Sermon: Birth; Death; Stars

Sermon for Williamstown Uniting Church
Epiphany 2018

Over the past week, leading up to today’s celebration of the Epiphany, I have been thinking a lot about the stars. I have been thinking about celestial navigation, about the ways in which sailors and shepherds used to find their way by the stars. I’ve been thinking about the familiarity and sense of home I feel whenever I see the Southern Cross, no matter where in the world I actually am; and how lost and alone I sometimes feel in the United Kingdom and Europe, when I look up and the Cross isn’t there. I’ve been thinking about the astonishing scientific fact that we humans are literally made of star-dust; and the sense that can give all of us of being at one with the entire cosmos, whether or not we believe that the same Creator made the lights in the dome of the sky and humanity. I’ve been thinking about the first time I saw the Milky Way from outback Australia and the absolute, overwhelming awe that seeing those many, many stars brought me, especially when I realised that I was looking into the past, light-years back in time.

And because the songs of Les Misérables have worn grooves into my brain, whenever I have thought of the word ‘star’ my brain has responded by replaying Javert’s song, ‘Stars‘, and, don’t worry, I’m not going to sing it to you:

Stars
in your multitudes
scarce to be counted
filling the darkness
with order and light.
You are the sentinels
silent and sure
keeping watch in the night
keeping watch in the night.
You know your place in the sky
you hold your course and your aim
and each in your season
returns and returns
and is always the same.
And if you fall as Lucifer fell
You fall in flame!

Scan2

‘Javert’ by Gustave Brion, 1862

Today, Epiphany, is a day we remember with stars; stars that provide guidance; a sense of home; a connection to the whole creation; awe and wonder. Wise men from the East saw Jesus’ star at its rising and came to pay him homage, bringing him gifts. The star went before them and when it stopped over the house where Jesus was the wise men were overwhelmed with joy. It was an epiphany, a moment of great and sudden revelation, as the Messiah was revealed to the Gentiles; bringing to all of humanity guidance, home-coming, connection, wonder.

But of course that is not the whole story. The wise men saw Jesus’ star, and Matthew tells us that ‘there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was’. But in between the star’s rising and its direction the wise men stopped in Jerusalem to ask King Herod for help. They may be ‘wise men from the East’ but every time I read this story I am stunned by their apparent lack of common sense. It’s their naïve questioning that tips King Herod off about a potential rival. The wise men come to Jerusalem, the centre of Jewish power, looking in the wrong place for the wrong kind of king. They find a fearful tyrant, and calmly ask to be directed to another, newly born, king.  Herod thinks that he is the ‘king of the Jews,’ although he’s actually a Roman puppet, and when he hears the wise men’s questions ‘he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him’. For those who have come to terms with Roman occupation and a Roman-approved king, hearing about the birth of Jesus is understandably terrifying. But Herod, necessarily a good political actor, covers up his fear. He calls the chief priests and scribes, finds out where to direct the wise men, and sends them off, asking them to let him know when they’ve found the baby. He has a plan

The wise men go to Bethlehem, and here finally they do show their wisdom; they recognise Jesus as king. In Matthew’s story, the wise men are the only people who worship Jesus as he deserves, kneeling down and offering him homage. Matthew contrasts these Gentiles who honour the ‘king of the Jews,’ with Herod, who calls himself ‘king of the Jews’ and pretends that he wants to offer Jesus homage, but actually seeks to kill him. Despite their blunder in frightening Herod and all Jerusalem, we can see that the wise men truly are ‘wise’ in their acknowledgement of Jesus.

The wise men are warned in a dream not to tell Herod where Jesus is, and they return home another way. Joseph is then warned in a dream to flee Bethlehem, and he takes Mary and the baby and seeks refuge in Egypt. They escape, but no one else in Bethlehem is warned and Herod’s conversation with the wise men leads him to slaughter all of the children under the age of two in Bethlehem. This story of star-shine is not a happy one.

In Les Misérables Inspector Javert sings ‘Stars’ twice. The first time Jean Valjean has just escaped him, and Javert is singing his commitment to capturing and punishing the fugitive. For Javert, the stars are a sign of order in the universe; he sings: ‘And so it must be / For so it is written / On the doorway to paradise / That those who falter and those who fall / Must pay the price’ and so he swears on the stars that he will find Valjean and put him behind bars. But the second time that Javert refers to the stars Jean Valjean has just let him live, has shown him mercy, and Javert can’t accept that:

I am reaching, but I fall
And the stars are black and cold
As I stare into the void
Of a world that cannot hold
I’ll escape now from that world
From the world of Jean Valjean
There is nowhere I can turn
There is no way to go on!

