The story of Jesus’ life on earth begins and ends with people looking up into the sky.
“Behold there came wise men from the East to Jerusalem, saying, ‘Where is He that is born King of the Jews? For we have seen His star in the East and are come to worship Him.” (Matthew 2:1-2)
“Men of Galilee, why do you stand here looking into the sky?” (Acts 1:11)
It is often said that Christmas is a time of wonder. And there is, indeed, much about Christmas that is wonderful. But there is danger too – the danger of getting stuck in the wonder instead of letting it fuel action. That was the warning of the two angels at Jesus’ ascension. The disciples had been given a job to do – to be Christ’s witnesses to the ends of the earth – and it would not get done by looking up into the sky.
The festival of Epiphany comes twelve days after Christmas and commemorates the manifestation of God to the nations as represented by wise men from the East. One of the most striking aspects of the epiphany story is that the Magi, after seeing an amazing astrological event, did so much more than just wonder. They cleared their calendars, reworked their budgets, and launched out on a long, expensive, difficult journey. Their seeing resulted in going.
On Christmas Day, 1622, Bishop Lancelot Andrewes (the general editor of the King James bible) preached a sermon on the Magi, pointing out how much inertia they had to overcome to begin their journey:
“Last, we consider the time of their coming, the season of the year. It was no summer progress. A cold coming they had of it at this time of the year, just the worst time of the year to take a journey, and specially a long journey. The ways deep, the weather sharp, the days short, the sun farthest off, in solsitio brumali, ‘the very dead of winter.'”
Sharp-eyed readers will recognize T.S. Eliot’s quotation of Bishop Andrewes’ sermon almost verbatim in his great poem “Journey of the Magi”.
A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.
And the camels galled, sorefooted, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
and running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty and charging high prices:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.
Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wine-skins,
But there was no information, and so we continued
And arriving at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you may say) satisfactory.
All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had though they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.
May we all experience the wonder of Christmas again in these days, but may it not stop there. Fueled by wonder, let us be about the task Christ gave us – being his witnesses to the ends of the earth.