Were the Magi real?, Epiphany (A,B,C) – 2014

January 6, 2014

Isaiah 60:1-6Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14Ephesians 3:1-12Matthew 2:1-12

Were the Magi real? Did they actually make their way from a distant land in the East some 2,000 years ago, following a mysterious star all the way to Bethlehem? And did they really bring the Child Jesus those gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh?

Good questions.

Every year around this time of course, astronomers, both amateur and professional, offer some innovative scientific – skeptics might say “pseudo-scientific” – explanation for the appearance of the star. An unusual conjunction of planets, they most often explain. And reputable historians will be happy to tell you that soothsayers and traveling shamans were undoubtedly a colorful and important element of the ancient world. Then as now, people wanted to understand the deeper meanings of life.

So it all could have been just as related to us in the Gospel of Matthew. The gifts of precious metal and aromatic resins are perhaps a bit more problematical – not exactly what you might think to get a little boy for his birthday these days. Evidence perhaps – as some commentators and parents puckishly suggest – that the wise men did not have children of their own.

Still, whether the Magi and their star and gifts were real or not remains anybody’s guess. Many reputable Scripture scholars, in fact, question their actual existence. They remind us that much in Scripture was never intended to be taken literally. The stories of Jesus’ birth, they go on to say – the so-called Infancy Narratives – are simply parts of an ancient midrashic, or interpretive, genre of biblical narrative, not intended as strictly factual accounts.

So, were the Magi real?

Hard to say. Maybe – just maybe – we should give them the benefit of the doubt.

What does it mean to be “real” anyway? Perhaps the Magi are as real as real gets. After all, when you stop to think about it, there are a lot of people in our contemporary world who could stand to get real. We meet them at work and at the mall, sometimes even in our own families. And most of us, if we look at our own lives, would have to admit that they are filled with the unreal and with our own fair share of improbabilities – events and happenstances that we could hardly have predicted before their occurrence. Yet, here we are – in the flesh, with our all-too-real contradictions and accumulated paradoxes.

So, perhaps a small troop of mystics or sages arriving from the East – note, by the way, that Matthew does not mention the number three – are not so odd or implausible as we might at first think. The Magi were, to be sure, outsiders in most every sense of the word – gentiles after all, surely as incongruous and out-of-place as anything or anyone could be in the heartland of the ancient Jewish world. And most likely, if we read between the lines, they were clairvoyants and prestidigitators of sorts – practitioners of the occult arts, if you will – and filthy rich. How else explain those gifts, costly in any age? For all we know, the Magi may well have been the David Copperfields of their day.

Yet for all that, their agenda was deceptively simple and straightforward: to find the King of the Jews, to worship him and to bring him their gifts. And it is this simple agenda that leads them from their own far-off land to King Herod and beyond on an unlikely journey of discovery and epiphany.

What could be more real than that?

Epiphany remains for us in our own age an astonishing sign or manifestation of the hardly believable yet very much real – God’s wisdom masquerading as human weakness and folly. For as we readily see, God’s eternal wisdom is found not at King Herod’s magnificent court, but rather in the humble village home of a small and vulnerable child and his parents. Perhaps it does take show-business-like conjurers – themselves no doubt masters of surprise and the unexpected – to recognize the real in the impossible.

There is, of course, always a fine line between the real and the impossible. All too often it is indeed the impossible that inevitably comes to pass: An obscure South American cardinal with a heart for the poor is elected pope; a former rising oil executive known for the gift of reconciliation is appointed archbishop; and a humble man at long last unites the peoples of his native land after decades of Apartheid and rigid racial segregation.

There are wise men – and women – among us still.

But if there is a fine line between the real and the impossible, there is sometimes an even finer distinction to be drawn between true wisdom and our own self-deceptions and doubts. We must admire the perspicacity and persistence of the Magi making their way methodically and sure-footedly across wilderness and desert, seeking an out-of-the-question reality they were certain had come to pass. Few of us are so sure of ourselves and our paths. Too many among us never even dare leave home.

But the Magi, their task accomplished, return home from their journey “by another road” as the gospel tells us, and have not been heard from since. For all we know, they may still be on their way. For all we know, they may be journeying among us here and now in our congregations and communities, bequeathing to us from time to time their precious gifts of wisdom, knowledge and understanding – gifts that remain as rare today as gold, frankincense and myrrh in any age.

Perhaps that is why the church has given us this special festival day of Epiphany, to celebrate the wondrous and amazing things in our own lives. And to give us courage to follow, in our day, the star of the Magi as it leads us – just as it did them – to Bethlehem and the Child Jesus.

If the Magi are not real, who is?

 

— The Rev. Dr. Frank Hegedus, a priest of the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles, is currently chaplain of Saint Margaret’s Anglican Episcopal Church in Budapest, Hungary, a ministry of the Church of England’s Diocese in Europe. Please visit and “like” Saint Margaret’s Facebook page at www.anglicanbudapest.com. Isten hozott!