Javert’s suicide, when Javert is played by anyone except Russell Crowe, makes me cry a lot more than Jean Valjean’s death. Javert kills himself because he cannot accept a world in which mercy is greater than justice; he has got God utterly wrong. The words written on the doorway to paradise are not and never have been that sinners must pay the price for their sin. That price is fully paid for us.

It’s not Javert alone who struggles with what the coming of Christ really means. One of the most famous poems in the English language about the Epiphany is T. S. Eliot’s ‘Journey of the Wise men,’ written in 1927 as Eliot was rediscovering his religious faith. The Right Reverend and Right Honourable The Lord Williams of Oystermouth, more generally known as ex-Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, says of this poem: ‘Eliot never wanted to present religious faith as a nice cheerful answer to everyone’s questions, but as an inner shift so deep that you could hardly notice it, yet giving a new perspective on everything and a new restlessness in a tired and chilly world.’ The Epiphany is not simply a joyful revelation to be portrayed in nativity plays. The combination of homage and massacre in the story reminds us of that. Coming face-to-face with God does not leave us unchanged, even if we find God as a human baby. And so Eliot writes:

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, sore-footed, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times when 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 dirty 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 wineskins.
But there was no information, and so we continued
And arrived 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 thought 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.

Christ’s Birth has brought about the Death of the world of which the wise men were part; just as in Les Misérables Javert cannot live in a world in which mercy has a higher value than justice. Victor Hugo writes of Javert:

Now he became conscious of God and was troubled in spirit, thrown into disarray by that unexpected presence. He did not know how to treat this superior, knowing that the subordinate must always give way, never disobey or dispute orders, and that, faced by a superior with whom he does not agree, he can only resign. But how resign from God? … What was happening to Javert resembled the de-railing of a train – the straight line of the soul broken by the presence of God … – Victor Hugo, Les Miserables (London: Penguin, 1982), p. 1106-7.

Broken by the presence of God, Javert resigns from God by killing himself. (Fortunately for my sanity when reading and watching Les Mis, I believe in universal salvation, a God who never lets us go, and so a God who welcomes poor, stunned, Javert into Paradise.)

I thought at first that it made no sense for me to have the song ‘Stars’ playing in my head as I thought about the Epiphany; that the lines ‘it is written / On the doorway to paradise / That those who falter and those who fall / Must pay the price’ made that song utterly unsuitable for today – until I realised that the message of the song is the same message as Eliot’s poem is the same message as the massacre of the innocents. In the words of Hugo it is ‘the straight line of the soul broken by the presence of God’. That’s the terrifying message of the Epiphany, that in this Birth we see the Death of so many things that we think we need: justice over mercy; and the old comforting ways of life, of summer palaces, terraces, silken girls bringing sherbet; and ultimately the rule of tyrannical human leaders who sacrifice innocents. In the coming of Christ, in the words of Lord Williams, we have ‘an inner shift so deep that you could hardly notice it, yet giving a new perspective on everything and a new restlessness in a tired and chilly world’.

An epiphany, a sudden and unexpected revelation, a new perspective on everything. That is what we celebrate today. It’s terrifying. But that’s why I started today with the stars and what they can offer us: guidance; a sense of home; a connection to the whole creation; awe and wonder. Because with all the terror and Death, the Epiphany also offers us hope and Life. There’s a reason that I connect stars with the Epiphany. The revelation of the Messiah to the Gentiles offers us the same guidance, sense of home, connection to the whole creation, and awe and wonder, that the stars do. Next time you look at the stars, remember that their Creator became a baby to be with us. Epiphany, like the Nativity, reminds us that we are never left alone.

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2 Responses to Sermon: Birth; Death; Stars

  1. I am not good at remembering to comment, but I just wanted to say how much I appreciate these sermons, and especially the ones that include Les Misérables. I imprinted on Les Mis as a young teenager too, and always found Javert the most compelling and tragic figure, for the same reasons you describe.

  2. Bronwyn says:

    I always enjoy reading your sermons, but this one was particularly excellent. I wasn’t able to make church today after a long night with my little one, but this has made me think; I am reflecting and revisiting my thoughts on the Epiphany, which to be honest, have become a little staid. I am also going to track down that TS Eliot poem! Thank you for posting your sermons and for the dedication, care and thought that you bring to them.

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