Most mornings when I open the doors of the Church there are people sleeping in the porch. They are people who sleep rough and live rough. The porch offers some shelter from the wind and rain.
One morning as I greeted the two whose slumber I had disturbed we fell into conversation. They told me they were travelling. They’d come from down South. They told me they were following a star. They also told me they were on a ‘mission from God’.
I smiled. I thought I might find out back some camels wearing dark glasses. They weren’t smiling though, they were dead-certain serious.
There is a biblical admonition to not discount the insights of those labelled foolish. I wondered whether I was missing the reality of what these sojourners could see. Street dwellers’ reality, albeit affected from time to time by substances and illnesses, offers its own wisdom. Just as my reality, albeit affected from time to time by work and worry, offers its own wisdom too.
I asked the two travellers a little more about the star and the direction it was pointing in. They told me: ‘Stars don’t point’. They also told me, with an eye of suspicion, that it was their star and I needed to find my own. The conversation ended shortly afterwards.
But the point was taken. I, we, need to find our own star, our own guide, into the mystery of the night.
Jesus was the real star of Christmas. Not the baby, but the adult. The two Nativity accounts were the last things written about the man, and are among the least historical. What they do however is to weave the great themes of his life back into his beginning.
He was from a Galilean backwater known for breeding sedition. He was the child of an unmarried mother in a time that presumed the mother’s sexual infidelity or violation or both. He was an outsider. Although the Nativity sprinkles his story with the glitter of Abraham, Moses, and David, including a liberal shower of angels and miracles, Jesus essentially remained beyond religious and political power with the troublesome outsiders.
These outsiders included petty thieves like shepherds. Forget our modern-day version of shepherds on quad bikes whistling at Border Collies, the 1st century Palestinian variety were a rough lot. Jesus the adult would associate with a number of people who were considered law-breakers and immoral – like tax collectors, prostitutes, and soldiers.
These outsiders included Gentiles. These were people who weren’t of the Jewish race, culture, or faith. They didn’t keep the purity laws. They worshipped idols and false gods. They were troublesome pagans. They weren’t to be trusted or believed. Those “three kings from Orient are” who followed the wandering star, bringing their own symbolic gifts, were Gentiles. Jesus the adult regularly associated with such foreigners.
These outsiders included the rebellious. Like the host of angels. Forget the pretty things in white with wings and halos. This hilltop choir were singing politics, songs of the barricades, songs that could get you killed. ‘Saviour’, ‘Lord’, and bringer of ‘Peace’ were titles of imperial proclamation. They were the property of Caesar Augustus, whose empire blanketed Palestine. ‘Messiah’ was a Jewish title associated with political independence from Rome. The angelic band was singing ‘Jesus saves, Caesar sucks’. Despite editorial gloss, there is plenty of evidence that Jesus the adult was a political threat and was killed for it.
Jesus was the real star of Christmas because the Early Church believed that by his light they could see truth. By his light they could see each other more clearly, and the spiritual and political needs of the world. Jesus the adult broke barriers of prejudice, exclusion, and hatred in order that justice, love, and compassion might prevail. He knew he was up against it; for the powerful profit from poverty and trade in human misery.
As I was musing the two rough sleepers who were following their star disappeared into the anonymity of the morning traffic. The city was waking to the jingle of cheap Santas, tinsel, and tunes. They’d gone to find food and then continue their quest.
The early communities who wrote the first Christmas called Jesus ‘Emmanuel’. It means ‘God with and within us’. This was the experience of those communities: Jesus was physically gone but the presence of the God known in him lived on in their midst. The star of Christmas was now in and among them, leading them into Jesus’ vision of radical egalitarianism. That star would lead them into rebellion, struggle, suffering, hope, and freedom.
We don’t have to journey to far off lands. We don’t have to travel at night, be a king or Magi, or learn to ride a camel. We certainly don’t have to seek out pop or cinema stars, or wealthy entrepreneurs elevated to stardom. We don’t even have to camp in church doorways either… though sometimes it helps to meet other outsiders.
As the old words say, “Let us go in heart and mind even unto Bethlehem”. We are to seek with our whole being the vision of Jesus, the real star of Christmas. We are to join with other sojourners, spiritual vagabonds, and troublesome heretics on that quest. As we journey the vision will build among us and grow strong. As we journey we will learn that we are the embodiment of that vision, and unless we shine others won’t see, unless we radiate hope others won’t believe it’s possible, and unless we sing bright freedom the song will be stilled… and the dark hopelessness of tyranny’s prison will prevail.
Let us go therefore, seeking and following the star of Christmas, lead where it may, bring what it will...