2nd Sunday of Christmas
Jeremiah 31:7-14; Psalm 84; Ephesians 1:3-6,15-19a; Matthew 2:1-12
The Rev'd Cameron Partridge
January 2, 2022
Good Morning, St. Aidan’s, on this Second Sunday of Christmas and second day of the new calendar year, the ninth of Christmas’ twelve days. In Advent, not long after I had led the first session of our adult formation series “Shards of Light: Advent Saints,” I read Out of the Silent Planet, the first book in C.S. Lewis’ space trilogy. Published in 1938, significantly before human beings had made our way into space, this book tells the story of a foray to another planet. The plot is thick with intrigue, surprise, and sabotage. It is also filled with wonder, particularly on the part of the main human protagonist, a philologist named Dr. Elwin Ransom, who was apparently inspired by Lewis’ friend J.R.R. Tolkien. At various points in the story, but particularly near its start, Ransom is bowled over by the experience of being in space. Looking out the window of the ship, he observed “celestial sapphires, rubies, emeralds and pin-pricks of burning gold; far out on the left of the picture hung a comet, tiny and remote.” For hours as the vessel sped to its planetary destination, Ransom would bask in the side of the ship through which light continually flowed. “Often,” the narrator explains, Ransom
rose after only a few hours sleep to return, drawn by an irresistible attraction, to the regions of light; he could not cease to wonder at the noon which always awaited you however early you went to seek it. There, totally immersed in a bath of pure ethereal color and of unrelenting though unwounding brightness, stretched his full length and with eyes half closed in the strange chariot that bore them, faintly quivering, through depth after depth of tranquility far above the reach of night, he felt his body and mind daily rubbed and scoured and filled with new vitality.
Ransom could not imagine calling this liminal location “space,” a term associated with “cold vacuity” and “utter deadness.” This was a place of light that, like water, washed him clean and infused him with life. “How indeed should it be otherwise,” he mused, “since out of this ocean the worlds and all their life had come?” A much more apt name for this locale would be “the heavens,” he reflects, that declare the glory of their divine source. In passage from one world to another, starlight gifts Ransom with new strength for unknown perils.
However naïvely this scene, shall we say, underestimates the logistics of space travel (Ransom was, for instance, unclothed in the above passage), Lewis’ vision of space as truly life-giving, the ocean from which all worlds come and therefore as energizing to those who travel through it, could not but inspire me. The description also immediately reminded me of the story of the Magi (Matthew 2:1-12) and their liminal location between Christmas and Epiphany. The story of these multiple wise men, astrologers perhaps, as magos can be translated, is one of being drawn to the emergence of new life in the midst of perilous circumstances. These strangers observe some sort of astrological phenomenon, perhaps a planetary conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn which apparently occurred three times in 7 B.C.E. As Anna Case-Winters observes, the magi are seekers, making their way in a posture of wonder. They seek to bring homage to the child who has been born “king of the Jews,” as they interpret this astrological phenomenon. Unfortunately, they share this desire with Herod whose brittle authoritarian grasp is deeply threatened by report of a ruler who would emerge from Bethlehem to lead as a “shepherd.” Their interlude with Herod concluded, the magi follow the star until it stops over the place where the child was. This cessation of movement in the description of this star has long struck me. It is repeated: the star stopped, we hear, and then the observance of this stopping causes the magi to be not simply happy but overwhelmed with joy. This stopping of the star marks a significant pause in a story that is surrounded by movement. It is a great pause, a moment of tremendous gratitude. Gold, frankincense and myrrh can barely begin to gesture toward the magnitude of the life-giving gift before them in that moment. The significance of this birth was not simply for a particular community at a specific moment in time. The magi’s journey, and more significantly, their pause, signal their recognition of the unlimited embrace of God for all human beings, for all creation, indeed for the cosmos itself. God in this tiny newborn has come among us, and we not so often wise ones, are invited to bask in the glory of that presence as if “in a bath of pure ethereal color and of unrelenting though unwounding brightness.”
That great pause is being extended to us still, even now, as we stand today on the lip of a return to work, school, or other routines. Even amid the uncertainty of this ongoing pandemic as the omicron variant surges. And amid difficult news, inviting our prayer particularly for the people in and around Boulder Colorado, including friends of our seminarian Amy who have lost their homes, and lifting up Amy’s sending parish Mary Magdalene with whom she is worshipping online this morning. Amid all this rush of emotion and challenge, the movement of the star has paused. Time stands still and we are invited to step not out of but further into the holy, healing space of God’s presence among us, to embrace the life-giving creativity of Christ’s birth in our very hearts, as Amy preached on Christmas morning. I hear this invitation in the language from the letter to the Ephesians, calling us to receive “a spirit of wisdom and revelation as we come to know” God more fully, a spirit that enlightens “the eyes of [our] heart” (Ephesians 1:17, 18). Christ’s own birth was for us a gracious engrafting into God’s own heart, our adoption as God’s children, as the letter to the Ephesians describes it. And this adoption, this embrace that we are called to perceive with the eyes of our heart, like the star-seeking magi, is lifted up so that we may know “what is the hope to which [God] has called” us (Eph 1:18).
This week as I read the news, I was saddened to learn of a number of losses in our world, and particularly of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, whose leadership impacted not only the Anglicans under his charge but the people of South Africa as they began to emerge from the horrors of apartheid. Reading multiple tributes and news accounts of his life this week, I was reminded what a beacon of life and possibility he was, truly someone who embodied “the hope to which God calls us.” I observed and experienced that sense of hope from him a number of years ago – around 2002, I believe—when he visited the Diocese of Massachusetts and gave a sermon at the Cathedral Church of St. Paul. I don’t remember much about the content of his sermon except this: he reached his arms out over the pulpit, down to all of us sitting below in a gesture of God’s embrace. All, all, all, he said, are loved and welcomed by God. All. I was at a moment when, as a trans person, it was not at all clear to me whether or where there might be a place in this church for the likes of me. But when Demond Tutu reached out his arms and cried, all, I’ll tell you, I believed it. I knew it. He had the ability to open up pathways toward and of life where previously pain and death seemed to take up all the horizon. And he did this with such joy and wondrous humor. After his visit, the Episcopal Times put out an article, including a photo of him reaching out over the pulpit, captioned “all, all, all.” I cut it out and taped it to a door in our old apartment, what I used to call “the closet door of hope.” Somewhere I’m sure I must still have it.
As we come into this week of return, my prayer is that the eyes of our hearts would open to the sign of the star stopped above the place where the Christ Child awaits us. The pause continues to call us on this ninth day of Christmas. Even now we are invited to be scoured and cleansed by God’s bathing light. And may we, renewed by that light, go out into the world and like Archbishop Tutu embody the hope to which God calls us with delight and abiding joy.