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All the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of our God
In 1958 the Federal Government signed a lease with the people of the Tohono O’odham Nation in the Sonoran desert of Arizona. The lease was for 200 acres of land to be set aside for scientific research, on which was built the Kitt Peak Observatory - the proud home of what its website claims to be ‘the largest and most diverse collection of research telescopes in any one place in the world’.
The Reverend Lucy Winkett, rector of another church dedicated to St James - the famous one on Piccadilly in the heart of London, mentioned the observatory’s lease in a brief but fascinating talk on the BBC earlier this week. Unsurprisingly, the language of the Tohono O’odham people contained no word for ‘astronomer’, and so when the lease was drawn up, the scientists who were to come and occupy Kitt Peak were described as being ‘the people with long eyes’.
And long eyes have been much in demand in recent days, as, for the first time in around 800 years, the two largest planets of our solar system, Jupiter and Saturn, came into a conjunction during the hours of darkness on December 21 st , the winter solstice. Particularly with this astronomical rarity falling so close to Christmas, it was inevitable that there would be talk of this being a reoccurrence of the ‘star of wonder’, which, so St Matthew tells us, led the wise men to find the infant Jesus in Bethlehem.
However, as you may well recall, Monday evening in Chicago saw considerable cloud cover, and around here nobody had eyes that were long enough to behold this remarkable spectacle. To add to the disappointment, astronomers were quick to remind us that the next time such a conjunction happens, none of us will still be around to see it. The light shone - but, in this instance, the darkness overcame it with remarkable ease. Iconic, perhaps, of 2020.
But perhaps we should not be too disappointed that here in Chicago we missed the conjunction. For a start it is based on appearances that are - in truth - rather deceptive. Being ‘conjoined’ is a turn of phrase that usually implies a physical proximity one might call intimate. But in the case of Saturn and Jupiter the other day, we should note that, in reality, however it looked in the sky, they were actually around 456M miles apart. By way of context that’s getting on for 2000 times the distance between the earth and the moon. You need really long eyes to be able to see that far.
But never mind the physical distance. The magi’s eyes were not necessarily as long as they should have been and they lacked the ability to see some things which were pretty much in front of their noses. For when we read about the consequences of what was revealed in the light of the ‘star of wonder’ which appeared to the magi, we begin to realize that it cast light on an awful lot of bad news.
For a start, the ‘men’ - whom we traditionally call ‘wise’ - these confused and confusing wanderers arrive in Jerusalem. It’s only about eight miles north of Bethlehem, and it was, of course, the obvious place to seek someone of royal prominence. It wouldn’t have occurred to them that the star might really be pointing them to the ‘little town’ down the road.
So the Magi arrive in Jerusalem and start asking questions. Which is rather unfortunate, to put it mildly, for it provokes the puppet-king Herod into a murderous rage that leads to the slaughter of countless babies, while the Holy Family only just manage to flee as refugees and end up for some years in exile in Egypt.
Once you remove the tinsel and the gift wrap from the all too familiar pages of the Christmas story, I’m afraid it starts to have a very different feel. For Mary and Joseph and all their kith and kin lived under a severe and ungenerous military occupation. And what the Romans didn’t bother paying attention to, they left in the charge of Herod, whose immoral and egotistical vanities were legendary.
It was into a world as complex, as violent, and as unjust as this that God chose to be born. A world where a woman only a few hours away from the desperate and dangerous moment of childbirth is denied anywhere suitable to stay or sleep, and where her newborn baby is initially of interest only to the lowest of society’s low, before sparking the homicidal acts of a delusional despot. The nights might not have been as cloudy as they were in Chicago four days ago, but you needed pretty long eyes to be able to look at the news back then and to see anything good in it.
That’s the context in which the Word becomes flesh. That’s the context in which God takes human form and is born in the little town of Bethlehem. But those - those who have really long eyes start to understand rather more fully what it means to talk about light shining in darkness, and about the ‘salvation of our God’.
Acts of infanticide and genocide, sadly, are not restricted to the middle east of 2000 years ago. A few years ago I attended a large conference at which the keynote speaker was the founder of the worldwide anti-trafficking charity Oasis International - an English Baptist minister called Steve Chalke. He spoke to us of a visit he had made to Prague - specifically to the Pinkas Synagogue. The synagogue was built in the 16 th Century, but in more recent times has become a remarkable memorial to the Holocaust. For after the Second World War, two men spent four painstaking years inscribing on the walls the names and dates of all 77,297 Czech Jews who lost their lives when the forces of the Third Reich engulfed Europe. So the walls tell you, for instance, of Elsa Lutzova, who died aged 43; of Bernard Macner, who died aged 36; of Adela Maglicova, who died aged 63, and of so many many more. But, said Chalke, what he found truly extraordinary was the presence of names of children who died aged five, or four, or three, or even aged two years or less. Jewish children who died even at just the same age that Herod was slaughtering the Jewish boys who were Jesus’ contemporaries.Visibly overcome by emotion, Chalke paused for a moment - and then he shouted at us, “What made them do it?”
Of course, I thought he was talking about Hitler and his followers. I thought he was asking what could possibly motivate such evil deeds. But I’d misunderstood the question. “What made them do it?” he demanded …. “What made them carry on having babies at that point?” For, even by the mid 1930s it was easy to see the tide of horror that was about to wash over Europe, and by the end of that decade the War had already begun, with all its evil and devastation. So why did the Elsa Lutzovas and Bernard Macners, and the other Jews of Prague – who could see exactly what was going to befall them by that point – why did they carry on having babies?
“There is only one reason”, asserted our speaker, fighting back tears, “there is only one reason why you can possibly carry on having babies in such awful circumstances” – and that is that you know – that you know – that you have something … that is stronger, that is bigger, that is more important, and that will – ultimately – be more triumphant, than anything that the forces of this world can muster. “You can only”, he said, “You can only carry on having babies at that point, because you know you have something that makes a difference.”
And because seeing is believing, I need to tell you this evening, that you can only know this if you have truly long eyes. Long eyes like the prophet whose words we have just heard. Jerusalem and the Temple had been razed to the ground, and its people were in bitter exile in Babylon. But the prophet had very long eyes, and he called the ruins of that great city to break into song, because he knew that not just the Israelites, he knew that ‘all the ends of the earth’ would see ‘the salvation of our God’. And then there’s the evangelist. His eyes were even longer, for they looked back to the very Beginning, and they looked forward into the eternity of a light which no darkness could ever overcome.
COVID is not the only pandemic the world has known. Herod and Hitler not the only evil despots the world has known. And astronomers the world over know the disappointment of cloudy skies. The Jews of Prague had long eyes, and, even in a situation about as evil and awful as the world has ever known, they could still keep their eyes fixed on the one God. And they knew the one God truly made a difference, and they carried on having babies.
And tonight we go even one better, for tonight we remember again the one whose eyes are the longest of them all - the eyes of that one God who loved creation so much that God brought into the world the fullness of grace and truth. For even on cloudy days, Christmas is about a light so powerful it shines in darkness, and a God so generous and loving that this light will shine to the very ends of the earth, and will never be overcome.
And because of that love and generosity, even when you and I are very short-sighted - which is so often the human condition - we will still be able to see ‘the salvation of our God’. Amen.