Stargazing

It’s a frozen chunk of rock and ice on the edge of our solar system. Astronomers call it a trans-Neptunian object, and they named it Ultima Thule. A few days ago we got to see the first pictures, grainier than a bad first-trimester ultrasound print. The spacecraft that took the pictures, New Horizons, was launched in 2006. Twelve years to cover 4.1 billion miles. The data transmissions back to Earth take a little more than six hours. To the folks at NASA, Ultima Thule looks like a snowman; others, schooled in the aesthetics of Star Wars, noted the striking resemblance to the very cute droid BB-8.

It’s been quite a week in space news, from the edges of our solar system to the Moon, the astronomical object closest to Earth. Humankind has looked up to the moon for a very, very long time, but we first laid eyes on the far side of the moon in 1968.

“The backside looks like a sand pile my kids have been playing in for a long time,” the astronaut Bill Anders told NASA mission control. For millennia, people had gazed up at the same view of the Earth’s companion—the same craters, cracks, and fissures. As the Apollo spacecraft floated over the unfamiliar lunar surface, Anders described the new territory, which promised to be a tough landing for anyone who tried. “It’s all beat up, no definition,” he said. “Just a lot of bumps and holes.”

Fifty years later, humankind landed in the sand pile. China set down a spacecraft on the far side of the moon on Wednesday, Beijing time.[1] And on Thursday, the rover Jade Rabbit 2 left the lander and began driving around, leaving the first wheel tracks on the backside of Earth’s ancient satellite.

On Christmas Eve 1968, the astronauts of Apollo 8 — Frank Bormann, Bill Anders, and James Lovell, Jr. — were busy scouting landing spots on the moon for a future mission when they suddenly witnessed a spectacular moment: over the ash-colored lunar mountains, against the black backdrop of space, they saw the Earth rising like a shining, blue marble. As one science writer put it,

Major Anders had the job of photographing the lunar landscape. When Earth rose, a robot would have kept on clicking off pictures of the craters. Indeed the astronauts briefly joked about whether they should break off and aim their cameras up. “Hey don’t take that, it’s not scheduled,” Commander Borman said. Then, like good humans, they grabbed cameras and clicked away.

“Earthrise” became an iconic image, something of an epiphany. Sent to examine the Moon, Major Anders later said, humans instead discovered Earth. Apollo 8’s greatest legacy turned out to be a single photograph of home, glorious and beautiful, “fragile and miraculous as a soap bubble.”[2] Fifty years later, we know a lot more about just how fragile our planet is, and we’re still far from knowing how to be at home here, together.

Matthew tells us that in the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem. We don’t know much about them, these sky-gazing travelers from far away lands who came to Jerusalem guided by a star to pay homage to the newborn king of the Jews. And because we know almost nothing about them, we have long let our imaginations soar. Matthew gave us an almost blank canvas, and we have gladly filled it with rich, colorful detail. First we looked at the map, and we listed all the lands East of Jerusalem – Arabia, Babylon, Persia, India, China – from how far East did they come, these wise ones? Then we looked at the gifts they brought – gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Very expensive gifts, not the kind of stuff you can pick up at the market on your way to the birthday party — but didn’t Isaiah mention gold and frankincense, and didn’t he write about kings? That was when, in our imagination, they began to look like kings, royal visitors bearing royal gifts, and because three gifts are mentioned, we determined that there must have been three of them. And we began singing songs like We Three Kings From Orient Are, but our hunger for detail wasn’t satisfied yet. How did they get from the East to Jerusalem? Certainly they did not walk all the way — but wait, didn’t Isaiah mention a multitude of camels? Sometime in the Middle Ages, we named the three Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar, and we saw them riding high on their camels, with more camels carrying their treasure chests.

With passing centuries, the stories of the wise men from the East became ever more colorful and elaborate – and all because of the child whose star they had observed and followed. This child arouses in us a holy extravagance of story, image, song, and gift, because in this baby, we see the face of God. The nations are coming to the light that has dawned, and the travelers from the East represent all of them — we come from Asia, Africa, Europe, Australia, and the Americas: the whole world is gathering to pay homage to the newborn king. Matthew gives us but a hint or two, and we let our imagination run and leap and soar, because this child is the good king, born to bring us all together in the city of God, born to show us how to be at home in God’s creation, together.

