We are at the beginning of a new decade, and recently there have been quite a few reflections on what has changed since 2010. Well, for one, technology has developed rapidly over the last years. Today we take many things for granted that were still new 10 years ago, and not accessible for everyone. Take GPS, for example. GPS is short for ‘Global Positioning System’. It had been used primarily as a military tool before it was made available to the general population, through tech giants like Yahoo and Google.
Ten years ago, GPS was still this new and fascinating thing. You could buy one of those little GPS apparatuses and put in your car, or you had GPS on your smart phone – if you had one. In 2010, 70% of all cell phones in the U.S. were still simple flip phones.
Because the vast majority of cell phones are smart phones today, GPS has become a part of our life. If you own a smart phone, you also have at least one map app on it that helps you navigate when you’re on the road. I have three. Of course those apps also track where you are and where you’re going, and who knows what happens with that information, but that’s another story…
GPS is awfully convenient. You just tell Siri or Waze or whatever system you use to take you to a certain place, and, voila, the directions not only show up on a screen, but you also hear a voice that tells you exactly where to go, when to turn, etc. Much easier than dealing with a map, especially during driving.
Although these systems are not infallible. I remember how, during the last SF Marathon, I somehow didn’t get the memo and took the car to church (which I usually don’t do when I know the marathon is going on). Needless to say, I got stuck just after exiting the freeway. I turned to Siri to give me directions how to best make my way to church – and she stubbornly told me to just cross 16th Street. Apparently Siri hadn’t gotten the memo either.
But despite such hiccups, I have to say, I can’t imagine my life without GPS anymore. I don’t know how many times I got lost before I had access to it. I have a certain reputation among my friends back in Germany. They say, “Kerstin usually doesn’t find the most direct way – but the most scenic.” Which, I think, is a very nice way of saying that I don’t have the best sense of direction. But I discovered some pretty cool things as I traveled that I otherwise would not have seen.
2,000 years ago, people didn’t have GPS. For the most part, they didn’t even have maps – and, by the way, the maps that existed back then were not very exact. Travelers mainly depended on the sun and the stars for their directions. Those were the beacons guiding all those who traveled far, by land and even more so by sea, since there are no landmarks whatsoever in the middle of the ocean. All those stellar constellations we still know by name today, like the Great Dipper, Orion, or Cassiopeia, had a major purpose for navigation in days past. They gave guidance to the wayfarer and seafarer.
Ancient people at some point deducted that, if the stars give guidance during travel, they surely must give guidance for our lives as well. Astronomy led to astrology. All the ancient societies had their astrologists, people who read the stars, and usually those people were serious astronomers as well.
Reading the stars in one way or another required immense skill, since, as we all know, everything is in motion all the time, and we can’t see certain constellations during certain times of the year.
The star of Bethlehem was a special apparition, and since it was special, it caught the attention of those wise men – or magi, as the original word is – from the East. By the way, we don’t know for sure who these magi were. We don’t know how many there were. What we know about the magi is that they studied the stars carefully, and that they must have been skilled and learned people, not to be compared with most modern day astrologists.
That doesn’t change the fact that they were considered charlatans by the Jewish people, who didn’t believe in astrology – or at least didn’t admit to it. The word ‘magi’ is actually a derogative term throughout the Bible.
In any case, the Star of Bethlehem gave the magi guidance in a twofold sense: it guided them geographically to Judea; but they also understood that this star announced the birth of a newborn king.
What would we do with those magi today? How would we react if we encountered them today, following a star, a certain idea?
We have come a long way. We don’t look much at the stars anymore, we have forgotten the names of the constellations, we don’t even recognize the constellations anymore. There are so many lights at night in densely populated areas, it makes it hard to even see the stars. Our gaze has become rather earthbound.
Instead of stars, we have satellites that show us the way, conveniently transmitting their information onto little displays right in front of our eyes. There is no need to look up anymore, no need to gaze into the distance, no need to explore that which is beyond our immediate range. We would not realize it if there was a strange star in the sky, unless we were told by modern star gazers and the media.
