At the Church of the Ascension and Saint Agnes
The Rt. Rev. Mariann Edgar Budde
Bishop of Washington
Arise, shine, for your light has come…. Isaiah 60:1
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East 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. Matthew 2:1-2
The trouble with stars that beckon us to follow them is that we can never know at the onset of our journey where their light will lead. The invitation is simply extended: “arise, shine, for you light has come.” The invitation may come in the form of an unexpected opportunity, a new relationship, a chance for adventure, or even a crisis or loss—anything, really, that calls us from beyond ourselves to a new place or way of being. Or the invitation may come from within, rising up as illumination from the depths of our being, as we come into our own at last.
The source of the light isn’t, in the end, all that important. The preacher Barbara Brown Taylor begins her sermon on the journey of the wise men this way: “Once upon a time there were some very wise men who were all sitting in their own countries minding their own business when a bright star lodged in the right eye of each of them. It was so bright that none of them could tell whether it was burning in the sky or in their own imagination, but they were wise enough to know that it didn’t matter. The point was, something beyond them was calling them, and it was a tug they had been waiting for all their lives.” (Taylor, 1999)
So they began, as do we whenever light beckons us, not knowing what the journey will mean when we consent to it. Sometimes, truth be told, we never know. All we have is the light, the desire, or the pain to guide us. Poets, I think, understand best what drives us forward on such journeys. W.H. Auden writes, in the voice of the magi, “All we know for certain is that we are three old sinners, That this journey is much too long, that we want our dinners, And miss our wives, our books, our dogs, But we have only the vaguest idea why we are what we are. To discover how to be human now is the reason we follow the star.” (Auden, 1991)
As ill-equipped as we might feel for whatever beckons us, we are not without resources when we begin our journeys of significance. We have ourselves, the strength of our character, the content of our dreams, the cumulative power of our skill and past experiences, and even, in the paradoxical ways of grace, our weaknesses to help us. It may not seem like much, what we bring to the journey, yet what we have and who we are is important. The Magi, you know, were not simply wise men in the generic sense. The Greek term, magoi indicates that they were priests and sages, experts in astrology and the interpretation of dreams. They knew something about stars, and they were called for a reason to follow the one leading to Christ, as are we whenever a new light beckons us. We are called for reasons that are grounded in who we are. If we are young, those reasons are likely to be found in our idealism and hope, the gifts we’ve been given and the passions that stir us. If we’re older, the reasons may be found in our character, how our experiences have changed us, and new doors opening that we would be fools not to walk through.
The reasons why we are called are often not evident at first. On the surface we may seem like the least likely candidates to go where the stars lead. It is the nature of revelation, you know, to be counter-intuitive. I haven’t seen the film version of The Hobbit yet, but those of you who love J.R. Tolkein may remember a scene from The Fellowship of the Ring in which the wise wizard Gandalf assures the young hobbit Frodo Baggins that he is indeed the one destined to carry the evil ring back to its destruction in the fires of Mordor. No one would have guessed it, looking at Frodo. Hobbits were small and utterly provincial. Frodo was innocent and afraid. But there is something about him—his loyalty to friends, his inner strength, and an innate capacity to resist the ring’s evil—that made him the one. “The ring came to you for a reason, Frodo” Gandalf tells him, “There is comfort in that.” “I wish the ring had never come to me,” Frodo despairs. “I wish this had never happened.” “So do all who live in such times,” Gandalf replies, “But while we cannot choose the times we live in, we can choose how to respond to the time we are given.” Then in perhaps the bravest words uttered by hobbit or human, Frodo says at last, “I will take the ring, but I do not know the way.”
It is often like that. The magi chose to follow the star, not knowing where it would lead. Frodo chose to carry the ring, though he didn’t know where to take it. In ways large and small, we all say yes to things we cannot fully comprehend. It is an extraordinary aspect of the human experience, requiring of us great courage. “In order to reach a distant shore,” writes the artist Andre Ghee, “one must consent to lose sight of the shore for a very long time.”
