It was January 6, 1972 - Epiphany. The day had been mostly quiet but as the sun started to set our excitement began to build. Finally, the doorbell rang. “It must be the three kings” one of my brothers exclaimed. We all went into the foyer and through the opaque glass windows of our front door we spotted the silhouettes of three kids. My father stepped forward and opened the door. Wearing some old, torn sheets for royal robes and with a paper crown on their heads there they stood: the first set of numerous “kings” expected to parade by the house all evening. As was the tradition, one of the kings carried a cardboard star which was affixed to a broom stick borrowed for the occasion. They sang a carol. Then the kid with the star stuck out his hand. My father reached into his pockets and gave him some money. We wished one another a merry Christmas and off they went to our neighbor’s home.
Throughout the Christmas season, but especially on Epiphany children in Belgium and in many European countries honor this centuries old custom of Star Singing. The star singers take their name from the star they carry, a reference to the star which led the Magi to the Christ Child. The origin is a 15th C. medieval mystery play that tells the story of the three Magi, albeit a bit enhanced. Essential to the play was the procession from home to home with the request that the star be allowed in. If permitted then the young actors entered the home and performed the play. After receiving refreshments and monetary gifts they moved on to the next home. These days the play is no longer performed but the procession of the kings is retained.
Beyond the nostalgia evoked by this memory, I find this simple custom to be profoundly symbolic. On the one hand, these kids testify to the birth of Jesus which happened some 2000 years ago. As such they are an example to all of us as we are called to proclaim to the world that in Jesus we have recognized Emanuel, God-with-us. On the other hand, this simple procession also symbolizes the search we all undertake to find God-with-us, Emanuel here and now. For as God was born in Jesus, so he is present among us today.
Yet, where can we find God-with-us in a world which seems to bring despair to so many people? Where is God in all of the misery we have created? The answer is simple, God is right here in the thick of it all. Emanuel can be found among the refugees who are fleeing their war torn countries. Emanuel can be found among those who live under the bridge and have nothing to eat. Emanuel can be found among the elderly who are dying a forgotten death. Emanuel can be found among the victims of wars waged in God’s name. Emanuel can be found among the children, women and men who are exploited and enslaved. God can be found in many places, but above all among those people who are most in need. That is where we can find Emanuel, God-with-us. That is where we are to honor God with our gifts of incense symbolizing respect, myrrh symbolizing dignity and gold symbolizing support.
One of the best cues to finding God-with-us has been given to us by Saint Athanasius (ca 298–373) who famously wrote: “God became human so that humans might become like God.” If only we were able and willing to recognize God in others we might find God-with-us. Sadly, like many of today’s kings or star singers, we go from door to door in an endless quest for God, blinded to the very presence of God all around us. So, let’s take up the star, put on some old sheets and a paper crown and let’s open our heart, mind and soul to God’s presence in one another, most especially in those we fear the most. Only then will we truly find God-with-us and will our world have a chance at peace.