted a rebellion against their Persian oppressors, but they were hopelessly overpowered and the rebellion was crushed. From that hour the Medes were relegated to the sidelines of history, their kings and queens became the gypsies of the ancient world. They were ministers without portfolio, kings without a country, queens without a crown. They turned to the stars for guidance because they had no legions, no subjects, no territory to call their own. They would turn up in all the palaces of the empire ingratiating themselves to the real potentates of the world, but they had no province of their own.

The magi had become prisoners of their own dreams, hoping beyond hope to recover the lost tribes and territories. By sheer exertion of wit and skill they managed to maintain a finger hold in the palaces of the empire, but no matter how successful they became, they could not forget the basic fact that they were a defeated people.

But then one day the magi of our story saw a star shining in the east. They saw a strange light on the horizon, and for one last time, the dream of glory beckoned within them. Once again they gathered their belongings, they packed their camels, they carefully wrapped those trinkets of gold, frankincense and myrrh, and they headed out, following yonder star.

For if a new king had been born, they might be able to curry favor in his court. The magi made their way through the wilderness and through the waste places of Judea to Herod's winter palace. When they saw his pathetic figure on the throne, they knew their hope of glory could not be fulfilled. This was a man who had murdered his own sons to insure that his power would not pass away. From the moment that he discovered a pretender to the throne had been born in Bethlehem, the fate of the child would be sealed. So it was in mournful procession that the magi made their way to Bethlehem --fearing the worst. This star shining in the East could only be another false start, a glimmering mockery of their hope for glory.

By force of habit, they made their way to the cave where Jesus was born. But nothing in all the world could have prepared them for what they saw. They found not a throne, but a feeding trough for the animals. They discovered not an infant prince dressed in fine linens, but this common child wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger. They had set out following yonder star, but in that lonely cave they found the one who made star-gazing obsolete. They found their salvation in the one who made princes and kings a thing of the past.

From the Heaven's Gate cult to modern day astrologists who sell their services on the Net, the world still abounds with people who believe that the secret to a meaningful life can be found, not here on earth, but quite literally "in the stars." Take a look at Yahoo's astrology page.

Until this encounter with the Christ child, they believed that the favors of God belonged to the rich, the powerful and the mighty. But in Bethlehem they saw the truth. All of us, all people are simply lost souls looking for a star that will not fail. And there is no star in the sky that will lead us to the truth. He is the bright morning star that rises in our consciousness. He is the light that shines when we see that God has found a dwelling place within us.

And so they turned over their gold, frankincense and myrrh, not in tribute to a new king, but in the realization that they would no longer need these trappings of their former life. Some scholars have even suggested that the gold, frankincense and myrrh were not meant as gifts. Rather these were the tools and instruments of their magical arts. These were the props they used in spinning their illusions of power. But what they found in that stable in Bethlehem made these paraphernalia of an ancient superstition suddenly obsolete. No longer would the magi search in vain for the glory of a forgotten empire. Now they could live as a free people knowing that God has a sure foothold in the here and now.

All the light we need is here within us. If only we have the faith and courage to look and see! When we read the story of the magi carefully it is turned around 180 degrees. Christ is not glorified because kings come to do him honor, rather these would be kings are liberated from their dreams of power and glory and they leave Bethlehem a free people. More truly free then they had ever been even in former days of imperial majesty.

Now that the hustle and bustle of Christmas are behind us, now that the ritual of exchanging gifts is past, we are free to receive the true gift of this season. And that is the same gift which the magi received so long ago in a crowded manger. In Christ we are freed from the necessity to shore up our lives with the trappings of wealth, power, fame or other forms of stardom. The deepest satisfactions in life are not those objects of gold, frankincense or myrrh, not those VCR's, those fancy cars, those Oscars, those superbowl championships or any other honors that the world has to give.

The secret lies not in our possessions, but in taking possession of ourselves. It's the light that burns from within that truly counts. Rather than searching the distant stars for the secrets of our destiny as the magi did, we need only survey the quiet places of our own hearts. It is appropriate that we celebrate this season, not with relics of gold, frankincense or myrrh, the trinkets of astrologers. Instead we turn to the simplest of things, a word of truth, a song, a prayer, a warm welcome to ones we love, the struggle to do the work of justice and to fulfill God's promise of peace. In Jesus Christ, God has come as close to us as the bones of our own bodies, as near as the blood coursing through our veins. He is our bright morning star, a light that shines within our hearts even when all else fails. Let us not hitch our wagons to any lesser star than this! Amen.

Charles Henderson

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The Rev. Charles P. Henderson is a Presbyterian minister and author of Faith, Science and the Future, published in 1994 by CrossCurrents Press. He is also the author of God and Science (John Knox / Westminster, 1986) which he is now rewriting to incorporate more recent developments in the conversation taking place between scientists and theologians. He has also written widely for such publications as The New York Times, The Nation, Commonweal, The Christian Century and others.

For further information about Charles P. Henderson.