From The Attentive Life
No one lasts in the desert without constant attentiveness to exterior and interior landscapes alike. One must keep an eye out for landmarks.
It is Advent as I write, the time of waiting for Christ to come to us again. For one group in Biblical times, Advent meant a long journey across a far desert to come to the light.
They came from a far country, these travelers. They came because they had paid attention not so much to landmarks as to a skymark – a most unusual coming together of three Heavenly bodies: a star known by these ancient people as Sharu (the Babylonian word for “king”) aligned with Jupiter and Venus.
This mysterious event in the eastern sky connected with their own interior landscape, a longing as ancient as light beamed from the stars, a calling to leave home in order to find their way home, to travel across an unknown landscape of barren rocks and waterless wastes, of wild desert animals and demons and barely discernible tracks.
These were the magi of the gospel story, the wise men from the East who Matthew tells us came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him,” (v. 2:2). In Jerusalem they were directed to the prophecy of scripture that the shepherd of God’s people would come out of Bethlehem.
So they continued on their way, and the star led them until it stopped over the place where the child was. Then, overjoyed, they bowed and worshiped him, and opened and presented to him the treasures they had brought.
Afterward they returned to their country by an alternate route. But how different the desert must have seemed on their return!
Their journey from Advent to what we now celebrate as Epiphany has a profound symbolism for our own journey. They began their journey in the darkest time of the year, yet how piercingly clear that single star must have been in the night skies. In Bethlehem they saw the light of eternity focused in the candlelit face of one tiny infant. Here was the light of the world, the light prophesied by Isaiah:
Arise, shine; for your light has come,
and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.
Nations shall come to your light,
and kings to the brightness of your dawn.
(vv. 60:1, 3)
These men came from far away to the light, so that for many centuries Epiphany (the twelfth day of Christmas) has been celebrated as a first glimpse of God’s mission to the world, in light of the Nativity. Epiphany means a showing, a revelation, a making known. When we have an epiphany, it’s a sudden awareness – a discovery of the crucial piece of a puzzle, a numinous experience that lights up the deepest meaning of something.
The first Epiphany story speaks powerfully to our stories. It asks: In the desert times of our world, of our heart, where do we find the landmarks or the skylights that can lead us to spiritual survival?
As a young preacher friend of mine has said, “The star is not quite enough. The star led them to Jerusalem, but only God’s word could get them to Bethlehem. A star can guide us to the target, but the Word of God gets us to the bull’s-eye of Jesus Christ.”
So Epiphany answers the question it raises: by telling us to pay attention to the “stars,” those events of our lives that show that God has already been reaching out to us, and by paying attention to the Word of God, which takes us to where the light is brightest: the face of Jesus.
This is the most important reason of all for us to learn attentiveness. The path to attentiveness has already come to Earth and is open for travel.
As my agent, Kathy Helmers, said as we discussed why it’s worthwhile to learn to be attentive: “You don’t have to wait until you are retired or the kids are gone to start.” I would add that you don’t have to wait until you get to Heaven. As you learn to pay attention, it makes a difference in the here and now.
You will see things you have not seen.
You will be more fully alive.
You will experience life in its depths.
You will be more rooted, less rushing.
You will be a more whole and loving person.
You will live before you die.