What about the other king? Imagine King Herod’s face when his staff informed him that visitors of considerable wealth and status were entering the city. He was very fond of hearing his underlings refer to him as Herod the Great, but imagine the satisfaction in his eyes and the regal pace with which he made his way to the palace window to see his own majesty and greatness reflected in the very important visitors from far away. They had come from distant lands to meet him and, no doubt, pay him homage, to admire the magnificent building projects under way in the city, especially the temple — he was Herod the Great, King of the Jews, the most important person in the realm, was he not? Imagine his face when the foreign visitors entered and asked him where they might find the newborn king of the Jews.

We hang a star in the baptistry window during Advent and Christmas. It’s beautiful, especially at night, and it’s hard to miss. It’s been made to stand out. It’s been made to illumine for us the path to the manger and from the manger to the cross. But in Matthew’s story, only the astronomers from the East notice the one star among the thousands of others visible on a clear night. Herod doesn’t see what they see; nor do the experts in reading the sacred texts whom he consults. They talk about Bethlehem, but they can’t see the star, they can’t see the house, they can’t see God’s saving presence in this child, Emmanuel, God with us.

Epiphany means manifestation, appearance, showing forth – but Matthew wants us to see the hiddenness of Christ, how God slips into the world by way of a poor family in a one-light town. “Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.” Matthew knows the words by heart, but he wants us to see that the glory of God has risen, not upon Herod’s palace or his spectacular temple, but a little ways to the south, upon a dusty hill town called Bethlehem. “Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn,” the prophet declared, and Matthew shows us the nations coming to the light. “They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord” – and they do, but all Herod can see is a threat to his own reign.

As Rome’s puppet king and client of the emperor, Herod’s task was to foster loyalty to Rome’s power. He presided over a political system that benefited a small elite while depriving many of their daily bread. Describing Herod’s cruelty, the Roman writer Macrobius penned the memorable line that it was “better to be Herod’s pig than his wife or son.”[3] He was used to getting rid of people who didn’t serve his ambition. He had ten wives and ordered multiple assassinations, including the murder of some of his own sons to make sure the one of his choosing would take his throne when he died. No epiphany for Herod, only fear and cunning and ruthless determination.

Matthew’s story is not about three kings, but about two, Herod and Jesus. The contrast between their kingdoms runs through the whole gospel, all the way to this year and this moment and to us and whether we see the glory of the Lord that has risen upon us or only lights of our own making; whether we see the epiphany of God-with-us in Mary’s boy and let him guide us or put the vision away together with the rest of the Christmas decorations.

“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness—on them light has shined,” Isaiah declared.[4] Our reading is from chapter 60, but the background against which Isaiah calls us to arise and shine, is found in chapter 59:

“Justice is turned back, and righteousness stands at a distance; for truth stumbles in the public square, and uprightness cannot enter.”[5]

“The way of peace they do not know, and there is no justice in their paths. Their roads they have made crooked; no one who walks in them knows peace. Therefore justice is far from us, and righteousness does not reach us; we wait for light, and lo! there is darkness; and for brightness, but we walk in gloom. We grope like the blind along a wall, groping like those who have no eyes …”[6]

Groping along a wall, of all things… I laughed when I read about us, but it wasn’t a happy laugh. It was the uncomfortable laughter of recognition. We’ve become experts at Herod’s game, but our redemption, our hope, and the hope of the Earth, “fragile and miraculous as a soap bubble,” lies on the way of peace Jesus has opened for us. Let us walk in the light of the Lord.


[1] https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2019/01/far-side-moon-china/579349/

[2] https://www.nytimes.com/2018/12/21/science/earthrise-moon-apollo-nasa.html

[3] Warren Carter, “Between text and sermon: Matthew 2:1-12,” Interpretation 67, no. 1 (January 2013), 64-65.

[4] Isaiah 9:2

[5] Isaiah 59:14

[6] Isaiah 59:8-10

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