January 6, 2015
In the reading from Isaiah, we are called to “arise” and “shine”; we are called to get up and be in relationship with this light that is God’s love breaking into a world that has been covered in darkness. This darkness has covered the earth, this thick darkness that the Magi walk through; we have been promised that it will vanish in the dawn of this new light that is the Glory of the Lord.
Isaiah says that the nations shall come to this light and the kings to the brightness of this dawn. And then in the gospel reading this morning we see the nations streaming to this light. We see these kings on a long journey through the dark. Weighed down with their gifts and riches as they seek. These treasure chests they have brought with them from the East.
Exactly who they are is difficult to discern. Are they wise men? Kings? Persian magicians? The text says “Magi,” and our tradition of song and story has overlaid a multitude of meanings – for example, that there were three of them, and what their names were.
But in the text, there are not three men, but three gifts. The Bible does not say how many Magi there were; there could have been three – or 30.
There is room in this magical caravan for all of us.
What is clear is that they are other definitely otherworldly, mysterious. These travellers are not part of the Jewish world. They come from far away. They are the world flocking to the light of God.
These Magi have been traveling in the dark, following a star; we don’t know for how long they have been seeking any more than we know where they started,or how many of them there are.
But as they get close, they seek council from Herod. We in the audience want to shout “No! Don’t ask him!” Herod is afraid of the child, and we all know there is nothing more dangerous than a powerful man when he is afraid.
From the text, we know that when they find this child with his mother, they pay him homage. The word that gets translated as “homage” is a wonderful combination of the Greek words for “to fall down” and “to kiss.” This is worship at its most pure. They find this child, which is the goal of their journey, and they fall down in praise. And then, of course, they offer the gifts.
These wise men, these kings, these magicians from a far-off land offer the baby three gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. There is tradition, too, around the meaning of these gifts.
The gold is because the baby is a king, and they say just this to Herod and all of Jerusalem – that they are looking for the child who has been born the King of the Jews.
They offer the baby frankincense because he is God, and the incense symbolizes prayer rising to the heavens like smoke.
And they offer the baby myrrh, which was often used for burials and symbolized death, because even here at the beginning of this story about Jesus as a baby, we remember that this story goes to the cross and beyond.
We are all on our own journeys through the dark, carrying our own gifts within us. We, too, seek to find the truth of love in this world of darkness. We, too, bear our gifts and are seeking the right place to lay them down.
We come bearing gold, our gift for our king. To whom and to what do we owe our allegiance? Who is our king? What orients our lives in the political spectrum, and how do we work together? There are any number of authorities who would eagerly have our obedience and fealty. How do we know which loud voice in the clamor of the world should be obeyed?
We come bearing frankincense and seeking what is holy in this world. We are looking for the thin space, the gap between this world that we see and touch and the other world that we long for and know to be true. Is it our selves, our families, our nation? Is it our ideologies, our own opinions? Is it personal growth? Is there anything that makes you fall on your knees in honor of something greater than yourself?
We come bearing myrrh, in all that we mourn. We are all bearing grief in this world, and we are looking for a place to lay it down. What is it that makes you weep? What do you do with the grief in your life? Myrrh was used for the anointing of a dead body. What are you ready to bury? What do you need to let go of and mourn the loss of?
Whom do we obey? What do we worship? Where can we lay our broken hearts? The answer is: the Kingdom of Love that Jesus preaches about.
This new kingdom is the Light that illuminates the deep darkness. This new kingdom has broken into and shattered all we thought we knew about the way the world works.
If we obey the Kingdom of Love, we will find ourselves overflowing with compassion, and forgiving our enemies, and giving away all we had thought was “ours.”
If we worship in the Kingdom of Love, we find ourselves falling down at the feet of Love and joining with angels and archangels and breaking bread with God’s beloved.
If we allow the Kingdom of Love to break our hearts, we will realize that all the world’s children are our children, and that the heart of God is overflowing with gracious compassion for everyone.
It sounds like loss – the loss of being the center, the loss of “treasure.” But in this loss there is overwhelming joy. That is what is said of these Magi: that in their encounter with this infant incarnation of Love, they were overwhelmed with joy.
There is something out there that is so bright and beautiful that it draws the shepherds, and the Magi and us. This is what we look for in the dark, burdened by our treasure, longing to lay down our obedience, our worship and our grief.
And so we walk through the dark, our eyes eagerly seeing a speck of light – a star we can follow. That is what Epiphany is about – it is a time to look for the light of God shining in unexpected places. And it is a time to fall down and kiss the light when we do find it.
— The Rev. Kerlin Richter is the founding priest of Bushwick Abbey, a creative new Episcopal church plant in Brooklyn, N.Y.