All my life I’ve lived within thirty minutes of a major U.S. city — raised in North Jersey, fifteen miles from New York City; ten years in Massachusetts nineteen miles from Boston; currently, in Pasadena, twelve miles from Los Angeles. One of the sad things about this is that, in my eighty years on earth, I have hardly ever been able to see more than five or six stars in the sky at night.

Of course, I know they’re there; I’ve seen pictures in books. But the big city lights bounce off clouds and particles in the atmosphere, and this creates “light pollution” that turns the dark black background into a dim gray. The 4,500 or so stars that are potentially observable to the naked eye on a clear night just can’t be seen against this compromised background.

One night on my first cross country trip in 1958, our car stopped on a remote stretch of highway in Indiana. I got out, looked up and felt overwhelmed. I couldn’t believe the vast array of stars, from horizon to horizon. Some were bright and some were faint; some seemed stationary and some appeared to twinkle; they shined with a variety of colors. I was able to pick out the Big Dipper, which I’d only seen in books before. I was like a child seeing his first Christmas tree.

For the first time in my life, I was able to “get” the Wise Men. Not only were these men able to see the whole expanse of star-filled sky virtually every night, but this was just about all they did. They had no TV, no social media, no cell phones. Each night they studied the stars, noted subtle changes in their positions and followed patterns of movement. Over time, they tried to correlate what they were seeing in the night sky with the good and bad things that happened in everyday life, and they actually developed a religion out of what they believed they were learning from the stars.

One crystal clear night they saw a star they had never before observed. It seemed to be dancing a strange new dance, directing them to travel to a land many miles to the west, where a Baby King had just been born:

In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: ‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.'”  (Matthew 2:1-6)

You know the rest of the story. (If you come to ABC’s Christmas Eve Service, you’ll hear a part you’ve never heard before.)

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It occurs to me that faith is the ability to see the stars of revelation, truth and understanding that God has placed before us. They show up brightest against the dark background of evil, sin, suffering and death. But we live too near the Big City of human pride, achievement and enlightenment. This artificial illumination  produces “light pollution” that robs us of the ideal contrast in which our faith can see the Baby King sent to save us. Pray for the faith to see him clearly, as the Wise Men did.

— Pastor George Van Alstine