In the office today, I learned that Tina’s husband is a bit of an amateur astronomer. What brought that to light was our discussion of the comet that is currently in our celestial neighborhood. Tina talked about living a bit out of the city, so I asked if she was far enough out in the country to see the comet. For those of you unaware this evening, there is a comet that is either about to or just completed its orbit of the sun. That means it is burning rather brightly in the night sky. It started off in the constellation Orion, which is easy enough for most folks to find, and will progress at some 3 degrees per day to the north. Once it gets up somewhere around the constellation Taurus, it will become impossible for us to see with just our eyes. Not too long after that, it will become a challenge for most of us to find even with our telescopes and binoculars.
Why the focus on the comet? As we were talking, we remarked about the beauty of the night sky. No matter where we live, there is an amazing view when we cast our eyes to the heavens. Yes, the constellations may be in different places or there may be different constellations visible, but the immensity of the universe cannot be ignored. And then, every so often, something spectacular happens. It might be a meteorite streaking across the sky and exploding. It might be a wonderful green-tailed comet such as the one you will all be looking for later this week. It might be the birth of a nebula or the sight of a new, different colored star.
More amazingly, from our perspective, this vastness seems so ordered and predictable that we begin to name the objects and mark their paths. Our constellations and planets follow a predictable path across the sky. Comets such as the one that bears the name of Mr. Halley return on predictable dates. And now, thanks to the unfiltered view of the Hubble telescope, we can watch stars and black holes collide, see quasars spewing forth their energy in light, and we can even watch for bobbles in other stars that help us determine the presence and size of planets far outside our solar system. It is incredible to behold, and it is far more incredible to fathom. How much are we not yet seeing?
This night we celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany. This is the night when we remember the arrival to the household of Jesus of the three magi who followed the Star. A couple years ago, I came upon an internet site that allows us to plug in dates and locations. Essentially, it recreates the window of the sky for a particular area. My focus tonight is not the symbolism of what can be seen, but it sure was clear. There was a conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn and one other planet, I cannot remember that moved through Leo three times. Together these “wanderers” kept pointing to the fact that something important was happening in Judea. So significant was this celestial event that the three magi packed up their presents and necessary items for such a journey and headed off. To them, this conjunction and its travel signified that the king of the Jews had been born. As the planets journeyed, it led them to Jerusalem and then, as we read tonight, even to Bethlehem where the motion stopped from their perspective.
A couple years ago, when I discovered this site and preached upon it a bit, I spoke of the care and concern our Lord must have had when He set the planets and stars in their courses. All those stars and planets, each travelling at various speeds and distances from us in different orbits and different rotations around the galactic center aligned this season to alert the world that something significant had happened. God had become Incarnate in human flesh. To put it in the words of St. Hilary, whose feast is just next week, the voice of the God who thundered on Sinai could now be heard in the wail of a baby in His crib. Can you imagine? How could He remain silent?
The significance of that event, of course, directly impacts most of us gathered here tonight to remember that day. I daresay few of us have Jewish ancestry. That means this manifestation of the glory of God was intended for our ancestors and for us, that we and they might turn to the Living God and be saved! Epiphany, as the name suggests, is all about manifestation—seeing and understanding. The magi, from their homes in India or Persia or wherever they were from, saw something significant in the skies. That event led them on a journey where, face to face, they encountered the glory of God. The Child to which they paid homage, the Child to which they brought those wonderful gifts, was not an illusion, a figment of the mind, or a quaint idea. That Child was the Incarnation of God. Rightly they fell down in worship. Rightly they gave those treasures. Rightly they returned home telling those from whence they had come, what and Who they had seen.
Our responsibility, brothers and sisters, is not all that different from the magi in the story. You and I have been drawn into His saving embrace. Maybe you never saw the Star, but you saw or experienced something of the Child whom the Star marked. From that moment of your encounter with the manifestation of the glory of God, nothing for you has ever remained the same. Once experienced, that manifestation cannot be ignored. His glory can be accepted or rejected, but it cannot be ignored. And then, like those kings who journeyed long and far, through storms and wildernesses and cities and wastelands, you and I are sent on our journey, proclaiming His glory to those whom we encounter, manifesting His glory to those around us!
Epiphany has always been one of those fun seasons in the life of the church, not that the others are bad. Epiphany, it seems to me, tries hard to remind us to be bridges between the immanence and transcendence of God. We will always fall short because it is, in the end, a holy mystery, but consider: it falls to you and me, as we pick up our crosses and follow the One who picked up the Cross, to manifest God’s glory to the world around us. How we do that, empowered by the Holy Spirit, is probably as countless as the stars that dot the night sky. Whether it is through feeding someone hungry, clothing someone poor, providing coins for a mother to do her laundry, making sure the church leadership is aware of the needs of a family, rescuing a slave, or simply a smile or a hug in His Name, you and I are called to be His hands, be His feet, be His smile, be a part of His mystical Body here on earth that all might be drawn into His Kingdom, His family. But even as we do that, even as we work to share His love and His hope and His joy with those around us, you and I are reminded that He has plans for each one of us who claim His Son as Lord. As magnificent as what He did with the heavens to signify the birth of His Son, as awesome as the theophany from Sinai sounded when He gave Israel the torah, and impressive as was the deliverance from Egypt, all pale compared to what He has in store for each of us. That same Lord, that same Father who so glorified the birth of His Son and manifested His glory to us, has promised that we will share in His glory for all eternity. The next time you look up and see a star, a planet, a comet, or any other body that reminds you of His magnificence, remember that He who ordered those things you see, in some cases thousands of years in the past across interstellar distances, has put in the same planning, the same care in you and your future with Him. Can you even begin to imagine what He has in store for all of us, His beloved children?