Thursday, January 5, 2012

Always begin with the star

Epiphany Year B

‘Always begin with the star!’ That would be the annoying piece of advice my brother had to offer me whenever we came to that time of the year when the Christmas tree had to be put up. I felt that he took great condescending pleasure in saying this to me because he knew that only he was tall enough to place the first bulb of the string of Christmas lights on the crown of the tree, just right behind the star. Since, I was vertically challenged during my growing years, I was given the task (what I presumed to be the less important task, menial in fact) to look into the decorations in the lower part of the tree. What compounded my frustration was that the Christmas lights which always had to begin at the top was never long enough to cover the whole height and breath of our tree. The lights would always stop three quarters down the tree, leaving ‘my section’ in apparent darkness. Due to the lack of light in the lower regions, my decorations, baubles and tinsels were all shielded in the shadows and my efforts appeared to be in vain.

I endured the humiliation and waited for the opportunity to finally assume the responsibility of deciding how to place the Christmas lights on the tree. If I had my way, I would start from the bottom. The time finally arrived when my brother left for his studies overseas. It then fell on me to set up the entire Christmas tree on my own. I was ecstatic at the realization that I would finally be able to put up the Christmas lights on my own and according to my own plans and not having to listen to the dictates of my brother.

And so I began with the first bulb at the bottom of the tree. I began twirling the lights around the tree, already imagining what a splendid looking final product awaited me at the end. But in my excitement and, of course, in my pride I had forgotten that the lights were not long enough. I started to stretch, rearrange, reposition the lights but despite my best efforts, those lights resisted all attempts to reach the top. As I stood back in exasperation, and to add further injury to my wounded pride, my mom popped out of the kitchen and took a single look at my handiwork and remarked: “You should have begun with the star. Have you already forgotten what your brother always tell you, “Always begin with the star!”

Today’s gospel provides us with the same universal and eternal wisdom – Always begin with the star. Unfortunately, not many were willing to take the advice. King Herod failed miserably in this area. He was too consumed with his own self-importance, to the extent that he self styled himself as Herod the Great, though he was an insignificant puppet ruler under the vast Roman empire. Herod, like so many of us, which to claim his stardom. He ruled out all others who will pose rivalry to his power and influence, even one who would be the saviour of his people. His insecurity blinded him to recognize the light of the star.

And then we had the scribes, Pharisees, priests and wise men whom Herod consulted. They knew of the predictions contained in scriptures. They were learned men who could read the signs and interpret its significance but because they were beholden to their royal patron and were unwilling to accept the changes that would be inaugurated by the coming King, they chose to cooperate with King Herod to frustrate God’s plans for salvation. Perhaps, the Jews have been so used to thinking about their religion in fixed ways. God is to be found on sacred mountains, in the Temple and in holy places. The Messiah being such a great figure in the prophecies must definitely be a powerful personage that has to be born into wealth and power. They were not prepared to accept the fact that God may choose to be born in a stable.

There were also the many hundreds and thousands of astrologers and scholars who would also have witnessed the sudden appearance of this strange star. They may even have divined its meaning. But what would have prevented them to taking steps to follow the star to its source. Perhaps, it was the risk of losing everything. The cost to be paid for making such a long perilous journey, fraught with uncertainties and all kinds of dangers, was just too high.

And finally, we have the wise men of today’s feast. They are popularly known as the three wise kings. Take note that nowhere in the gospel is the number or the royal lineage of these men mentioned. The number three corresponds with the three types of gifts – gold, frankincense and myrrh. The idea of kings emerged later during the medieval period when the three kings came to represent the three great continents known to men at that time – Europe, Asia and Africa. But all of this is the stuff of legends. These wise men were probably astronomers or astrologers who divine people’s fate by looking at the stars.

What difference did the wise men bring to the story of Christmas? What set them apart from the other characters in the story? First, the wise men were not concerned with self-preservation. They were not so insecure to believe that their positions and status would be usurped by a new king. Second, the wise men were able to think outside the box. They were not confined by the restrictions of past experiences and fixed ways of thinking. Third, these wise men were prepared to pay the price. They left their homelands in search for the source of the star. They brought princely gifts that would have cost them a fortune if not their own lifelihood. They did this because they understood the true value of this encounter. They were going to meet the reason and cause of their salvation. They were going to meet their Lord.

The wise men, more than anyone else, could recognize that the real star of that story was Jesus. The star in the sky merely pointed the way for them to find the real star which had been born in Bethlehem.

Today, the gospels challenge us to recognize the Star – just like the star that led the wise men to Jesus. Our God is a God of surprises. If we are stuck to certain ways of thinking about God, God then becomes predictable – he ceases to be God. We must allow God to be God. This means that we must allow him to choose the way in which he wants to reveal himself. God can choose to reveal himself in the ordinary things of life. God can choose to come to us in a quiet and peaceful way and does not need to put on a big show of miracles. We must allow him to do things according to his plans and not according to our own will. Whenever we follow a star – whenever we follow a sign from God – a new idea – a new pastoral plan – a new direction – we may never know where it will lead us. We are merely asked to walk by faith. But if we are faithful and open to God’s will and direction, cast aside self interest, allow ourselves to be surprised by new experiences and willing to pay the heavy cost, then we will find Jesus and God at the end of our journey. He is waiting for us to find our way to him.

Let us pray that we will not get lost along the way. There will be times that we feel like giving up. There will be times other distractions draw our attentions. But if we ever get lost, there is always the star to remind us of our direction and destination. Always remember, it doesn’t begin with us, or with our plans, or with our self interests. It always begins with the Star.

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