January 6, 2013
The Feast of the Epiphany
Donna G. Joy.
Early this past week – in my reading – I came across something that inadvertently became the lens through which I reflected upon this morning’s gospel story. Jody Seymour writes, “People who journey without being changed are nomads. People who change without going on a journey are chameleons. People who go on a journey and are changed by the journey are pilgrims.” As I read and reread Matthew’s story about the magi through this lens, I asked myself which of these three categories in which they fit. Were they nomads? That is, were they individuals simply roaming about who simply lucked into their discovery of the child? Well, no. It would seem that this definition of who and what they’re about is not a good fit. Were they chameleons? That is, were they people who were given to often impulsive and superficial and frequent change in ideas or character or appearance? Again, this is not likely an accurate definition of whom or what they’re about. Were they pilgrims? That is, were they people who travelled to a shrine or a holy place as ones who were to love, admire and potentially support the One they were about to discover?
Well, it seems clear to me that this defines the magi in this morning’s story. Gail Ramshaw in her book Treasures Old and New: Images in the Lectionary writes, “The word magi refers to a group of religious seekers (i.e. pilgrims)….”
They are pilgrims, who:
- follow a star in search of the One who has been born a new and different king
- are overjoyed when they discover the child
- bow down and worship him, and
- offer him the best they have to give
And, as we read and reflect on this story through this particular lens we must ask ourselves, are we nomads, chameleons or pilgrims?
So . . . first something about these mysterious pilgrims. There is a lot about them that we simply cannot know for sure. The history of the Christian church has tended to identify them as kings, which they almost certainly were not, and travelling on camels which is not actually mentioned anywhere in the New Testament. These images come from the words of the prophet Isaiah and from psalm 72 which were both included in our readings today. But what does seem clear in Matthew’s Gospel is that they were noble and enlightened figures, representative not only of learning and wisdom, but also power and wealth. These learned and wise individuals who represent great power and wealth . . . they are immediately overwhelmed with joy and fall to their knees to worship and give thanks for the gift of this new and different king. They are humbled in his presence. They may have all sorts of influence and clout in the world in which they live, but in the presence of this new Prince of Peace (lord of lords; king of kings) they fall to their knees.
It is also interesting to note that on Christmas Eve we heard the birth narrative from Luke’s gospel in which the shepherds are the first to receive the news of this great and glorious birth.
And - as with all good pilgrims – they leave their fields in order to find and worship the child. So, in Luke’s gospel, this new and different king has come for the Jews and all who exist on the margins of society: the poor, uneducated, marginalized, despised. Shepherds in that society are despised, disrespected and seen as physically and ritually unclean. But in Matthew’s gospel it is the despised Gentiles who are now – surprisingly – led to visit the child. Put the two together and we see that no one is beyond God’s reach, love, acceptance and embrace.
So, with all this in mind, we are told by Matthew that after Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea these Magi – these pilgrims - follow a star in the east which leads them to the Christ child. It is clear in this telling that King Herod feels threatened by this birth. (It seems clear he is afraid that the birth of this ‘king’ could somehow usurp his own power.) Herod receives a troubling visit from the Magi, asking him where this child might be found. Indeed, if these learned, wise, influential individuals are searching for this child, this birth must for sure be seen as a threat to his own sense of power. It occurred to me yesterday that if these pilgrims had with them the benefits of a GPS this whole part of the story would have been missed. But – alas – they don’t have a GPS, so they do visit Herod which – in turn – prompts him to gather together all the religious and political leaders in order to discover where this child may be, and they tell him ‘Bethlehem, in the land of Judah’ because it was prophesied that this was to be the place. Then, he secretly instructs the magi to go search and as soon as they find the child they are to report back to him.
As they carry on their way, the star they had seen in the east goes on ahead of them until it stops over the place where the child rests. And in that moment, clearly something huge, holy, sacred, happens, because they are instantly overjoyed. In that moment, it seems that they are touched and transformed by the awe and majesty of this birth. In that moment, it seems they knew in some profound way that they have found the place where God and humanity – through the birth of this child – have become one. And their immediate response is to bow down and worship him.
Then they open their treasures and present the child with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, which are probably the most famous gifts given to anyone in the whole history of the world: Gold, frankincense and myrrh. Many have theorized over what their significance was. Traditionally it has been said, gold for a king, frankincense for a priest and myrrh to signify the suffering which Jesus would come to know. And while there may be some truth in this, their significance probably runs much deeper.
- Gold: valuable metal used to create items of great beauty (also a form of currency that such travelers would carry with them)
- Frankincense (incense): regarded as sacred and when burnt, it helps to improve our connection with God; also its healing properties have been used to treat conditions such as depression, allergies, headaches, blood pressure, anxiety, coughs, snake bites, sores, TB, diphtheria, meningitis, stress and typhoid.
- Myrrh: has always been used as incense, to develop spiritual awareness, and as one of the materials used for embalming; it has also been used to treat conditions such as cancer, leprosy, asthma, bronchitis, eczema, ulcers and all kinds of inflammations, as well as a general antiseptic.
Bottom line: these gifts must be seen as extremely generous as well as instrumental and symbolic of God’s transforming work made known in Jesus, because unless money, prayer and healing are used as instruments of transformation, they are not of any use at all.
