Sunday, December 13, 2009

Shining New Light on the Christmas Star

During the week a massive light show lit up the sky over Norway. It was a giant spiral of light with a blue tale. It could be seen all across Norway, suggesting that it was taking place high in the atmosphere. There are many theories about what it was, and it had the world wondering. Norwegians were standing on the sidewalk in awe, saying things like “this cant be Sirius!”

Some of the theories include a meteor, a rare Northern Lights display, Santa Claus test driving the sleigh, Tiger Wood’s Swedish in-laws letting off steam, Dick Cheney’s relatives from a planet far far away and Michael Jackson’s ascension to heaven. The light show happened one day before Barack Obama arrived to receive his Academy Award (I mean Nobel Peace Prize) and some have suggested that God was contracted by the US government to beam a massive halo on the Norwegian sky. It turned out to be anticlimactic when it was revealed that it was actually a test missile shot from a Russian submarine.

I imagine that when the Norwegian people saw the light, they had many different reactions. Some may have thought it was the end of the world, and panicked. Some may have thought it held some astrological significance and rushed to research its meaning. Some no doubt stood dumbfounded in a state of humble curiosity. Humble curiosity is an appropriate response in the face of nature’s grandeur. No matter how much you have seen, no matter how deeply you have seen, you have only just scratched the surface of mystery. There are worlds within worlds that lay undiscovered. In the face of an unexplained phenomenon, your own place in the scheme of the universe falls into perspective. As Ursula Goodenough said,

"The realization that I needn't have answers to the Big Questions has served as an epiphany. I lie on my back under the stars and the unseen galaxies and I let their enormity wash over me."

When life is overwhelming and you can’t see your way forward, remember that you don’t need to solve all the problems of the world. Just lie under the stars with humble curiosity and let their enormity wash over you. That will make all the difference. You don’t need to map out all the steps or plan your whole future. Just follow the star of your inner light to reveal the next step. That’s enough for now.

The Christmas Star

There was another famous light show that we remember at this time of year; the famous Star of Bethlehem. Matthew’s gospel, alone amongst the gospels, records the mysterious story of first century astrologers being led to the birth of Jesus by a star. There are many theories about this strange phenomenon. Some say it was Halley’s comet. Some say it was a bright supernova. In the 1600s, astronomer Johannes Kepler speculated that it was a rare conjunction of two planets Jupiter and Saturn.

Some have suggested that at the time in Jerusalem there was a rare sighting of the brightest star in the Southern Cross (Alpha Crucis). Bethlehem is higher than Jerusalem, so it’s possible the wise ones were in Bethlehem just to get the best possible view of the star. According to this theory, the star wasn’t leading them anywhere. They were chasing the star and stumbled on the birth of Jesus.

Then again, maybe there was no star of Bethlehem. It seems odd that Mark and Luke don’t mention any star. You would think they would include a massively interesting and surprising detail like a giant star pointing to Jesus. Only Matthew’s gospel mentions the star, and its details are a little clumsy. The story has the wise ones coming from the east and also following the star in the east. Unless they were walking backwards, something is fishy in this version of the story.

What was the cultural significance of the star to the author of Matthew? Why did he include that detail in the story, especially if it’s made up? Keep in mind that the author of Matthew was writing well after the death of Jesus and was probably not present at the birth of Jesus. In hindsight, he needed to make the birth story as spectacular as possible. It needed to be a story fit for a great leader. Many famous birth stories included myths about miraculous stars. Out of Hebrew culture, Isaac, Solomon, the Queen of Sheba, David, Micah, Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Elijah, Zechariah, Balaam, Balak, Malachi, Aaron, Elisheba, Miriam and Moses all had mysterious stars associated with them.

500 years before the birth of Jesus, Pythagoras’ birth was allegedly accompanied by a mysterious star. 14 hundred years before Jesus, Krishna was born under incredibly similar circumstances as Jesus. Born into a humble family, his parents were forewarned of the intentions of an evil tyrant and escaped in a story that sounds a lot like the Moses story. Krishna’s birth was also announced by a mysterious star. Maybe the author of Matthew fudged the star detail a little to make this a birth fit for a king.