And we have this fascinating tension: yes, on the one hand we reach for the stars – just last year we commemorated the 50th anniversary of the first moon landing, and over the last decades we have started to explore Mars and sent missions through our solar system and beyond – but on the other hand we as a human race seem to lose the bigger picture out of sight.
What are we living toward, what are we living into these days? Our gaze is mainly earthbound; we look at goals that are well within our reach, like preparing for retirement or managing our financial assets or getting our kids through college. Over the last years, we’ve experienced an uptick in tribalism – certain groups or countries fiercely fighting for their privileges and their perceived identity – all over the world.
More than ever, people are divided over issues and rather seek separation than look for a common purpose. We are becoming more and more partisan and splintered – and consequently weaker. As individuals, as groups, as nations were are more and more ‘Curved into ourselves’, as Martin Luther said – and, by the way, to be curved into ourselves is his definition of sin.
In general, our views have become quite narrow.
A little earlier I asked the question what we would do with folks like the magi today, looking up, looking beyond themselves, interpreting the signs of the times, following a star, a guiding principle. Visionaries. Idealists.
Well, we just have to look at how such people are treated today. How often over the course of the last year did the media and leaders of this world ridicule Greta Thunberg, the teenage climate activist from Sweden, her fellow climate activists, and other young people who participate in ‘Fridays for Future’ demonstrations? How often were they, who see and interpret the quite obvious signs of our times – I mean, one just has to look to Australia right now – declared to be hysteric or ignorant – charlatans who just can’t be taken seriously?
Their big, global vision for the future just doesn’t fit into our narrow view that revolves around economic growth, progress, convenience and our general attitude that we deserve something more and something better, even at the cost of the exploitation of other human beings and the exploitation of the environment.
And so we generally don’t do well with visionaries who see the bigger picture and follow a guiding principle. Their views are inconvenient for our lifestyle.
I think the way we tend to stare at our phone screens is symbolic for how we live our lives in general. Curved into ourselves.
The star might be shining somewhere – yet we wouldn’t see it.
The magi, whom we encounter in Matthew’s story of Jesus Christ, are not just colorful props and inconsequential characters; no, they – the charlatans, the fools, the visionaries – see the signs of the times and the mysterious signs of God and find a king – a vulnerable young child in humble circumstances in an insignificant town, far away from any earthly courts and pomp and circumstance and power who nevertheless has the power to change the world.
They are not put off by this unexpected king, they keep an open mind to God’s guidance and workings – and end up leaving for their own country by a different way. Quite literally, because they are warned that the powers of this world, in this case Herod, want to harm this new king – but also in a broader sense.
Their ways are changed. Their scientific curiosity causes them to follow a star – and they end up finding God made flesh, a God who stoops down to the little ones of this world, a God whose vision for the entire creation is peace and goodwill, as the angels proclaim in the fields. How could they continue their ways as if nothing had happened?
According to legend, the magi become the first missionaries beyond Israel, missionaries to people we like to call pagan. They just have to share the good news of this unusual king, in word and in deed. They are traveling new ways – and take others along for this amazing ride.
The star they had followed is replaced by a new guiding principle – the belief in a God of love and mercy and sacrifice. However, this guiding principle is similar to the star of Bethlehem in the sense that they – that we – are called to un-curve ourselves, to look up, to look around, to be open and see the bigger picture – a picture that goes beyond our immediate needs and wants and the confines of the tribes we are part of; to become visionaries of a world as God envisions it, a world where the wolf and the lamb lie next to each other, a new Jerusalem where the gates are always open for anyone to enter – not just certain tribes and people of certain convictions – and where the leaves of the tree of life grow for the healing of all nations.
Like the magi, we see this vision become flesh in the child in Mary’s arms. Like the magi, we have the epiphany that we need to go new ways, looking up and around with Christ as our guiding star – as we travel into a new year and into eternity.
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