Your light has come, Epiphany (A,B,C) – 2011

January 6, 2011

Isaiah 60:1-6Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14Ephesians 3:1-12Matthew 2:1-12

A man was walking through the mall. He came to an escalator and decided to go up a floor. As he approached, he noticed a warning sign: “Dogs must be carried on escalator.” The man grew anxious, desperate even, as he looked around, asking himself, “Where am I going to find a dog?”

The star in the sky, the Epiphany of Christ, is the appearance to all the world, to all of creation, of the Light of extraordinary kindness. God had been here, all along, ubiquitous, yet invisible.

The darkness hid God, occluded, and enshrouded the Divine. You couldn’t see God or heaven. Now you can see both. God as light pierced the darkness, as the North Star pierces the night, directing magi, and anyone else interested or paying attention.

Light is the epiphany, but so is the dove at Jesus’ baptism, and the water turning into wine. And God still seeps, blood-red, into the veins of people who welcome Spirit.

God in Epiphany is here, working wildly in this world, for you and for me. As Isaiah claims: “Your light has come. The glory of the Lord has risen upon you.”

Why, then, do you still live in darkness?

To celebrate God’s epiphany, priests throughout the church will lead congregations this Sunday in a renewal of baptismal vows. These vows are based upon the Apostles’ Creed: “I believe in God the Father Almighty. I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son. I believe in the Holy Spirit.” The expression of faith in God, simultaneously as three and one.

The problem with this expression of faith is that people find it arcane. People find it to be ancient, holding little relevance to contemporary faith. Are we stuck in the past?

In his novel, “Crime and Punishment,” Fyodor Dostoevsky tells a story of two criminals.

The first criminal is a depressed but intelligent young man, Raskolnikov. Raskolnikov believes all morality is man-made, that right and wrong are bourgeois and do not apply to superior people like himself. To prove his theory, Raskolnikov murders a destitute old woman. Such murder is not a moral issue, he reasons, because the woman is worthless. Guilt nevertheless overwhelms him – enormous guilt, guilt his rational mind cannot resolve.

Sonya is the second “criminal.” She needed money to support her starving little family, especially her younger stepbrother and sister. To feed them, she sold her body; she became a prostitute. Sonya seems almost naïve. She believes innocently in God, and her most prized possession is a Bible. “God will save us all,” she claims.

Sonya and Raskolnikov meet. He is both enthralled with, and angered at her. He is enthralled because of her naïveté, and he is angered because of her faith. In one scene, he insists that she read Scripture to him. But reading Scripture is, to her, an act of intimacy. His insistence becomes a violation, an unwarranted intrusion. She does it anyway, and picks the story of Lazarus.

You recall Lazarus – Jesus’ friend. Lazarus died, and Jesus raised him from the dead. At the tomb, Jesus called out, “Lazarus come forth!” As Sonya reads the story to Raskolnikov, her voice rises in crescendo, until finally she proclaims her own resurrection faith: “… and they believed on Him.”

They believed, and with that, Dostoevsky writes, “The candle-end had long been flickering out in its crooked holder, dimly illuminating in this beggarly little room the murderer and the harlot, who had so strangely come together to read the Eternal Book.”

And don’t we strangely come together, every week to read the Eternal Book? Complicit in some perverse way, through our own crimes and darkness, we are desperate souls in contradictory need of faith.

Raskolnikov finds the Eternal Book unbelievable, and dry. And too often, so do we. We listen to the Eternal Book as though its essence, its life-giving spirit, has escaped like air from a balloon. All that remains is limp rubber, and perhaps a string.

But as Sonya said, “They BELIEVED!” And we so desperately want to believe. We need to believe that there is some truth that extends beyond ourselves, hidden behind darkness – but we are also so deeply afraid.

We long to be noticed by God, deeply noticed, yet so afraid that God will actually notice us. We desire God, yet we hide from God. We are at once Sonya and Raskolnikov; we own a faith we cannot give ourselves over to.

The Epiphany is not about preparing yourself to receive light. It is not about arcane words in the Creeds. Rather, the Epiphany is about the light of Christ dispelling the night in which we find ourselves.

The darkness is dispelled not because we are worthy, but because God chooses for some unknown reason to reach through time and space and into this dark world to save us. To love us. To give himself completely to us. Despite your resignation to darkness, your light has come. The glory of the Lord has risen upon you.

The Creeds – Apostles’ and Nicene – were never about the factuality of the words. You and I are not perfect, and we cannot claim perfect faith. We just don’t believe perfectly. We believe, and yet we can’t quite believe. Like the man who told Jesus, “I believe, Lord; help thou my unbelief.”

Rather, the creeds give you a place to stand, they express your posture of faith, your intent.

The Latin word credo does not mean only “I believe,” but also “I give myself over to.” We give ourselves over to God as Father or progenitor, not because we can conceive mentally of God as source, but because we so desperately need God to be our source. We give ourselves over to Jesus Christ because we so desperately need God to be Savior. We give ourselves over to Holy Spirit because we so desperately need the breath of life.

The story about the man and the escalator – it did not matter that he rode the escalator without a dog, but it did matter that he carry any dog he might have.

It does not matter whether you believe literally in God as Father, or Mother, or Creator – but it does matter that you give yourself over to that God. Your posture is your faith; your faith is the act of donating yourself. It is not, and never was, your mental ascent.

