Last night we watched the planets collide. Or so it seemed. And it got me thinking back to the three kings bearing gold, frankincense and myrrh, the magi astride their camels. What confidence, curiosity, or desperation does it take to follow a star, even if that star is actually two planets conjoining?
And what are the stars I follow, even when I can’t see them? Friendship, community, family, work, attention, keeping the gutters clean. It’s a good list to consider. Easy to fall into abstractions. But watch the concrete tangible stars emerge when you think of how you spend your days. You cut someone off in traffic and a sinking feeling creeps into your gut. That feeling is a star you follow. You remember it before you do the same thing again.
In my family version of the Christmas story, everyone—kings and shepherds alike—finds their way to Bethlehem by the light of the star. It’s a story, and we liked that version of the story, so that’s what stuck. When I think of the heroes of the Christmas story I think of the sheep. Maybe because I was a sheep in our first grade Christmas play. We were a chorus of baas surrounding the manger where the baby lay—the baby was a sack of sugar wrapped in a blanket. Our instructions were simple: Baa and keep baaing except when Mary or Joseph speaks. A couple of years later, in his own school play, my brother played the Virgin Mary and had to deviate from the script to tell the sheep to settle down.
I think of the sheep because, of all the players on that cold desert night, they were the ones who didn’t follow the star; they followed their shepherds. They weren’t oriented toward the cosmos; they were far more worldly than that. They weren’t dreamers, as the kings and shepherds were, they were hungering for anything that looked like grass, or a few juicy sprigs of rosemary. Pragmatic, those sheep. Irreverent. Practically profane.
In nativity scenes, whether painted by one of the greats or a three-dimensional homemade thing sitting outside in your neighbor’s yard, the sheep are there, swarming the manger. Some of them have that bored expression you find in snapshots of relatives who’ve overeaten. Others look fondly at their shepherds. And still others are nibbling on the baby’s cushion of straw. Who could not love these sheep? They are exactly who we are. They bring themselves—their full selves—as gifts for the occasion, because what else would they do? Who else would they be? If this is an occasion, I hear them say, every day is an occasion. Nothing special, nothing extraordinary. Even the cosmos is enacting what it enacts without effort or guile. The star is beautiful, the star is grand and handsome, but isn’t also a single juicy blade of grass?
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