In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men[a] from the East came to Jerusalem, 2 asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising,[b] and have come to pay him homage.” 3 When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; 4 and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah[c] was to be born. 5 They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:
6 ‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler
who is to shepherd[d] my people Israel.’”
7 Then Herod secretly called for the wise men[e] and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. 8 Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.” 9 When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising,[f] until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw that the star had stopped,[g] they were overwhelmed with joy. 11 On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12 And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.
You just heard a Pale Blue Dot, narrated by Carl Sagan.
The Pale Blue Dot is a photograph of planet Earth taken in 1990 by the Voyager 1 spaceprobe from approximately 6 billion kilometers (3.7 billion miles) from Earth.
In the picture [shown here], Earth is shown as a fraction of a pixel (0.12 pixel in size) against the vastness of space. It’s hard to see. Look at the line on the right, a little more than halfway down. You should barely notice the little dot. Here’s the story behind the picture: the Voyager 1 spacecraft, already done with its primary mission and leaving the Solar System, was commanded by NASA to turn its camera around and take a photograph of Earth across a great expanse of space, at Sagan’s request. Carl Sagan was an American astronomer, astrophysicist, cosmologist, author, and science communicator in astronomy and natural sciences. He spent most of his career as a professor of astronomy at Cornell University where he directed the Laboratory for Planetary Studies.
Sagan used this photo for the title of his 1994 book, Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space. Some quotes from the book:
A point of pale light. Our planet, a lonely speck in the great, enveloping cosmic dark.
To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another and to preserve and cherish…our big, blue dot. The only home we’ve ever known.
Monday, January 6th is Epiphany, a word in the Koine Greek [ἐπιφάνεια or epiphaneia], that means “manifestation” or “appearance.” In classical Greek it was used to refer to the appearance of the sun rising at dawn, or a manifestation of a deity [a god] to a person. On Monday, January 6th, in most places around the world, various Christians [or those culturally Christian] celebrate. Why? Because Epiphany is a festival about remembering the appearance and manifestation of light in the world, the belief that God has made an appearance to that pale, blue dot.
At this time of year Christians tell the same story.
Appropriately, the story includes some Carl Sagans–some astronomers–people who studied the stars: the Magi.
The short story of these star-gazing astronomers appears only in the Gospel of Matthew. But regardless, throughout the centuries, we have come up with our own twists to the story like the Little Drummer Boy, the Star of Bethlehem, names like Melchior, Balthazar, and Gaspar; camels, the Magi’s specific nationalities or cultural backgrounds; and even a delicious, crown-shaped sweet bread called rosca in Mexico and roscon in Spain or king’s bread in places like New Orleans. Of course, when most Westerners think of the Magi, they see images like this:
But what is the real story?
Maybe it’s easier to explore what the story doesn’t say.
First of all, Matthew’s Gospel doesn’t say that there were three Magi. This became a legend because of the three gifts, of course. But even old wall paintings in the Roman catacomb of Domitilla show four magi; another only two. An ancient Syrian document actually names twelve Magi.
And recently, a lost Syriac manuscript called the Revelation of the Magi, was recently found and translated into English by Bible scholar Brent Landau. The manuscript, housed in the Vatican archives, was found in Turkey and written on animal skin. Mr. Landau believes its earlier versions to possibly be the mid-2nd century. That would be less than a hundred years after Matthew’s gospel was written. The Revelation of the Magi narrates the mystical origins of the magi [but does not mention three of them and does not even say that they brought gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
Second, where were the Magi from? We don’t know, and neither did early followers of Jesus. Many said Persia [now Iran]; others said Babylonia or Arabia. In the work I just mentioned, the Revelation of the Magi, they come from Shir, called the eastern edge of the world, maybe China?
But what about the star of Bethlehem? Some thought the star was an angel or a ghost. Others think it was a comet or a supernova. Still others thought the star was the actual appearance of God. And yes, sports fans, there is no actual written evidence of such a star at such a time and in such a place.
And finally, when did the Magi supposedly get to Bethlehem? Let’s take a guess, because lots of others do. If we base it on King Herod’s question to the Magi [when will the star appear?] and then we consider Herod’s command to kill all male infants under the age of two, perhaps it took the Magi 2 years to get to Jesus? But others insist it only took them 12 days, because after all, that makes the song “12 Days of Christmas” much more relevant, don’t you think?
Okay, so obviously, we don’t know much about the Magi or the story, for that matter.
So why does it matter?
Well, it only matters if the story inspires us to hear the message and if the story moves us to deal more kindly and compassionately with one another on this pale, blue dot we call Earth.
You see, the Magi, in Matthew’s story, are not moved by great rulers or wealth or prophecy or political or religious agendas so much as by the light they see and follow. They just knew the stars, they followed the light, and they were open to a new journey and discovery—even when they needed to take another road home. No, they weren’t kings or rulers or wealthy merchants. No, they do not foretell the death of Jesus on the cross. And no, they do not nor should not inspire gift-giving and buying during Christmas and Epiphany. In fact, the other character in the story, Herod, should be on our minds just as much as the Magi are.
Herod, as opposed to the Magi, saw the light of a star and the path to Bethlehem as a threat, a great fear, and also an opportunity to destroy, manipulate, and control. Have we become Herods, too? Sadly, we’ve twisted this story. It is not so much about noticing light in creation, in ourselves or in other people–but more about the presents, and the status, and the religious importance.
But the Magi story shouldn’t make us feel more important. It shouldn’t inspire us to buy presents either.
The story is about light for in everyone and for everyone. The Magi saw it in the sky. Then they saw light in the world. Then others did, too. And then when Jesus, a light himself, grew up, he told others that light was in them and that light was in everybody. He taught that little children were just as full of light as wise, old priests or kings. Jesus lifted up the light and voices of those who society said were worthless and light-less. And this Jesus encouraged people to go home on a different path, an alternative path. Not the path of destruction, or control, or manipulation, or violence, or fear.
A path led by light.
Here you and I are on this pale, blue dot of a planet. We are responsible for this light speck—its animals, trees, plants…and its people. On our journey we will encounter all sorts of characters.
Will we force names upon them?
Will we try to tell them who they are and what they should do and where they should go?
Will we count them and categorize them?
Will we manipulate and seek to control the living things on the Earth?
Or, will we let them be the lights they are?
Will we realize that in the vastness of the earth and sky, sun and moon, waters, and deserts, we are all very small?
Every day there is an appearance, a manifestation of light—if we care to notice.
This light is in the sky, the creatures around us, in you; and in me; and in others. But the light won’t be controlled or put in a box or shaped to fit your worldview. It will just be light.
What will you do with that light?
Who will you love?
Who will you help?
Who will you walk with on their path?
Friends, we all live on a point of pale light. We walk on a lonely speck in the great, enveloping cosmic dark. So accept the opportunity and the responsibility to be compassionate and kind with all who call this dot home.
Then the story will matter.