There’s a piece of old-fashioned, common-sense human wisdom, which says that each of us has a ‘ruling passion’. Not a passion for steam-engines or jewellery or boiled lobsters, but something before that, something inside us, something in the maelstrom of feelings, impulses, tendencies. One will tend to be stronger than the others, will co-opt them into its service and shape our instinctive attitudes to life. It’s there before we’re aware of it. It may indeed be positive, a capacity for enthusiasm, for example. Usually, though, we think of darker things. It may be around anger, resentment, irritation, impatience. It may be fear, anxiety, worry. It may be desire, lust, greed. It may be sadness, negativity. It may be the need to know and control. Of itself, it’s neither good nor bad. It’s just there. It’s raw material. It is, I suppose, a great neediness. It forms the default climate of our emotional life. The crux is what we do with it. If our ruling passion rules, destruction may ensue. Wisdom lies in naming and taming it, using its positive charge, neutralising the negative. And generally this is the stuff of a lifelong struggle. If we’re Christians, it’s part of the discipline of trying to follow Christ.
This is not entirely good news, you might think. And what has it to do with the Epiphany? ‘We saw his star in the east’, say the wise men. This star is as much a character in the Gospel story as Herod, the magi, the child and his mother. And it reveals another factor in our human make-up, one that counter-balances the ruling passion: God gives each of us a star, a star to follow. Our inner weather can obscure it, but it’s there. It’s something radiant in our life. It has the power to lift our eyes and our heart. It make us look beyond our immediate circumstances. It gives us courage. It can fill us with delight, as theirs filled the wise men. It keeps us going or gets us going again. It gives an infusion of hope. There are many actual stars, and our guiding star too can take many forms. It may be a person, a story, an image. It may be a value or an ideal. A great love. A memory. An insight that won’t go away. A loyalty. A task. An obligation. There was a poet prey to the demon drink. He was saved by knowing he had to write poetry. He couldn’t not. He knew this was why he was on earth, and not to drink. Poetry was his star and he followed it out of the prison of a passion. It overruled the passion threatening to rule him. ‘We saw his star in the east.’
We take the decorations down now. But the grace of Christmas, please God, will have been to remind us of our star, and allow it to shine afresh. Follow your star! If we feel it’s gone missing, then let’s ask God to let us glimpse it again. There are myriad possible stars, enough to confuse us. Also, we’re told that some stars, while we still see their light, have long since died. So, there are false stars, glitter without substance. But still, God gives each of us a true star. How do we know if it’s true? By where it takes us. The magi were non-Jews, Gentiles, outside God’s revelation to Israel. But they were men on a quest, scientific and religious, moral and intellectual. They were truly seeking God and looking for something better. They followed the star, and it took them, first, to Jerusalem, to the Jewish Scriptures, the message of the prophets. Then, on to Bethlehem, where ‘it halted over the place where the child was.’ And they went in to the house. And ‘they saw – not the star any more – but the child with his mother Mary, and falling to their knees, they did him homage (worshipped him). Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts of gold and frankincense and myrrh.’ If, with a pure heart, we follow the star God gives us, the lesser lights of our conscience as it were, we will come to the greater light: the Star of Judah, the bright Morning Star that never sets because he has risen from the dead. A good star, a true star will lead us where it led the magi: to revealed truth and into the house where Mary shows us Jesus. That house in Bethlehem – the ‘house of bread’ – is the Church, which Mary-like offers us Jesus, the Living Bread come down from heaven. There we learn to worship and to offer gifts. We learn to pray and to serve, to love God and our neighbour. We begin to arrive. We begin to be human beings. This is the gift of the Church.
Did the magi have cricked, strained necks for watching the star for so many miles? But when they enter the house, they have to look down at a little child, they go down on their knees. We too, perhaps, have to go down to see Jesus.
One last thought: today’s Collect sets in parallel two journeys: the journey of the magi to the infant King of the Jews, a journey by the light of the star, and our journey through life to the vision of God’s beauty in heaven, the house of the Father, a journey by the light of faith. God gives each of us a star, as I’ve said. But sometimes even these fail and fall. And so God gives us also the star of faith. In the night of this life, the night of time and history, faith is our light. We can orientate our lives by it. To ‘orientate’ means to look to the east. ‘We saw his star in the east.’ Christ is our east and the star of faith leads to him. Faith can even become our positive, ruling passion. It can lift us up and give us hope, again and again. And if we keep our eyes on it, we will be brought to a goal which will be so surprising and beautiful, so strange and familiar all at once, we cannot even begin to imagine it. We will simply adore.
(St Mary’s Cathedral, Aberdeen, 8 January 2017)