When Julius Caesar was assassinated in 44 BCE, his son Augustus buried him with royal honors and built a temple to honor him as a god. During the time when Julius Caesar was being publicly mourned, a mysterious comet was seen flashing across the sky, and this comet was of course taken as a sign from God. It was common thought at the time in Rome to read messages from God into stars and signs from the sky. Ironically, even though comets were generally seen as signs of war or impending disaster, in the case of Julius Caesar it was interpreted as a sign that his soul was leaving the earth to become one with God. Not long after, Julius Caesar was deified by the Senate.

By the end of the first decade after Jesus was born, Augustus was in his 70s. He put a ban on astrology. Some have suggested he did this to purge Rome of superstition as part of an emerging enlightenment. It’s more likely he did it because he feared an astrological prediction of his own demise that would have brought unrest to the empire. Interestingly, astrology thrived under his successor Tiberius.

So at the time of Jesus’ birth, and in the years that the gospels were written, stars were hugely significant. They were bearers of divine messages. What is the divine message?

Stars as Divine Message

Matthew seems to be using the star as a symbol of guidance. In this case the astrologers were seeking the grandest of nature’s objects and instead were led to the birth of a baby. The Christmas star didn’t lead them away from life, but deep into the heart of life. The star became a peep hole into the source of life.

They saw one star, one birth, but it was one star in one galaxy, one birth in one place. There are 100 billion galaxies and 100 billion stars in each one. One star above. One birth below. For each person born there are 1.5 trillion stars. The mind boggles. Which is more miraculous; a star or a birth? Are they even separate? As above, so below. Life goes on.

The wise ones came to the birth with humble curiosity. King Herod came with opportunity in one eye and fear in the other. The wise ones were lost in wonder. They had made the connection. They had remembered their connection to that which is greater than all and yet present in each. Herod sneered.

Abraham Heschel, 20th century Jewish theologian said, “We can never sneer at the stars, mock the dawn or scoff at the totality of being. Sublime grandeur evokes unhesitating, unflinching awe. Away from the immense, cloistered in our own concepts, we may scorn and revile everything. But standing between earth and sky, we are silenced by the sight…”

What are the stars saying to you? Your intuition can be trusted. It often points you beyond the life you have planned and on to the life that is waiting for you; a life of extraordinary goodness and beauty. If the wonder of your intuition eludes you, then gaze at the stars and know that you are as much star as you are flesh and blood.

Living the Christmas Story

Do you know how you can tell if your child is destined to be an astronomer? When she is asked to play the Star of Bethlehem in the Christmas pageant, she asks, "Am I a white dwarf or red giant?"

Every one of you is destined to play the Christmas star in one way or another.

Sue Monk Kidd writes in her book Where the Heart Waits: 

"When my daughter was small she got the dubious part of the Bethlehem star in a Christmas play. After her first rehearsal she burst through the door with her costume, a five-pointed star lined in shiny gold tinsel designed to drape over her like a sandwich board. 'What exactly will you be doing in the play?' I asked her. 

'I just stand there and shine,' she told me.

That’s all you have to do; just shine. There is no absolute meaning in the Christmas story. Its not clear exactly what took place or if it happened anything close to the way we remember it each year. This I know for sure; a star shines. Your star shines within. Now let it shine without. Then Christmas will be full of meaning.

What meaning will you give Christmas this year? Will you sneer like King Herod, and live with cynicism at every great achievement or will you live with humble curiosity?

You don’t have to believe unbelievable things, or leave your brain at the door. You don’t have to believe that Jesus was born to a virgin in a scene accompanied by supernatural miracles. You don’t have to imagine that Christmas is a celebration of the beginning of an exclusive religion where some people are saved and others damned. Just live with humble curiosity and open acceptance that divine light lives in each and every person.

The painter Van Gogh once said, “When I have a terrible need of - shall I say the word - religion.  Then I go out and paint the stars.”

This Christmas, when you have the need for new hope or encouragement, look to one of your 1.5 trillion stars and let its immensity wash over you.

Above you are the stars. Beneath you is the earth. Within you is the light of life. Like the stars may your love be constant. Like the earth, may your life be grounded. Like the light within, may your spirit shine.

I am star struck by the wonder of it all. Namaste.

For Further Reflection (Questions that can be used privately or in groups)

1. How important is it that the Christmas story is historically accurate and consistent?
2. What does the Christmas star mean to you?
3. In what areas of life are you jaded or cynical like King Herod?
4. In what ways are you being called to shine?

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