On a cold clear night illumined by the moon the stars are few - a week or two later they are all over the place, our primordial guides to navigation.
During the daytime Old Israel wandering in the desert followed a pillar of cloud, by night a pillar of fire; in a later age the wise people of the East following a star sought what its portent promised: the birth of a new King in Israel.
They crossed the wild desert, following the clear stars shining; they journeyed on by plain and mountain...
They knew, though they were from far away - perhaps from the ancient universities of north India, the mountain observatories of Persia, or the plains of Mesopotamia, that there was something coming into being in the world - in the land of Palestine - that was altogether new - and yet of a promise very old.
These learned people, traveling far, followed - a star; a star - and much more: they followed the hope of the future.
And they found it in Judea, not in a king's palace, not even in the Temple, but in a manger, where a baby lay; they found it in that child, in the arms of his mother, watched over by the patient and faithful Joseph.
Shepherds beat them to it. Rude rustics, ‘mechanics’ as they would be in Shakespeare's play, got there first. Shepherds who had been abiding in the fields, keeping watch by night over their flocks, like that last unlikely son of Jesse, the boy David who would become king - and distant ancestor of this other little boy, this son of Mary - greeted the future, wrapped in swaddling clothes.
The wise perhaps knew better what this would mean; but all, wise and rustic alike, knelt before this tiny fellow, and opened the greatest gift they had to give, each one of them: their hearts.
Open your hearts, O faithful people, Open your hearts, and join in song.
Christ our Savior is born - and the glory of the Lord shone round about them.
Christ our Savior is born - and the praise of the Lord was on their lips.
Christ our Redeemer has come to us - and the message of his kingdom is abroad.
Christ our Lord is come - and we join in proclaiming his glory.
Christ Alpha and Omega is come into the world - and gives us a future with hope.
Open your hearts, O faithful people, and join in the song of celebration.
When I was growing up we hung stockings by the mantelpiece on Christmas Eve and lit the old candles (melted red crayons poured into waxed milk cartons). We waited until Christmas morning (each year a little earlier, a little more wise to the wrappings and assemblies of the night past) for bathrobes and pajamas and Christmas tree - all lit up - and presents discovered beneath its boughs. “Merry Christmas!” we greeted each other.
Our cousins by contrast followed the Latin American custom - if we were visiting them there was a second celebration for us - the custom of exchanging gifts on Three Kings Day, the feast of the Wise who followed the star from the east - Epiphany, Little Christmas.
As it was for the baby Jesus and the holy family, so for my cousins it was the day the Christ was revealed as king, his glory first made manifest, that became the day of gifts.
The gifts given on Christmas (Eve or Day) or Epiphany (at the end of the Christmas season) are just the least of it really - they are outward and visible signs of an inward and spiritual gift, the gift of our lives, our devotions, our hearts. We are not kings but what we have to give is what means most - and what, God bless us, everyone can give...
What shall I give him? Give him my heart.
Gospel Grapevine, St Alban's Episcopal Church, Edmonds, Wash., 2010 January