I hope I will be forgiven for living liturgically on Cologne time today, rather than with the calendar of the Roman Catholic Church in the United States (where I actually find myself physically on this January 6). But the U.S. liturgical calendar sought fit to celebrate the Solemnity of the Epiphany of the Lord this past Sunday – which is well-nigh impossible for the city and Cathedral of Cologne. It is, after all, the site that since 1164 has held the relics of the Three Kings. Whatever you believe about the content of the magnificent medieval shrine of the Three Kings in the Cathedral of Cologne, the importance of the site is beyond dispute.
Take a look at the card titled “happy x-mas” that I picked up in Cologne in December: The Three Kings are in the Center, the Cathedral to the left, and a cradle with a tiny halo to the right. No Jesus, no Mary, no Joseph are anywhere to be seen, just lots of stars above the Kings, the Cathedral, and the manger.
The biblical story of the Three Kings, of course, knows of only one star, and it is that star that is the focus of a thought that I have been pondering for a while now. This thought concerns the connection between stars, worship, and us today. And yes, I know that what follows might be exceedingly strange for many, but then, following a star into unknown territory is what the Three Kings are all about, isn’t it? So here we go:
In the biblical story of the Three Kings, it is a star that leads the ancient astronomers to Bethlehem, and guides them to worship the newborn. Twice in Matthew 2, the star is connected with a call to worship (Mt 2: 2,11) that the wise men follow. Ever since then, the Three Kings, coming from the East, have stood for a worship of Christ beyond all local and ethnic boundaries. But what if we draw the circle even wider? What if we connect the star-guided call to worship of the Three Kings with the creation story embedded in Job 38 and its notion that praise and worship first arose “when the morning stars began to sing”? Here too, stars lead into worship. And what if we go one step further and connect this primordial and cosmic worship offered at the beginning of the universe with us today?
Here is what I am thinking: We now know that human beings share with all other creatures on planet earth a common genetic ancestry. We are genetic kin with all that is, and all that ever has been. This thread of genetic similarity connects human beings today to the history of life back to a single common ancestor. Our DNA code witnesses to this single origin of life. A popular shorthand version of this truth is to tell us that we are all descended from stardust. Or, to put it in the words of Mary Evelyn Tucker from the Yale Forum on Religion and Ecology, “the stars are our ancestors.”
What might all this have to do with worship? One way to connect these star-studded dots is to ask what it would look like to situate the emergence of practices of Christian worship within the much older, more ancient practice of primordial praise? Human prayer and praise are very much late-comers in this cosmic praise, in terms of an emerging universe that is roughly 13.8 billion years old. Maybe one way to honor the biblical story of the Three Kings today is to allow ourselves to be led by one of our astral ancestors, to worship in communion with everything created – and wherever Divine Presence asks to be found.