Rev. Danielle K Bartz January 7, 2024
Matthew 2:1-12 “The Stuff of Stars”
We are made up of the stuff of stars. This is not just a beautiful metaphor for the way in which we are each, by the very nature of our creation by God, connected to all things. This is also a scientific fact. If you know me, you know I am fan of all things space. So when, in mid December, the New York Times did a review of the most interesting space discoveries of 2023, I read it eagerly. And not just to satiate my inner nerd but because the words of the poet John Gillespie Magee, Jr have always run true for me. The final stanza of his poem ‘High Flight’ reads thus: “And, while with silent lifting mind I’ve trod/The high untrespassed sanctity of space,/Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.” I glimpse the contours of God’s face not only when I gaze at my neighbors and strangers, but also when my eyes lift to the heavens, especially on a cold winter’s night when, whether it is my imagination or not, the stars seem just a bit closer.
But, back to that review of space discoveries of 2023. One of the highlights was a new infrared image of Cassiopeia A, taken this year by the James Webb telescope. That image, by the way, is on the front of your bulletins today. Cassiopeia A is the remnant of a star that went nova just 340 years ago – barely a blink of an eye in cosmic time. It is also, astrologically speaking, relatively close to earth, only 11,000 light years away. Astrophysicists have been studying Cassiopeia A for years, but the new technology provided by the Webb telescope has opened up a whole new world for them.
Dr. Danny Milisavljevic, an astrophysicist from Purdue University, who has been studying Cassiopeia A almost exclusively his entire career, talked about why understanding this phenomenon was so important. “By understanding the process of exploding stars,” he said, “we’re reading our own origin story. Supernova remnants create the elements needed to sustain life, our lives, like the oxygen we breathe, the iron in our blood, and the calcium in our bones.”
Now, I know nothing about this scientist’s religious background, if he has any. But, when I read that, I saw a reflection of the creation mythology that has guided the Abrahamic faiths for millennia. From the very first words of our scriptures: “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light.” From that light created by God, all life was formed. Many millennia ago, before anyone understood what we are just barely beginning to know about how life is created, they understood something that has not changed. Light creates life. We are the stuff of stars. And, as God created that light, we carry within us a piece of God, a remnant of God’s light.
But, this light, whether you choose to think of it as metaphorical or literal in the form of the elements that sustain our lives, this light is not something that is other. It is not something we carry around, enveloped in a barrier that doesn’t allow us to truly connect with it. It is in the very elements that make us who we are. And how I understand that: God is in the very elements that make us who we are. We are so interconnected with God, that separation is not possible. And this can be difficult for many to grasp because for so long God has been thought of this other, this different being, a presence or a force that is separate from you and I. An overseer, looking down, or a distant creator, finished with the work of creation, setting us on a shelf somewhere to admire. This interconnectedness with God is something difficult for us to grasp, but despite that difficulty we must always remember – we are Christmas people.
The great miracle we just celebrated at Christmas was not the lovely scene in the manger with shepherds and angels, and today the magi coming to bring their gifts. The miracle of Christmas is the incarnation – of God taking on human flesh. The miracle of Christmas is that God is never and has never been separated from us. God is a part of us, we are a part of God, and therefore we are part of one another. So, if we keep building on this, then I believe we carry within us all of God’s wisdom. We are a part of God, God is a part of us, and therefore the essence of God, God’s love, God’ grace, God’s wisdom is a part of us as well.
Now, I will never be so arrogant as to claim that humanity can perfectly understand or access this wisdom. We get mired in our own prejudice, fear, greed, ignorance. But I do believe it is there, within us, whispering to us, nudging us, and guiding us. Perhaps we can think of it as a wisdom long forgotten but ready to be remembered. And one of the ways to help us remember who and whose we are is not just by turning our gaze inward through prayer and contemplation, but in communal worship, sacrament, and looking out into the created cosmos. I wonder, when we glimpse a star, if that leads to a spark of the memory of God saying “Let there be light and there was light”. And maybe when that memory is sparked within, God responds, “Yes! Good, you are paying attention!”
I think that is what the magi were doing – paying attention to that wisdom of God that they held within. That wisdom, perhaps the memory of that wisdom, was sparked as they saw a star appear in the heavens. In an act of deep faith and trust, they chose to follow where the star led. And not only did it lead them to the Christ-child, to the incarnation of God, but it also guided them away from the earthly forces that feared the possibilities of that incarnation, and feared the power of God’s wisdom we all carry. They heard in Herod not a desire for reverence, but a fear created from ignorance and a desire for power. Imagine for a moment if they had not trusted that wisdom and chosen not to follow where it was pointing.
“Compared to modern astronomers, the magi knew next to nothing about the nature and movement of the stars. They may not have had many facts, but they had a lot of wisdom. We have more facts at our fingertips than the ancients ever could have imagined. But as you look into the night-sky, the question isn’t how many facts you have about the stars, it’s whether you have enough wisdom to read them.”
We are the stuff of stars. We are a part of God and God is a part of us. This connection provides us the opportunity to remember and be guided by the wisdom of God that makes up who we are. How will you choose to listen to this wisdom as our year unfolds? Because this will be a difficult year. Wars are raging in the world and innocents are dying in unthinkable numbers. The climate is on the verge of collapse into chaos that we are not prepared for. And our country is heading into an election season that will be traumatic. We need to remember that wisdom from God. We need to remember that we are a part of God and therefore a part of one another. And I know, and I don’t know much, but I do know that if we can all trust where God is leading us and follow, then miracles will happen. I am choosing to step into 2024 not only with great awareness and humbleness towards the magnitude of what troubles humanity; but also with great hope and faith that we can and will choose to follow God. That we will choose to trust that wisdom, that spark of creation’s light, we carry. And that we will speak that wisdom and embody that wisdom into a world longing for God. In a few minutes we will share in a sacrament that not only connects us across generations of faith around the world, but is a reminder that we are Christmas people, a people of incarnation. And we will then receive our Star Words, words that we will bless and that I pray will spark a memory of wisdom to guide you in the year to come. May it be so. And Amen.
God of light and love, you continue to shine on this world and each of us without fail. Your light is warm and comforting, even when we sometimes feel like it is too much. For this unfailing light in our lives, we give you great thanks. And it is in this gratitude that we come before you now in prayer.
God, you are not afraid to know this world as it really is. Your light shines on all that is good as well as what is bad. You shine on those in pain just as brightly as you shine on those in privilege. Help us to see this world as you would have us. Help us to see things clearly, to see all that is good as well as all that is in need.
As we pray for this illumination, we also pray for ourselves, for those shadowed parts of our lives that feel distant from you. In these moments of silence let us notice once again that you are with us completely, and with all those we hold most dear…
Great and loving God, you have promised the light of your love in our world, and you have fulfilled that promise through the life and mission and teaching of Jesus Christ. We pray that we would be a light with him. And we pray all of this and so much more in his name and in the way he taught…Our Father…