Preached at St. Kilian Parish on January 5, 2019 at the 8:00am and 10:00am Masses
The Butler Hospital in Butler, PA has always had a special place in my heart. For one thing I was born there. The hospital was also the first place I lived growing up. We lived in a large yellow apartment building in downtown Butler, which was the original Butler General Hospital. My mom found it creepy living in a former hospital that was right next to a cemetery, so we soon moved to our home on Third Street, one block away from the current Butler Memorial Hospital. I spent a lot of time at the hospital: playing football in the lower parking lot using the painted lines as yard markers and sled riding the hospital hill using the elevator from the lower lot to the upper lot as a ski lift. So, I spent some time getting repaired at the hospital as well. Back in the day before HIPAA privacy laws, the Butler Eagle newspaper would publish the list of people that were admitted to the hospital each day, so my family would often visit people in the hospital because we lived so close. I even met my first high school girlfriend at the hospital, she was a volunteer who sat at the front desk to tell you in which room your neighbor or loved was staying.
But the one thing I remember most about the hospital growing up was the giant red star they used to put up on the top of the building each Christmas. I could see it from my bedroom window, and I would fall asleep each night looking at it as I dreamed about what I was going to get for Christmas. It faced the city and could be seen all over town. It didn’t matter where I was (school, downtown, a friend’s house) I could never get lost because the star would lead me home because it was directly above our house.
In today’s gospel, we have a more important star, and one that leads to a much more important person, our Savior. The Carnegie Science Center in Pittsburgh used to have a planetarium show each Christmas called The Star of Bethlehem that used to explain several possible explanations for the biblical star. One possibility was that it was a supernova, or a star that grew really big, recorded in the year 4 B.C. Another possibility was that it wasn’t a star at all, but a comet recorded in the year 5 B.C. Still another possibility was that it was one of many close conjunctions of the planets that occurred between the years 7 B.C. and 2 B.C. While it is not clear to science if it was indeed a star or not, it is clear in the gospel that a star, or something like it, led the magi to Bethlehem.
In movies like The Nativity Story and in animated Christmas specials like The Little Drummer Boy, the star is shown very big and bright, lighting up the whole desert, a desert filled with many people making their way to Bethlehem. But that is not really what is described in the gospel. You will notice that King Herod doesn’t even know about the star until he hears about it from the magi and the gospel does not mention crowds of people headed to Bethlehem. The magi were probably astrologers, people who studied the heavens looking for signs. They would notice the tiniest differences in the sky. Their observations of the Star of Bethlehem told them about a profound birth of a newborn king. Except for a few shepherds tending their flocks who had been visited by angels, everyone, including King Herod, missed this very important sign.
Our lives of faith are a lot like King Herod and the people of Jerusalem in today’s gospel. Just like them, we often fail to notice the signs of God in our lives – sings of his presence, signs of his guiding hand, signs of his love for us. We expect clear and obvious signs like the big bright stars we see in the movies or on top of a hospital to guide us in our journey of faith and to lead us to God. We may wonder why we don’t receive an instant message from God or GPS directions to his exact location. But faith is a unique journey for each of us with many turns, forks in the road, and intersections that require us to make a decision, and many detours, construction zones, flat tires, and accidents that require us to seek out others or God for help.
The magi in today’s gospel are models of the faith journey for us. They saw the star, not because it was big and bright, but because they were looking for a sign from God. We too need to look for signs for God in our days, to reflect on our lives, to discover those moments when God has appeared to us, maybe in the form of a troubled friend, a needy neighbor, or someone that needs a visit in the hospital. But even if we have clear signs in our lives, we can still get lost. You will notice in the gospel that even when the magi have the sign of the star to guide them, they still lose their way, ending up in Jerusalem instead of Bethlehem. We at times lose our way and have troubles along the road of life. We wonder where we are and which direction we should go. But we can always find our way to God in prayer. Today’s gospel shows us that our answers usually come, not as big loud announcement for the whole world to hear, but quietly (because they are personal) and after some searching (because they are part of the journey of faith).
On our journey of faith, we must exchange our expectations and timeline for God’s. The magi ended up lost probably because they thought that a newborn king would surely be born in a great town like Jerusalem, not in a small town like Bethlehem. God works differently. He does not save the world with a powerful and mighty king like the Jews had been expecting for centuries or with a superhero from another planet like we might see in the movies. God’s plan is so often much different than we might expect, and it unfolds in its own time.
The planetarium show at the Carnegie Science Center had a very powerful ending. It did not end with a decision about what the Star of Bethlehem was – science cannot not definitively determine the answer – but it ended as it does in the gospel, with a nativity scene with Mary, Joseph, and the surprising gift that God gave us for a savior – a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.
Jesus came, not as a powerful king or a superhero, but as a poor child born in a small town. He came as one of us, because he came to save everyone, those from Butler, Mars, Cranberry. Bethlehem, or Jerusalem – wherever they were born!
On Epiphany we celebrate the beginning of our journey of faith, a journey that never ends because it is eternal!
Rejoice and be glad!