What, then, is there to guide us in this life when we do not know the way?
We have, first of all, the star, whatever it was that inspired us to begin our journey in the first place. Its light is generally not enough to illumine the entire path, but it is sufficient for us to take the next step. And we should never underestimate the importance of taking the next step, no matter how small it seems.
A woman once wrote Carl Jung asking for advice on how to live her life. He replied that her questions were unanswerable. “One lives as one can,” he wrote. “If you want to go your individual way, it is the way you make for yourself, which is never prescribed, which you do not know in advance, and which simply comes into being of itself when you put one foot in from of the other. If you do with conviction the next and most necessary thing, you are always doing something meaningful and intended by fate.” (Jaffee) Guidance comes, then, from impartial light and the step before us.
Yet even the light, and the “next and most necessary thing” may only get us so far on our own. Sometimes we need help from other sources. The magi’s star, remember, led them at first to Jerusalem, to the palace of Herod, a king who was, to say the least, something of a disappointment. Taylor describes him as old and fat and with terrible breath. Without even conferring with one another the wise men knew that he was not the one. Their star had brought them to a dead end, and so they asked Herod, of all people, if he knew of any other kings in the area. It was a question that got Herod’s attention, and he quickly conferred with his priests who consulted their Scriptures. Yes, there was to be a new king born, they told him, in the city of Bethlehem, according to the prophet Micah. So Herod sent the wise men in search of the new king, with a map to Bethlehem, on the condition that they report back to him. Now they had no intention of returning to his palace, but the amazing thing to notice is that Herod had served as an instrument for their guidance. As Auden writes, ““For God’s goodness,” Auden writes, “even sin is valid as a sign.” We never know from where needed insight will come.
The wise men also had each other, “the fellowship of the star,” if you will, as Frodo had his friends. There is wisdom and guidance in community for all of us. For Christians the power of community is especially important. There is where we come to learn and pray and struggle together with what it means to be human, to be on journeys of ambiguous meaning, to follow the light of Christ. Christ was quite clear that his followers were not to be alone, that in this life, and on this path, we need one another.
At the foundation of Christian community is our relationship to Christ himself. The priest I grew up with used to say to us, “don’t follow me. I don’t know where I’m going. Follow Christ. He knows the way.” I didn’t understand what he meant then, but I do now.
There’s is a story in the gospel of John, typically read at funerals, in which Jesus is preparing his disciples for the fact that he will soon leave them. Death, if you think about it, the ultimate journey of unknowing. “Do not let your hearts be troubled,” he tells the disciples, “Believe in God. Believe also in me. In my father’s house there are many mansions. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. Then,” he adds mysteriously, “you know the way to the place where I am going.” Thomas, always the one to doubt, protests, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Jesus replied, “I am the way and the truth and life.” “I am your way,” he tells us. “I am your path and your destination. I am in your stars, in your scriptures, in the people that surround you, and in your dreams. I will show you where you need to go, if you but trust in me.”
So there we have it: a call, a path, a life, a destination—all safe in the heart of God, and given to us, bit by bit, as we do our part and accept both the invitation and our soul’s transformation that the journey requires. Putting one foot in front of the other, as Jung said, trusting that this life, and this path, is given us for a reason. It is the path to which those of you being confirmed are called, a path that will be utterly unique to you, yet also grounded in our common experience as people of the star.
We follow the light, though we do not know the way. Yet we need not know everything to follow Christ. We need only trust the invitation and the One extending it. “Lead kindly light,” go the words of an ancient hymn, “lead thou me on. I do not need to see the distant shore. One step enough for me.”
Auden, W. H. (1991). For The Time Being / W.H. Auden Collected Poems. Vintage International.
Jaffee, G. A. C.G. Jung Letters, 1906-1950.
Taylor, B. B. (1999). Home By Another WAy. Cambridge, MA: Cowley Publications.