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“For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage” – Canon Victoria Johnson, Precentor

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Title: For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage

Preacher: Canon Victoria Johnson, Precentor

Readings: Isaiah 60:1-6, Matthew 2:1-12

Date: 6 January 2024, The Feast of the Epiphany


In the medieval church, on the feast of the Epiphany, the clergy would wear vestments embroidered with stars- vestimenta stellata. A rubric from the fourteenth century states that it doesn’t matter what colour the dalmatic and tunicle and chasuble be, so long as they be sprinkled with stars. I leave that lovely thought with you all, and suggest that in memory of the exiting Canon Precentor, some new vestments be commissioned for York Minster, that are ‘sprinkled with stars’ for this specific feast! The church of course, is full of things which speak of deeper meanings, stone, wood, glass, vestments and fabric, lights and candles, oil, bread and wine, things which by design and imagination speak of greater things.

Like the Fireworks we enjoyed on New Years Eve- simply mixtures of gunpowder, plastics, and fuses- which with a spark of fire lift up our eyes and our hearts to contemplate life and love in the year just past and our hopes for the year ahead. Shimmering plooms, explosions and dazzling light litter the skies with the meaning we chose to make of it. Like the gifts we give to one another in this festive season, if we lift up our eyes and look into the face of the gift giver- we are able see beyond the soap-on-a-rope, or the pair of socks, in our hands and contemplate how a token offering can say so much more than words. There is meaning in the matter.

This evening we hear of scholars and sky watchers- who through their attentiveness to the heavens noticed a bright star in the East. In ancient times everything was all of a piece, there was no disconnect between the earthly and the heavenly, and it was only natural that any significant event would be reflected in the skies.

They looked up and found that the heavens were telling the glory of God- and by their wisdom, they understood that meaning could be found in all things if we have eyes to see: the star in the sky drew together the material, the spiritual, the physical, the intellectual, the rational.  The Magi were open to what it could mean, and alive to its possibilities. It was a bright pinpoint on a dark horizon, the first sign of heaven bleeding into earth in a new and remarkable way- puncturing the night sky.

They took with them gifts, as foretold by the prophets. Tangible material things which they held in their hands, things which each had a meaning beyond the matter. Gold, heavy and luminous for a royal birth- Frankincense, whose fragrance took the senses elsewhere and was perfume fit for a king, and also Myrrh, the spiced ointment for anointing the dead, an ominous reference towards the cross. Gifts for a baby shower of cosmic proportions.

The star is a sign of Christ the light guiding us all through a confusing and sometimes dangerous world.  In the Book of Revelation, Christ calls himself, the bright morning star- we call upon him by this name in Advent: O Oriens- star of the east, brightness of light eternal, and sun of justice: come, and enlighten those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death. We now sit under that living light, revealed on this holy night of revelations.

Jesus the lovely, shining morning star manifests himself in creation in many and various ways. A challenge for us this coming year is to find meaning in the matter of life and as St Paul suggests to see what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God, who created all things.

The Roman Catholic Theologian, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, said this:

Nothing here below is profane for those who know how to see. The Incarnation is a making new, a restoration, of all the universe’s forces and powers; Christ is the Instrument, the Center, the End, of the whole of animate and material creation; through Him, everything is created, sanctified and vivified.

King Charles said something similar in his Speech on Christmas Day when he said that the whole of Creation is a manifestation of the Divine.

For Christians, Christ gives meaning to all things in heaven and on earth. He came to share our humanity, so that we may share in his divinity.  Maybe those medieval vestments with their embroidered stars, were trying to communicate the simple and dazzling truth that we are all robed with Christ, sprinkled with the bright morning star, and throughout our lives, in their fullest physical and spiritual expressions, Christ is made known.  In him, our humanity is dignified and we can look beyond the limitations of matter to the truth it may speak, and the good news it may tell.

CS Lewis wrote “God never meant man to be a purely spiritual creature. That is why He uses material things like bread and wine to put the new life into us. God likes matter, he invented it”

Epiphany is a feast of God with us in our humanity – God revealed to us, in the stardust, in wine at the wedding at Cana, in the water of baptism, and in ways too astonishing to contemplate. God intimately woven through every fibre of our being, with us in this bundle of life, bound by neither time or space nor any other human construct we design to limit God’s love.

The world is brimming with life divine, from sunrise to sunset and it has been revealed to us by a child, over whom a star rested, drawing others by its light to bow down and worship. The bright morning star is there for us to see and to follow– if we choose to look for it- not only in the things of beauty and joy which dazzle our senses, but also in the ordinary things of life: bread and wine, water and oil, and even in the pain and trauma and tragedy of life as well; in the blood, the sweat, the tears there is meaning beyond matter. Every atom of our being matters to God.

Is anything unredeemable through Christ, is there anything which cannot find its meaning the God who is in all and through all?

So come, bring your gifts, whatever they are. Bring your heart, bring your self, bring your body, mind and spirit, bring every part of you, and bow down before the Lord our maker, as he steps into our humanity, and adorns each one of us in vestments, sprinkled with stars.

To his name be glory for ever.

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