A significant piece of what Matthew is helping us to see is that in the Age to Come all who follow this star – all who become pilgrims - and discover the child will bring their treasures and offer them to God’s only Son. Everything that is honorable, beautiful, and good will be taken up into building and serving the kingdom of Christ. Everything that is glorious and radiant will be offered as a tribute to the One whose Name is “king of kings and Lord of lords.
Matthew then says that having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route. They take their instruction not from King Herod, but from God who is in the process of guiding them along right pathways.
So, to come back to our question; are we nomads, chameleons or pilgrims? Because, if we are pilgrims, we too are called to:
- A lifetime of searching for the one who has been born king of the Jews,
- become overjoyed when they discover the child,
- bow down and worship him in reverence and in awe,
- offer him the best they have to give.
I suggest that each and every one of us – whether we realize it or not – is called to be a pilgrim because each and every one of us has chosen to follow a star that has led us to this place where we gather to discover and worship God made known through the birth of His son; to experience the joy that comes with this experience; to bow down and worship him in beauty and holiness; and to be continually changed and shaped by that experience as we offer him the very best we have to give.
Back in the 1960’s many of the mainline churches in an attempt to ‘attract new members’ began to design worship that was seen as more current, upbeat, more filled with a sense of fun and up to date. I would argue that the church of the 60’s became rather chameleon in nature. That is, we became a series of faith communities who in attempt to appeal to the trends of culture, were given to impulsive and superficial and frequent change in ideas and character and appearance. We did this because we wanted to become attractive to a culture in which we were no longer considered appealing. While all of this was done with the best of intentions, I think we can safely say that this has not been a successful endeavour in the life of the church. Number one: it has not realized its goal in attracting new members. Number two: it has slowly eroded the sacred quality of worship. Theologian Ed Farley says, “To attend the typical Protestant Sunday morning worship service is to experience something odd, something like a charade. The discourse (invocation, praises, hymns, confessions, sacred texts) indicates that the event celebrates a sacred presence. But this discourse is neutralized by the prevailing mood, which is casual, comfortable, chatty, busy, humorous, pleasant, and at times even cute. This mood is a sign not of a sacred reality but of various congregational self-preoccupations. Lacking is a sense of the terrible mystery of God, which sets language atremble and silences facile chattiness. If the seraphim assumed this Sunday morning mood, they would be addressing God not as ‘holy, holy, holy’ but as ‘nice, nice, nice…’ Every genuine act of worship must direct itself to open itself to this Mystery of ultimate love. So directed, worship combines awe before Mystery and deep reverence for the Good.”
It is interesting to note that while this ‘upbeat’ trend was originally initiated in order to ‘attract new members’, many today would say that it has actually led to some of the decline.
David Roozen and Kirk Hadaway, two sociologists of religion suggest that mainline Protestantism is in decline largely because our churches have not given adequate attention to the sacred, transcendent dimensions of our faith. Many today would say that one of the keys to renewal in the church is to restore the experience of the transcendence of God – to restore the experience of the sacred.
Here at St. Peter’s we are extremely blessed with a worship planning team whose members are committed to this vision.
Each of us, indeed, as a pilgrim in search of the Christ, has followed a star that led us to this place, and I believe that we have done so because we long to experience the God made manifest in Jesus; we long to experience the sacred. The magi in this morning’s story serve as role models in terms of what true worship looks like.
And so, we come in search of the child and the sense of joy that comes with this extraordinary gift; and in deep reverence and a profound sense of awe we bow down and worship and offer him the greatest gifts we have to give.
Whatever gifts we have been given, we are called to offer the greatest of these gifts – all to the glory of God. The Magi did not keep their treasures in their packs; no – they dug deep and presented the very best of what they had to give. Whether that be the gift of music – reading – study – pastoral care – teaching – leadership – hospitality – outreach, to name just a few – and of course, never forgetting that the foundation for each and every gift is God’s love made known in Jesus. That is what our offertory is all about. This is where we offer to God everything we have to give; certainly our money, but in addition to that, everything – everything – we have to give.
And finally, please note one more thing. Across the path of the Magi falls the shadow of the Cross (in the words of John Henry Hopkins, Jr.):
Myrrh is mine, its bitter perfume
Breathes a life of gathering gloom;
Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying,
Sealed in the stone-cold tomb.
Remembering that when we put Luke’s and Matthew’s gospels side by side we recognize that the baby for which the Magi searched was born to save, not just the good religious people, but even more, those who are not the chosen, not the beloved, not the initiated, not the deserving. This baby was born to restore humanity’s relationship with God; this baby was born to live and die for all people. And, his death would have been soon forgotten if he had not been God incarnate (that is, the presence of God on Earth in the person of Jesus.)
That is the very fundamental truth on which everything about our faith is founded. So, when the music and readings for our Lessons and Carols have been neatly filed away, when our Christmas banners and decorations have been put back into storage, when our Winnipeg winter seems to go on forever and there is nothing but Ash Wednesday to look forward to, then we most truly gather around the central proclamation of our faith:
Glorious now behold him arise,
King, and God, and sacrifice.
Prayer and praising, all are raising,
Worship him, God most high. Amen.
Sources include: ‘Treasures Old and New: Images in the Lectionary’, Gail Ramshaw; ‘Preaching the Gospel’, Edward Farley; ‘Church and Denominational Growth’, David Roozen and Kirk Hadaway.