Raskolnikov thought of faith as bourgeois; but he was wrong. Faith is life-giving. People in our progressive world think of faith as bourgeois; but they are wrong. Faith is life-affirming.

The God you fear most is waiting in love and open arms for you. That is the Epiphany. And his appearing has become your appearing.

And so, believe, Believer, in God, the Creator Almighty. For as it says in Isaiah, “your light has come.”

 

— The Rev. Rob Gieselmann is the interim rector at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church, Belvedere, California. Originally from the Diocese of East Tennessee (serving at St. Luke’s, Cleveland), he also served in the Diocese of Easton (St. Paul’s Church, Chestertown). Before entering the ministry, Rob practiced law for ten years. Rob is the author of “The Episcopal Call to Love” (Apocryphile Press, 2008), and is the father of two wonderful children.

The season of light, Epiphany (A,B,C) – 2007

January 6, 2007

Isaiah 60:1-6; Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14; Ephesians 3:1-12; Matthew 2:1-12

In this season of Epiphany we enter the realm of light. In fact the Greek church, in the language of the people, has called this season, Ta Phota: “the lights.”

In the Eastern church, this season of light is celebrated as fully as the season of Christmas. This liturgical season resides also in symbolism, something people in the east seem to understand much more easily than we in the West. The presence of water in Epiphany is as meaningful as that of light, perhaps reminding us that this was the preferred time for baptism in the early church. On Epiphany Day in every port city in Greece, the Orthodox bishop throws a cross into the waters of the sea and brave young men jump into the cold January Aegean to retrieve it. In offices and homes, round loaves of Epiphany bread are broken and shared. Light, bread, the cross, and water. The magi are hardly mentioned.

In the ancient world further East, in Persia and Babylonia, the magos (which is the singular of magi) was a wise man who specialized in the reading of the stars. In Israel, the king, as we heard in the Psalm for today, was expected to have qualities of the magos – there was a mystical association with the supernatural in the Jewish tradition. As it says in Numbers 24:17: “I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not near – a star shall come out of Jacob, and scepter shall rise out of Israel.”

So when we tie all these symbols together, we enter into another world where reality is more than what is seen, where light reveals more than the eye can take in. Epiphany: the light breaking through, the light shining upon, the revelation unfolding.

Only Matthew among the four gospel writers tells the wondrous story of the magi. No matter that wise men and women of today try to explain it away, or literalists try to discover exactly what happened in the astronomical realm; the wonder, yes, even the good magic of the story remains undiminished. How can we hear it without becoming children again, feeling that first thrill that ran through our little bodies when the story first entered our consciousness? The Eastern kings, dressed in many-colored robes, the camels moving ponderously over long stretches of sand, the star so bright, with its long glowing tail leading them, leading them toward a humble hamlet called Bethlehem—these remain in our consciousness.

One wonders if the story came down to Matthew from someone who remembered it from the palace, who passed it on from parent to child. Maybe it was someone who recalled the bloodshed in that palatial, miserable household – how Herod, who had not wanted to leave his throne to anyone, was shocked with fear when he considered that an heir other than his sons would inherit it. How the Jewish chief priests and scribes trembled before Herod’s wrath when asked for the prophecy of the birthplace of Messiah. How frightened Herod was that the town mentioned by the prophet Micah was Bethlehem instead of Jerusalem and how he ordered his servants into a conspiracy of false hospitality. The story must have been told again and again until it reached Matthew years later, and it was such a marvelous story that Matthew could not resist it. It was a blessed choice for millions of readers and listeners through the centuries.

After months of traveling through the desert, the magi arrive first at the palace in Jerusalem – they were expecting to find a king, after all, so the first place they think of is the palace – and thus give the shock of his life to Herod who, cunningly, sends them on to find this child. When they reach Bethlehem, do they feel disappointment to enter a humble household? Matthew says “they were overwhelmed with joy.” The Greek is even stronger: they rejoiced with an extreme joy.

They see the child with his mother. She is holding him on her lap as they kneel and bend to touch their foreheads to the ground. What is Mary thinking when she sees the gifts they offer? Does she feel a premonition when she smells the myrrh, an herb used for burial? Later in her life, will she stand at the foot of the terrible cross remembering that beautiful visit and the premonition of his death?

We can only guess. We only know that something remarkable happened on that day when the far east and the near east came together. But the gift to us is that the visit of the magi reveals something else that has as much meaning for our lives today as it did in that first year of the first century. The rich and the poor mingle in harmony in this story. The rich don’t withhold from the poor; they offer not only necessities, but luxury and beauty. For a few minutes, there is a strong hint of the kingdom of God the grown Jesus would proclaim – peace on earth, good will toward all people, mercy to the poor – the acknowledgment of the full humanity of the poor, of women, and of children (which was an alien concept in the ancient world). The rich, the educated, the respected are kneeling before a child and a mother, in a poor hamlet in Bethlehem.

May that image stay with us to give balance to our thinking, to our lives.

 

— Katerina K. Whitley is an author and retreat reader. For more on her books and presentations, visit http://www.katerinawhitley.net or e-mail katewhitley@charter.net.