At Its Rising

The Rev. Paul Nancarrow. This sermon is based on Matthew 2:1-12.

A few weeks ago, if you woke up just before dawn, and got yourself to some place where you could look at the eastern sky, you would have seen the most spectacular sight. Perhaps some of you did see it. Jupiter, Mars, Venus, the Moon, and Mercury were all lined up, all close together – all in conjunction, as astronomers would say – shining brilliantly just before the rising glare of sunrise washed out the morning sky and made them all fade from view.

I am a great fan of naked eye astronomy. I love looking at the night sky, picking out constellations, watching how the planets move across the backdrop of the fixed stars, taking in the scope of the immense and amazing firmament. I love it. And when the planets line up in such spectacular ways, I love it even more.

And I loved that morning especially, when I saw all those planets all lined up together, because that was the first time I was really sure that I had seen the planet Mercury. Mercury is not so easy to see: it’s small, it always stays very near the Sun, and I had never been sure I was seeing the planet and not just some star in the vicinity. But that morning (with the help of Google Sky Map) I was sure: that was Mercury, appearing right on the edge of the sunrise, right before the rising Sun overpowered it and hid it again from view.

It turns out there is a special word, a technical term, for a planet that appears in the sky just before the Sun blots it out. And according to Daniel Weintraub, writing in the Washington Post and quoting astronomer Michael Molnar, Matthew uses that technical term twice in his account of the Visit of the Magi, which we read in our Gospel today. In fact, Molnar says Matthew uses two technical terms from the Greek astronomy of his day, showing that Matthew actually had a pretty good grasp of the sky phenomenon he was writing to connect with the revelation of faith.

Matthew says the Magi saw the star “at its rising.” According to Molnar, in Greek astronomy that was a technical term for seeing a planet in the eastern sky just before sunrise, when it’s visible for only a short time before the rising Sun blanks it out. A few weeks ago I saw Mercury “at its rising.”

Matthew also says the Magi were “overwhelmed with joy” when the star they were following “stopped” in the sky. Again according to Molnar, the particular Greek word Matthew uses for “stopped” was a technical astronomical term for when a planet, moving eastward night by night against the backdrop of the fixed stars, stops moving for a night or two, starts moving westward, and then after several weeks starts moving eastward again. That all has to do with how Earth, in its orbit, catches up and passes outer planets like Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn; seen from the Earth, it looks like those planets stop, go backwards, and then start moving again. I’ve watched that happen with planets in the sky, so I can verify that Matthew is telling the truth (!).

Working as an astronomer, Molnar used a computer model to show that Jupiter rose just before the Sun in April of 6 BCE, and then it paused and went backward in December of the same year. Molnar suggests that the Magi saw Jupiter, the royal planet, “at its rising” and when it “stopped,” and interpreted that as the sign of the birth of a new King, and responded by setting out to honor him. If Molnar is right, then what Matthew is trying to describe here is not some miraculous or supernatural suddenly appearing star, but the kind of ordinary planetary movements that you can observe all the time, that I observed out my kitchen window a few weeks ago, that you could observe tonight if the sky is clear and you just know where and when to look.

And I think there is an important spiritual meaning in that interpretation. It suggests that the signs of the presence of Christ are all around us, all the time, in the ordinary movements of things; and that we can see those signs if, like the Magi, we are willing to observe carefully, to interpret faithfully, and to respond actively to what we have seen.

If we want to see the signs of Christ, the first thing we have to do is look for them. The Magi watched the sky all the time: they were astronomers, they were stargazers, that was their job. They didn’t just look up at the sky one morning and say “Oh look: there’s Jupiter just before sunrise.” They were watching for it. And we need to be watching for the signs of Christ as well. We are disciples of Jesus, we are people of the Spirit. We don’t just look up one morning and say “Oh look: there’s a sign of Christ.” We need to be intentional about watching for the presence.

But we also have to know what we are looking for. The Magi had a lot of practice interpreting the movements of the stars. They had technical terminology – like seeing a planet “at its rising” or noticing when it “stopped” – that helped them connect their observations to interpretive meanings. And if we want to see the signs of Christ, we need to know what we are looking for, and how to connect our observations to faithful interpretation.

Do we look around us and see compassion at work in the midst of suffering? – we need to interpret that as a sign of Christ. Do we see light shining in darkness and the darkness not overcoming it? – we need to interpret that as a sign of Christ. Do we see communication and community building up genuine communion among people? – we need to interpret that as a sign of Christ. Do we see people working hard, not always succeeding, but still working at making right relationships of mutual well-being? – we need to interpret that as a sign of Christ. Our discipleship practices – things like Bible study, lectio divina, prayer and meditation, sacraments and liturgy – our discipleship practices help us develop our interpretive skills, so we know what we’re looking for when we observe carefully the world around us and interpret faithfully the signs of Christ.

And finally, we need to respond actively and become signs of Christ ourselves. When the Magi saw the star at its rising and how it stopped, they didn’t just say “Hm, how interesting” – they got up got moving, they followed where the star led, they brought their own best gifts to offer to the mission of the newborn King. And we need to get moving too. Wherever our spiritually trained perceptions pick up compassion and light and communion and justice and peace happening in the world, we can know that Christ is there – whether it says CHURCH in big red letters or not, whether it seems religious or totally secular – when we see these things we know that Christ is there. That’s what the Incarnation tells us. And if we see that Christ is there, we can mobilize our efforts and our best gifts to join in that mission and help those good godly things happen in our neighborhood in our world. Wherever they may be happening, we can help them happen there.

And so my prayer for you, on this Tenth Day of Christmas, as we turn our attention to the Feast of the Epiphany and the Manifestation of Christ to the World – my prayer for you is that you will be like the Magi, that you will observe carefully and interpret faithfully and respond actively, that you will look around you at the ordinary movements of things in the world, and you will discern in them the love and compassion and justice and peace and communion and creativity that are the signs of Christ, and you will go, you will bring forth your gifts, your gold and frankincense and myrrh, your wealth and worship and work, to join that mission and be a sign of Christ to everyone around you.

May you see the star of Christ at its rising, and may you shine with the light of Christ now and forever. Amen.



  1. Jewels Wolf says:

    Thank for sharing your insights. I especially enjoyed your observations about the stars and planets. It is amazing how God can speak to us through his creation. I believe the miracle of the Christmas Star is the timing. I agree that we need to pay attention to the world around us. The scriptures allude over and over to interpreting God’s presence through our observation of the natural world, God’s creation. However I would just like to add this thought. It is God’s creation, his world and he can run it anyway he see’s fit. I don’t say that lightly or out of hand, for in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. I am just a finite being in a infinite universe with barely a speck of knowledge in comparison to the mind of God. Sometimes my only response is simply awe and wonder, and that is something I think the world could use a lot more of these days.