What would it be like to live in a world where that kind of star shine was visible every night? Well, we know that people would find patterns in those stars, and give them names so that they would be recognizable to anyone who saw them – the Big Dipper, Orion, the Scorpion, the Milky Way. Stars are fascinating objects, sometimes seeming far away, sometimes seeming to move closer, but always objects of wonder to human beings.
What would it have been like for three wealthy scholars in Iran to look up into the sky one night and see a new star, brighter than any other, seeming to dance with joy? What would it have been like to be a shepherd out in the darkness of a night watch to look up and see that same new star, so bright it made daytime shadows of your sheep? Perhaps people were frightened – they often were and are by odd happenings in the night sky. But there were people who were looking for such a star; hoping for it; yearning for it.
Isaiah, a prophet in Israel, hundreds of years before the shining of that star, thought about such a star, and wrote a poem that begins: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light, those who lived in a land of deep darkness, on them the light has shined.” Isaiah was looking forward to the dazzling effect of the presence of God upon people whose whole lives had been difficult, hard, sometimes fearful. That deep darkness is going to turn into something new by the shining of a powerful light, Isaiah said. Look for it. Search for it. Bathe in it. Let it flood your heart and bring joy to your soul. Because when you see it, the promise of ages has approached the world. It will signal a new birth of singular importance. “A child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named wonderful counselor, mighty God, everlasting father, prince of peace.”
Perhaps a sigh escaped the earth when Isaiah said these words, a sigh of long-held hope, of breath that had been held in anticipation. But it didn’t happen in Isaiah’s time. Instead it happened hundreds of years later, in a country under Roman domination, during a time of chaos, when the whole population was on the move in order that the Roman emperor could have an accurate count of who was alive there, who was married, how many children there were.
Christians celebrate Advent and Christmas as the time when that child was born for us, in a stable in Bethlehem, to parents who couldn’t find a comfortable place to rest their heads. It is celebrated as a singular event of great importance and promise, an event that happened in the dark, an event witnessed by few, and an event that came to the attention of the busy world around it not at all. It came to the attention of angels, though. And a few wealthy scholars. And a few shepherds. And a little new family in a strange place because of the word of an earthly ruler.
The host of God’s angel army laid down their weapons and their defenses and sang for wonder: Peace on earth.
It was the beginning of the fulfillment of a promise that had been made centuries before, and it is still not a finished promise. The child grew in “wisdom and stature,” the violence of our world thought it had erased him, and he returned to his friends in order to show that the power of life and death was in his hands. He promised he’d come back. And for hundreds of years Christians have remembered his birth and looked for his return. It was hundreds of years after Isaiah spoke that he was born; who knows how long we’ll wait for him again.
But in the meantime we have the wonder of Christmas, that first moment of new birth, the angel songs, the awe of shepherds, and the richness of scholars from the East.
It’s a night worth remembering; and his is a life worth remembering, because even though it happened within a small area, its effect has been felt ever since in our world.
We are living, Christians say, in the “in-between time,” in the already/not yet time. The first promise has come alive in a child named Jesus, and so will the second promise, in God’s good time. Christmas is a time of hope fulfilled and the substance of faith in a future promise.
I invite you in this season of joy and parties and presents, during the darkest days of winter, to take some time to visit a place of worship and hear the centuries-old stories again; sing the joyful songs, bring gifts of gladness. It happens once a year, and this is the time. If you want to add some beauty and shine and wonder to your year, this is the time and worship is the place. Be blessed by it all.
Star of wonder, star of light. Star of royal beauty bright. Westward leading, still proceeding, guide us by your glorious light.
Rev. Dr. Dorey is the pastor of the Halifax Union Society.