05 January 2017

Lead, Kindly Light

Matthew 2:1-12


The star is a character in Matthew’s Gospel.  The star is mentioned four times in twelve verses.  The star is animated, moving across the sky, directed by an invisible force.  The star rises in the East and then it moves.  The magi, these astrologer-priests from Persia, follow its path to Jerusalem. After meeting Herod in Jerusalem they set out, we’re told, “and there, ahead of them, went the star…” (Matthew 2:9). They followed its lead “until it stopped over the place where the child was” (Mt. 2:9).  And, then, “When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy” (Mt. 2:10). The star stopped over the dwelling place of the child.

The star is a character in Matthew’s birth narrative, which moves the plot along.  It’s alive; it has a purpose.

This season, my niece, Katia, who is about three-and-a-half years old, was in the Christmas pageant at her pre-school in Savannah, Georgia.  Several weeks before Christmas, Doris (my sister-in-law) told my brother, Craig, that Katia was going to be the star in the pageant.  Craig was happy to hear that.  He assumed, though, this meant that Katia was going to play Mary. “No,” Doris said.  “Katia is going to be the star, as in the Star of Bethlehem.”  Her costume was a large, gold star that sat on her shoulders, with a cutout for her face.  The star was a character in the play.  That’s a good interpretation of Matthew.

In the Gospel, the star “speaks” to these stargazers and the stargazers know its “voice”.  These astrologers believed that forces in the cosmos influenced history—the lives of individuals, as well as nations within history.  The stars, the planets, the heavens revealed a wisdom that shaped the course of human history.  The magi trusted in the wisdom of the cosmos, the divine dimension of the universe, and they knew themselves to be moved by forces larger than themselves.  The rising of a star, a new star, signaled the birth of a new day, a new era, a new revelation of the cosmos, of the divine.  They had reason to believe that this star signaled the birth of a king, which is why Herod (37-4 BC) is shaking in his sandals—because he was actually the king, he was the Roman Empire’s client king, appointed epitropos, “regent,” by the Roman Senate in 47 BC, and declared a Roman citizen.  Herod was already King of the Jews.

The star led the magi to the Christ child.  Note several things about Matthew’s telling.  There’s no reference to Joseph.  The magi arrived not at a manger, but to a house (Mt 2:11); then encountered not a baby, but a child (Mt 2:9).  And we don’t know how many magi there were.  There could have been twenty.  The text doesn’t say, although the legend that there were three emerged early in the Christian tradition.  And the fact that Herod, once he realized that the magicians had tricked him, ordered the massacre of children two and under (Mt 2:16-18), it’s probably safe to assume that Jesus was about two years old by the time the magi arrived and departed for home.

~ ~ ~

I’ve been thinking a lot this season on light and darkness, the play of light and dark.  I reflected on these themes on Christmas Eve, in the way that Jesus is described in John’s Gospel as “living light” (John 1:3-5).  Here in Matthew, it’s starlight that’s leading them through the dark to Jesus.  And when they realized that the star had stopped over the house of Jesus, we’re told, they were “overwhelmed with joy” (Mt 2:10). Or, better, they “rejoiced exceedingly with great joy.”  The Greek is effusive.  Charan from chara, meaning, “joy,” chara, which is related etymologically to charis, the Greek word for “grace.”  Joy and grace are always connected.  And when they encountered God’s joy, they knelt and worshipped him. 

One journey now ended.  A new journey was about to begin.  When they got up and stood on their feet they stepped out into a new world, they walked out onto a new journey, they set off down a new way, which would take them home “by another road” (Mt. 2:12).  The star led them to an epiphany, meaning the appearance of God’s light and joy and grace in the face of the child-king. It’s that joy that then set them off on a different path, a different way, returning home different people. The wiseman returned all the wiser.

Lead, Kindly Light.  Kindly light.  These words came to mind as I reflected on this text.  They’re the opening words of a poem by John Henry Newman (1801-1890), the nineteenth century Anglo-Catholic theologian-priest (and later Cardinal), written in 1833.  His words were set to a hymn of the same name, a hymn that was extremely popular at the end of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, loved by Queen Victoria (1819-1901).  The hymn was sung at a worship service on the RMS Titanic, the day before it struck an iceberg on the 14th April 1912.  It was also sung on one of the Titanic’s lifeboats when the rescue ship Carpathia arrived the next morning.  But you won’t find it in most hymnals today.   

Newman became seriously ill with a fever while traveling in Italy, which almost killed him.  He was desperate to return to England, but could not travel for almost three weeks.   He was able to catch an orange boat from Palermo to Marseilles but was held up in the Straits of Bonifacio, between Corsica and Sardinia. Stranded there and exhausted, he wrote this poem, known as “The Pillar of Cloud.”

            Lead, Kindly light, amid the encircling gloom
            Lead Thou me on!
            The night is dark, and I am far from home—
            Lead Thou me on! Keep Thou my feet; I do not ask to see
            The distant scene—one step enough for me.

He confesses that there was a time when this wasn’t his prayer.  He says,
            I was not ever thus, nor prayed Thou
            Shouldst lead me on;
            I love to choose and see my path;
            but not
            Lead Thou me on! I love the garish day, and, spite of fears,
            Pride ruled my will. Remember not past years![1]

Kindly Light.  It’s a good description of the star in Matthew’s Gospel.  Where is this light today in your life?  Is it bright and blazing and clearly marking the way for you?  Or has your light become just a flicker, ready to go out, not bright enough to mark the way through the dark? 

As we stand at the threshold of a new year, at the “gate of the year,” where do you suspect the “kindly light” of Christ, this light that is ever ahead of us, leading you in 2017?[2]  Not where you want to go, but where are you being led?  “Lead Thou me on!”  As we begin a new year, perhaps now is a good time to reflect on your own faith journey, confess wrong turns and detours, and assess your level of commitment to Christ.      

Where have you been in your walk with Christ?  Where are you now? 

Where are you going?  Toward what are you being summoned?

How are you being drawn to the Christ child?  Where is he being born—born again—in your life? 
Where are you being born—born again—into new life? 

Where is the joy? 
Where is joy overwhelming you? 

Where are you kneeling—do you need to learn to kneel—in homage before him?     

What gifts, treasures—money, resources, skills, talents, wisdom, knowledge,  experience—are you willing to give up and share and place before him this coming year? 

And are you, having encountered the grace and joy of Christ, are you ready, are     you prepared to journey onward “by another road,” having been changed,  transfigured and transformed by the light of Christ? 

Image: Christian sarcophagus, Vatican Museum, Rome, fourth century.
[1] The full text of the poem may be found here.
[2] “Gate of the year” is an allusion to Minnie Louise Haskins’s (1876-1957) poem “God Knows,” written in 1908, but often known as “Gate of the Year.” The poem became popular in 1939, when King George VI used it in his Christmas broadcast to the British Empire.  It was Queen Elizabeth, then 13, who first shared the poem with her father. 
And I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year:
‘Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.’
And he replied:
‘Go out into the darkness and put your hand in the Hand of God. That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way.’
So I went forth, and finding the Hand of God, trod gladly into the night.
And He led me towards the hills and the breaking of day in the lone East.”

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