Searching the stars for meaning, against a backdrop of violence, in Epiphany

In so many ways, we have lost the night’s sky – we have lost that canopy of stars and planets – we have lost that band of brightness we call the milky way. We have lost the nights sky because we live in urban centres where massive amounts of light fill the space around us and fill the night sky. The few stars that we do see are only the brightest – those that are able to pierce through the light pollution from our floodlighted factories and streets – from our over-lit suburbs.

It is something remarkable we have lost – this is the price we pay for electricity and artificial lights, for wastefulness and excess. Some days you’ve got to wonder whether the price of artificial light has been worth it. If you are lucky enough to get out of the city from time to time, and to do find yourself outside on a clear night, you will see so many stars overhead. And since our sun and our planet lie within the plane of a spiral galaxy, you will see that beautiful band of whiteness – that undifferentiated light of so many stars lying within the plane of our galaxy.

In ancient cultures, of course, there was no problem with light pollution – in ancient cultures there was no dome of refracted light blotting out the stars. And so in ancient times everyone had a front row seat to the beauty of the night’s sky. Did they pay any more attention to the stars than we do? In some senses no doubt they did – the stars were right there, in all their glory. Though perhaps for ancient peoples it was such an everyday reality that some rarely turned their attention to the skies.

Nevertheless, in the ancient world there were those who spent a great deal of time studying the stars. The Gospel of Matthew tells us almost nothing about the visitors from the east who have come following a star. He refers to them as kings or magin – as magicians, diviners, astrologers from the east. Whoever they are, they are among those of the ancient world who read the stars – who paid attention to the stars – who would have noticed when something new appeared or when something was out of place. A comet – a supernova – a planet making a closer than usual fly-by. They would have noticed.

Beyond the fact that these magi from the East are watchers and interpreters of the stars, we know little about them. We don’t know where they are from – it could be Persia or Arabia or Babylonia? We don’t know how many they were – they brought three different gifts, but that doesn’t mean there were three of them. We don’t know when exactly they arrived – several weeks or more likely months after the birth of the child.

We should say again that no light pollution has disrupted the vision of these Magi. They have observed the stars clearly. And a particular star has drawn their attention – a light in the sky out of the ordinary. Was it a comet or a supernova or a unique alignment of Jupiter and Saturn that they saw? We don’t know. But in their interpretation of this star, they have found meaning. In looking at this particular star they have discerned something significant about developments in their corner of the world. They follow the star – they believe it will lead them to one who is to become king of the Jews.

We read in the narrative: “The wise men came to Jerusalem, asking, ‘Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we have observed his star at its rising and have come to pay him homage’. When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priest and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. The chief priests and scribes told him: ‘In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it is written in the prophet: And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.”

Our sermon title for today is taken from the title of a documentary film that I watched this past week. Nostalgia for the light. It is a film by the Chilean filmmaker Patricio Guzman and it focuses on a mountainous desert region in Chile known as the Atacama desert. Within this vast and desolate region of Chile, and through the course of the documentary, Guzman reveals and juxtaposes two realities.

In the Atacama desert, on the heights of mountains there, are located some of the largest and most powerful telescopes in the world. The mountains of the Atacama are very high and because the region is so dry there is very little cloud cover or atmospheric moisture that would interfere with the telescopes. Because it is isolated there is also no light pollution, and there is very little radio interference. And so it is one of the best places on earth to conduct astronomical observations.

Patricio Guzman, through the documentary, reminds us of the work these telescopes do in peering into the universe. Not only examining stars and galaxies and black holes and supernovae. But as they do so, looking back also into the primordial time of the universe, examining energy and light that is just reaching us from earlier times in the universe’s existence. Those telescopes of the Atacama desert – sophisticated and powerful instruments, are telling us part of the story of the origins of the world, are telling us something of our human world and life, also. One of the astronomers interviewed in the documentary suggests that his motivations as a scientists are in many ways religious – he is seeking the origins and meaning of the universe.

As was the case with those ancient men – those magi from the east – the astronomers and telescopes of the Atacama desert are trying to understand the human; trying to discover what the stars tell us about our life and identity. We humans have always, it seems, looked for meaning in the stars that shine upon us from such vast distances.

But as I mentioned, Patricio Guzman wants to present two overlapping realities in his documentary. And so he juxtaposes that search for meaning in the stars – that search for meaning in the vast reaches of the universe – with another search that is going on in the lower reaches of the Atacama desert.

In 1973 a military coup shook Chile, with Augusto Pinochet coming to power shortly after, at the head of a military junta. During Pinochet’s rule, many thousands of perceived political opponents were tortured. But during his rule, more than 3,000 Chileans also disappeared – Pinochet’s military government became expert at making people simply disappear. It is believed that the bodies of some of the disappeared were dumped at sea – but it is also believed that some of disappeared were dumped in the Atacama desert. That desert was also the location of one of Pinochet’s concentration camps.

