Saturday, January 5, 2013

We Are The Magi


On Civil Disobedience
The Feast of the Epiphany, January 6-Matthew 2:1-12

It is the twelfth day after Christmas, depending of course on when one begins counting. In the Greek, epiphaneia means appearance or manifestation – referring, within Christendom of course, to the appearance or manifestation of Christ to the world. In classical Greek it meant being able to see your enemy at dawn, or to witness an appearance of a deity up close and personal.

This appearance in Matthew is associated with three of the biblical stories: the arrival of the Magi from the east at the child’s crib; the Baptism of Jesus in the River Jordan; the Wedding Feast at Cana, where Jesus turns water into wine, and not just wine, but “good wine.” It has become the custom in liturgical churches to recall all three events during the season of Epiphany, beginning with the Magi on January 6 – except of course in the Eastern Traditions for which January 6 is the Feast of the Baptism.

Let’s go with the Magi. Note carefully that the text does not identify them as “kings” but as Magi – a caste of Zorastarian Astrologer Priests perhaps? We do not really know, but it is closer to that than kings. Nor does the text tell us that there are three, only that they offer three gifts. Try to imagine a caravan from the east with many many wise men and wise women. There would be attendants – camel boys, cooks, caravan managers (like the later to come young Muhammad), and no doubt curiosity seekers who signed on for the pure adventure and excitement of it all.

All of these people arrive in Jerusalem seeking wisdom and truth. We would do well to aspire to such a life as these magi – for this story is meant to awaken us to our true selves – seekers of wisdom and truth willing to travel great distances, whether by land or in the imagination of our hearts, to find what we are looking for. We are meant to be these magi.

This caravan also appears to be, at first anyway, a bit politically na├»ve. For we ask to be directed to the birthplace of he who is to become “king of the Jews.” We are in Jerusalem, the capitol of a backwater Roman province, Israel, where one of the Herod family, gentile converts to Judaism, is the appointed King of the Jews – appointed of course by Caesar. “We have followed his star and come to pay him homage,” we say.

Herod consults with his own set of wise men. They confirm that Bethlehem, “the city of David,” has long been thought to be the town from which a messiah, an anointed messenger of God, would one day appear. Perhaps these people are right.

One can almost hear the gear grinding away inside Herod’s head – a pretender to the throne? My throne? A genuine Jew unlike myself? This cannot end well. ‘Go to Bethlehem and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.’ Off we go.

The star leads us again. It stops. We stop. There is the mother, Mary, and the child. Imagine our excitement! Imagine the joy! The joy of actually finding that for which we have been traveling, seeking and searching for a lifetime! We fall to our knees, open our treasure-chests and offer him gifts: gold, frankincense and myrrh.

What is in our treasure-chests? What are we willing to offer? To give away? What will we give away of our treasure when we find ourselves face to face with that for which we have spent a lifetime searching? For that is what this story is about. It is about magi like us and what we are willing to give away at the moment of our greatest joy – when we see with the eyes of our hearts the One for whom we have been searching all these years – all these decades – all these centuries – all these millennia.

That, and suddenly becoming politically savvy. Having gazed into the crib at the child, having seen the appearance of divinity up close and personal, having been changed by the experience of simply bowing before God and offering the very best that we have to offer – how much we’ll never know – we suddenly gain a new wisdom that says, “Don’t go back the same way.”

“Having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they went back to their own country by another road – by another way.” That is, not by Herod’s “way.” There was something in the way he spoke to us that did not sound quite right. Is he really going to pay homage to this new king?

Like Paul Harvey, we know the rest of the story. Having been warned in a dream, Joseph takes the mother and child to Egypt. Herod has every child under the age of two killed – The Slaughter of the Innocents. We know all too well what this looks like. It continues to this day.

Note: it is an act of civil disobedience on the part of these foreign, undocumented Magi that saves the child’s life, and their own as well. The child is saved. So are we. Just what this story means is up to us. Are we willing to live into the truth and wisdom that comes from kneeling at the foot of the crib? Are we willing to open our treasure-chests and give away precious gifts we have kept in there for so long? Are we willing to open our treasure-chests at all? Are we willing to disobey civil authority when necessary? Are we willing to return by another way?

Laurence Hausman, a British illustrator, playwright, pacifist and bookstore owner, a modern day Magi, was asked by The Reverend HLR Sheppard, vicar of St. Martin’s-in-the-Field, London, to pen a hymn for peace in 1919 for the Life and Liberty movement after WWI. It became a hymn of the League of Nations. It rings as true today as it must have in 1919. It may well be worth remembering as we travel that road home together, as we go back by another way:
Father eternal, Ruler of creation,
Spirit of life, which moved ere form was made;
Through the thick darkness covering every nation,
Light to man’s blindness, O be Thou our aid:
Thy kingdom come, O Lord, Thy will be done.

Races and peoples, lo! we stand divided,
And sharing not our griefs, no joy can share;
By wars and tumults love is mocked, derided,
His conquering cross no kingdom wills to bear:
Thy kingdom come, O Lord, Thy will be done.

Envious of heart, blind eyed, with tongues confounded,
Nation by nation still goes unforgiven;
In wrath and fear, by jealousies surrounded,
Building proud towers which shall not reach to heaven:
Thy kingdom come, O Lord, Thy will be done.

How shall we love Thee, holy, hidden Being,
If we love not the world which Thou hast made?
O give us brother love for better seeing
Thy world made flesh, and in a manger laid:
Thy kingdom come, O Lord, Thy will be done.
Amen.

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