As is not unusual for me, a song has been on repeat in my head for weeks, but this is not an ear-worm I’m tired of hearing. It’s composer Morten Lauridsen’s hauntingly beautiful setting of James Agee’s poem, “Sure on this Shining Night.” I first encountered the soaring harmonies of this piece when I sang it with the Seattle Men’s Chorus and Seattle Women’s Chorus some years ago. But lately, it’s the text of Agee’s poem that inhabits me as much as the music:
“Sure on this shining night
Of star made shadows round,
Kindness must watch for me
This side the ground.
The late year lies down the north.
All is healed, all is health.
High summer holds the earth.
Hearts all whole.
Sure on this shining night I weep for wonder wand'ring far alone
Of shadows on the stars."
For me, the poem captures something of the essence of what the Christmas miracle means at its cosmic unveiling for all people, all nations, all of creation. This “big reveal” is what we celebrate tonight as the feast of the Epiphany. Christ Jesus is for everybody. “High summer holds the earth. Hearts all whole.” In her Christmas Eve sermon, Mother Mary enjoined us to “Go to Bethlehem” to find the Christ child and have our “hearts broken open.” She reminded us that God loves us like a parent loves a child, unreservedly. We can receive God’s love like a child, not questioning whether we deserve it or not.
The idea that God pursues us with irresistible abandon shows up again in tonight’s story from Matthew’s gospel. Magi from the East are intent on seeking and finding an infant king whom they know, somehow, will change everything. They travel from distant edges to the center of something new by following “a star at its rising.” Here God is bold to use a language legible to astrologers – stars in the sky. God never tires of finding new ways to reach out to us with overflowing desire and love abundant.
When their guiding star ultimately stops “over the place where the child was,” we learn that the magi “were overwhelmed with joy.” I wonder if your heart sings at this moment in the story like mine does. Their patient, trusting faith has been rewarded with a starlit moment of epiphany, of revelation, of sheer delight.
But this is just the threshold of new beginning! God incarnate is inside. And outside. And within. Christ is in you, in me, in our neighbors. May we, like the magi, be irresistibly compelled to bend our knees in reverence, in homage, with hearts broken open, enveloped in God’s loving embrace.
The promise of our Christian faith is that when we encounter Christ, we are changed. The Magi come to a clear understanding that the way onward must be different from the way in. By accepting a new trajectory, they open themselves to transformation. This requires vulnerability. The analogy for this is the risk they accept to venture home by a route entirely unknown to them. The Star of Bethlehem was a one-way ticket whose job was fulfilled. Adjusting to a new guidance system takes a great deal of faith, and prayer, and practice. The light of Christ illuminates not only a new path, but a new reality.
Accepting and trusting a new reality is equally to reject the old. The old way is the way of Herod, who operates in secret to preserve a system driven by fear, greed, lust for power, violence, and subjugation. Entrenched in lies and deception, Herod is himself deceived. Empire is blinded to the light.
The way of Herod is very much alive in the twisted ideologies and racist, xenophobic, greed-fueled systems that pit neighbor against neighbor in our own time. We saw this tragically play out today in falsehood-stoked mob violence and bloodshed at the US Capitol Building.
It was the corrosive way of Herod that compelled someone to pour gasoline and set fire to the tents of some of our homeless neighbors near the church last week. No one was physically hurt, but for some folks, all their worldly possessions were destroyed.
The light of Christ exposes the way of Herod for what it is and invites us to participate in building communities that foster healing. Each of us can contribute to St. Paul’s outreach ministry with our neighbors – whether by donating funds, purchasing items from the Amazon wish list, or walking the neighborhood to build relationships.
“The late year lies down the north.” The old ways must pass away. When we follow the way of the magi and encounter Christ, we open ourselves to something radically different. A new thing is becoming, and let’s not show up empty handed. Like the magi, we must, we can, we get to bring the best we have to offer.
Many people smarter than I do not interpret James Agee’s poem in a Christian context, and it is not my intention to misappropriate it. But the gift of poetry is that it speaks where it speaks. For much of his life, Agee identified as an AngloCatholic. He attended an Episcopal boarding school very close to Sewanee, and developed a close, lifelong friendship with a local Episcopal priest and his wife. Agee’s writings reveal a mighty wrestling with God, and deep, often fraught soul searching. Perhaps for this reason, some think the final line with its reference to shadows on the stars is an ominous turn.
For me, this is the pivot, the reveal, the Epiphany. The poem begins with “Sure on this shining night of star made shadows round,” and ends with “Sure on this shining night I weep for wonder wand’ring far alone of shadows on the stars.” Shadows on the stars? Can you see it? The light has changed direction! A new light emanates from Bethlehem, dancing through the cosmos, dappling the stars. This is indeed something to weep for wonder about. “All is healed, all is health. High summer holds the earth. Hearts all whole.”
May our hearts be broken in the all-loving embrace of Christ, for that way wholeness lies. And just as the magi knew long before they saw “the star at its rising,” this changes everything.