Since the 1990’s, there has been a group of women that has gone out into the Atacama desert looking for their lost loved ones – looking for the disappeared of Chile. A group of women looking for their husbands and sons and fathers. There are only a few of these women left, yet a number of them persist in going out with shovels, or with only their searching eyes, looking for the disappeared.

On the heights of the Atacama mountains, massive and sensitive telescopes probe the deepest recesses of the universe – seeking to understand the nature and origins of the universe – seeking to understand the place of the human within the universe. They probe a profound mystery.

And in the flat wastelands down below, women search for their loved ones – search for those they have lost – search for a part of their own lost humanity – wanting to find and bury those they haven’t seen in decades, now. Those who fell victim to a violent and oppressive regime – that of Augusto Pinochet and those who ruled with him. These searching women seek to undo a mystery – they want to hold on to memory.

The wise men, the astronomers, the diviners, the kings from the East, follow the star that they believed was announcing something astonishing and new and wonderful among the Jewish people. Like the astronomers of the Atacama desert, they search for something that gives meaning to the human. Also like the astronomers of the Atacama desert, these wise men from the east conduct their search against the backdrop of violence. We read that the wise men indeed found the child announced by the star, they paid him homage – and they departed by another road, lest Herod discover the child.

And this was Herod’s response to his lack of control; this was his response to the possible presence of a competitor to the throne; this was his response to the deception of the wise men who departed by another road. We read later in Matthew chapter 2: “When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men.”

In a way, with this narrative of Matthew, we are in the same situation as we are with Guzman’s documentary about the Atacama desert. On the one hand we have those who seek meaning, who seek answers, in the stars overhead. Those who keep their eyes peeled to the stars for answers about human life and identity. Today’s astronomers can in fact tell us astonishing things about our life with and among the galaxies.

And on the other hand we have perpetrators of violence – Pinochet, Herod. We have victims of violence – we have lives destroyed, hearts broken, families rent apart. These also search for meaning, for the meaning of life in the face of such violence.

In a way, this is where the human family locates itself perpetually. We are beings that seek meaning. We are beings that want to understand ourselves and our world. And we certainly have gifts and abilities in chemistry and astronomy and psychology and literature and film, all of which contribute to our understanding of ourselves.

Yet running in parallel to this searching and finding – this questioning, and questioning some more – is the reality of suffering. And the desire to find meaning, or something, in the midst of violence and brokenness and suffering.

The gospel writer Matthew locates the birth of Jesus – right in the middle of this juxtaposition. The gospel writer Matthew articulates the identity of Jesus – right in the middle of this juxtaposition. And the astonishing and provocative claim that Matthew’s gospel makes is that this Jesus matters for the Jewish people and for all people – that this Jesus matters for those who are sick and blind and ashamed and lost and broken and dying. He comes to the shattered mothers searching in the Atacama desert. He comes to the broken-hearted of Bethlehem.

As Psalm 72 hopes and anticipates – the king who is to come – the messiah who is to come – is a king who will defend the cause of the poor of the people,

who will give deliverance to the needy,

who will have pity on the weak,

who will be like showers that refresh the earth,

who will cause righteousness and peace to flourish

who will have dominion from sea to sea.

Long may he live, declares the Psalm. To live in the light of this coming Jesus is to discover his healing and his forgiveness as we open ourselves to him in prayer and worship. To discover such healing and forgiveness is rarely simple – it is never a simplistic process – it involves truth telling and justice and deep relationships of care and compassion. Yet by his grace, such healing and forgiveness may become real in our lives and in our world.

On the other side of this juxtaposition, to live in the coming kingdom of this Jesus is also not to deny the many insights into human life and being that come to us from astronomers and microbiologists and psychologists and physicists. We have learned much and have much to learn about our world and our being. Yet at the same time being a follower of Jesus requires that we gauge the significance and meaning of scientists’ findings, gauging their significance and meaning in the light of this one who is our Epiphany. Rare is the occasion, we might say, when the significance and meaning of scientists findings are self-evident and clear. I should say that Christians are very often accused of checking their brains at the church door – yet it is just as often the case that outside the church women and men check their brains when reading popular accounts of scientific findings of when they uncritically accept the overreaching claims of some scientists.

For the gospel writer Matthew – the king is born as a child.  And he is born as a child at a dramatic point in which the search for meaning in the universe is juxtaposed with the search for meaning in our suffering. It is no small claim that Matthew makes – that this Jesus is our epiphany in both cases. That we will not understand ourselves and our world, without knowing this one who is born among us, who will suffer with us, who will be vindicated in resurrection life. That we will not understand our suffering and grief, without knowing this one who is born among us – who will suffer for us – who will be vindicated in resurrection life.

Long may he live.

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