“When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy.” Matt 2:10
Sometimes when you read a familiar old story, something in it jumps out at you. Reading the words of the texts for this Sunday, ruminating in the long winter nights, what jumped out at me was joy. And I got curious. Which is a wonderful thing to have happen, with a story we know this well. We know it so well we can hardly hear it all the way through. A star, three wise men, a baby. (It’s hard to keep ourselves from tucking Luke’s angels and shepherds into the story, too.)
The story is about these things. But it is about more than that; it is also about where the light and the wise ones and the baby come from.
Maybe one of these “come-froms” will give us another way into the story … a way to figure out the source of the wise ones’ joy.
From darkness …
So much of our knowing and saying is shaped by an opposition between light and darkness, and a simple equation 0f light with good, and darkness with evil. But that is too simple an understanding, and has done too much harm over the years — particularly in the dehumanization of people of color — to be allowed to stand.
I am not throwing out every negative connotation of the words; we do speak, aptly, of a dark night of the soul, following St. John of the Cross. We do speak of going through a dark time, when we can’t see and don’t understand. But we need to remember what the world has taught us: the presence of darkness and a corresponding absence of light is natural, seasonal, necessary. And — as Louis Armstrong points out, in his beautiful growly voice — sacred.
Darkness is not just an absence of light; it is the presence of deep earth in which seeds germinate. It is the open space of creativity, the unknown that ideas spring from. It is long hours of restful sleep and restless dreaming. It is the safe enclosure of a womb in which life begins.
I love how Rainer Maria Rilke speaks of the darkness in The Book of Hours (here translated by Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy):
You, darkness, of whom I am born —
I love you more than the flame
That limits the world
to the circle it illumines
and excludes all the rest.
But the dark embraces everything
shapes and shadows, creatures and me,
people, nations — just as they are.
It lets me imagine
a great presence stirring beside me.
I believe in the night.
The dark embraces everything; this is the truth about darkness that we can perceive only when we sit in and with the dark. And surely, this is a part of the story we need to keep in mind: the dark is more than a background foil for a star, lighting a way. The dark embraces everything: every star, every path, every people. How like love, that embrace … how like God.
From another country …
If we look to see where the wise ones in our story come from, we find both geography and metaphor. The Greek word in Matthew’s gospel is magi, plural for magus. Magi were members of a priestly class, geographically from Babylon or Persia (both east of Judah), experts in astrology and divination.
Metaphorically, the magi are outsiders. And so, our story seems to be giving us another opposition, like the one between light and dark. On the one hand, we have the insiders, Herod and “all Jerusalem” and the religious leaders; on the other hand, we have the outsiders, the seers from the East.
One way to read the story is that the magi are the ones who have the light of knowledge, and that Herod and the religious leaders are in the dark, clueless, unaware that their Messiah has been born.
There is a lot to like, to be honest, in that interpretation, for anyone who has felt the closed-mindedness of the church, or the chill of being labeled an outsider, even in the name of welcome. I’ve been on both sides of that label, and in some ways am there still.
But maybe that interpretation is too simple, to just say that the insiders are closed-minded, and it takes outsiders to see what’s happening.
If we read closely, we can see that following the star brought the wise ones westward, but they needed to hear from the religious leaders in Jerusalem that Bethlehem was the place, in order to finish their journey.
This implication is there for us to draw, when we look at the other texts set to accompany Matthew’s story: in Isaiah 60, the light of God arising anew in Israel “gathers together” the scattered family, and the distant nations, whose wealth is brought, gold and frankincense. In Psalm 72, “the kings render him tribute … the kings fall down before him, all nations give him service.”
Gathering. I am thankful to Isaiah for this verb, gathering. It’s different from welcome. “Welcome” implies the binary, that some are in, and offering a welcome to those who are out. “Welcome” does not keep the supposed insiders in touch with the fact that they too are being welcomed. But if the light of God is gathering all of us — those of us who think we are inside, and those of us who think we are outside — then we are back in the terrain of Rilke’s poem. What does he love “more than the flame/that limits the world/to the circle it illumines/and excludes all the rest”?
Rilke loves the dark, his word for a Love that gathers together all, that “embraces everything/shapes and shadows, creatures and me/people, nations — just as they are.”
Just as we are, each of us from another country, gathered in, by Love.
From a woman …
What do we make of the fact that God did not just show up, on earth, riding clouds of glory, accompanied by an angelic host trumpeting sovereignty?
I think God was trying to tell us, “I’m not that guy.”
God chose to enter into human existence as all humans do: from a woman, from the beautiful dark center of the body of a woman, coming into the world through her sweat and tears and blood, washed clean by her hands, drawing life from her breast.
It amazes me to imagine how she felt that “presence stirring” not just beside her, but within her. It matters that God entered into human existence, through the collaboration — quite literally, the co-laboring — of a woman with God. It matters that she and God conspired — breathed together — to create the human life of Jesus, in which the opposition between humanity and divinity was shown to be eternally false. It matters, that there is no more divide between God and us than there is between darkness and light, or between “shapes and shadows, creatures and me/people, nations — just as they are.”
Just as we are … all of us born of women, and their hopes and dreams.
Perhaps it was a mother’s hopes and dreams given voice in the psalm for today, a song that prays for a leader after God’s own heart, one who would judge the people with righteousness, give the poor justice, and deliver the needy when they call, saving them from oppression and violence, for the sake of the preciousness of all life.
This is the Light the psalmist says will draw the eyes of all the world, the tribute of kings and the service of nations: the Light of a just realm, with abundance the birthright of all.
“Overwhelmed by joy …”
I confess it’s a bit of a mystery to me, still … why the wise ones were overwhelmed by joy, simply because the star had stopped. I suppose it depends on what they knew about what they were looking for: if they knew the star was leading toward One who would draw together darkness and light, gather together inside and out, and reveal the preciousness of every mother’s child, then the journey’s end would be cause for joy.
That joy drew them into the house.
The story goes on. We know, oh so well, how the story goes on, in heartbreak and struggle and death and life.
But let us pause here, just for a moment, weary travelers all.
Let us rest, in the dark, where stars are shining.
Let us feel the relief, of knowing that at journey’s end, we are gathered in.
Let us imagine, in this time and place, a joy that overwhelms all else, drawing us into the house, where all our gifts can be shared.
And in that house of joy, let us conspire together: that there will be no more castigation of darkness, that there will be no more insider and out, that it will not be enough to go home by a different road, allowing power to massacre the innocents.
When joy draws us into the house, oh, Beloved, let that joy transform us, into a people who embody your justice and righteousness, and make it plain in all the world, every corner we can touch, for all are precious in your sight.