It’s been a while since I posted on this blog. The whole season of Advent and the twelve days of Christmas have come and gone. Advent has been a struggle for me for some years, and this year was no different. But here we are in the season of Epiphany, and I’m feeling more positive, and vastly more energized for the months ahead.
Things are developing. I am feeling very much at home as a member of the Holy Trinity Choir. At the same time, my status as clergy is becoming clearer. I was invited to preach on Jan. 5, my first opportunity to be present to the congregation in a vocational fashion. Things went well, and some more permanent relationship seems to be a real possibility. That would be good.
I have taken the liberty of posting my sermon from that day here.
Magi and Mystery
Texts: Matthew 2:1-12; Ephesians 3:1-12;
Contrary to popular notions, we are still in the season of Christmas, on the last of the “Twelve Days.” The celebration of the Lord’s Nativity ends with Epiphany, officially tomorrow, January 6, but also observed here as in many places on the Sunday before. The focus of the day is the visit of the Magi, recounted in Matthew, one of the stories unique to this Gospel. It is a story shrouded in mystery, a story which has acquired many layers of oral and written tradition.
The Rector observed on Christmas Eve that the Nativity story from Luke is notable for what it doesn’t include: there are details “missing”, which church and other traditions have inserted through song, story, and art. The story of the Magi is much the same. There are a myriad of embellishments to the story. A good example is the carol “We Three Kings,” which would be well-named, except that the visitors were probably not kings, and there may or may not have been three of them.
The account in Matthew is maddeningly sparse. The visitors were wise men or “magioi” (a Greek word translating a Persian one, from which arose eventually our word “magic”) who came to Jerusalem seeking the new-born King of the Jews, bringing gifts fit for a king. The text gives them no names and no place of origin except “the East.” They make the obvious mistake of going to the king in power to find the child. Herod may have been in power, albeit under Roman backing, but in no way was he or any child of his the rightful King of the Jews.
The Magi get scripturally-based directions from the religious authorities, and then make the short journey to Bethlehem—it’s only about 8 miles as the crow flies.[i] After paying homage to the child presenting their gifts, they leave by another route, prudently ignoring Herod’s wish that they bring the news back to him.
That’s all. They ride into the story, becoming the first people in Matthew to greet the Christ child—and then they ride out. They are never mentioned again, and there are no other references to Magi in the New Testament.
- Who were they? (Names? Number?)
- Where did they come from? (Persia the best guess…)
- What was the star they saw “at its rising” which led them to Bethlehem? (A UFO?)
- Why were these people even interested in the King of the Jews?
We might have other questions to ask the text, but let’s leave it at that: there are no fully satisfactory answers to these ones. If Matthew was interested in these details, perhaps he might have included them—but he didn’t, leaving us with a bare-bones story of great mystery. Apparently he saw no need to add anything other material. That’s frustrating, isn’t it? Why didn’t he fill in the blanks? Matthew wasn’t writing for a modern mindset which tends to be fixated on details and facts, and thereby misses the big picture—and the truth!
I would suggest that the story’s mysterious nature is integral to the truth that Matthew is seeking to convey. Think about it: the first people to greet the Christ, the one born King of the Jews, are mysterious people from far beyond the bounds of the Jews and their beliefs about God’s covenant with them.
In this one astonishing and mysterious event, the bounds of God’s covenant people are pushed back, even shattered. Salvation is not just for Jews, but comes through the Jews to all humankind. The great mystery of God—the depths and riches of the Gospel—to which Paul refers in Ephesians, is now revealed to all people.
The key word here is “revealed.” This is not something that happened because people figured it out, or because someone decided it was going to happen. It is not a question of human agency, but rather divine.
The various interpretations and embellishments of the story of the Magi underline our human need to avoid or to solve mysteries. We tend not to like loose ends or unfilled blanks. We want to know the answers and the details, perhaps more so in this “scientistic”[ii] post-Enlightenment age than ever before in human history. We tend to believe that everything has an answer, that everything can be solved and tied up into neat little packages.
I used to believe that. When I was in my twenties, I resolutely upheld the power of reason, logic, and objective analysis, and rejected many of the things of faith. I made my own limited intellect the measure of all truth. (Oh, the arrogance of youth!)
But something happened, something not of my own reasoning or volition, something that could only be the action of God in my life. I’m still working at it, sure in the knowledge that the mystery will remain just that—a mystery—as long as I am on this side of the veil. But that’s the beauty and wonder of the life of discipleship: there are few if any quick and easy answers, only a lifetime of living in the wonder of a relationship with God through Christ, in the power of the Holy Spirit.
It’s the mystery that keeps me going—and indeed the whole church, as Paul reminds us. We live out our lives as Christ’s disciples in faith.
Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. (Heb 11:1)
To live into the holy mysteries of God means to be always prepared to accept partial or hidden or even seemingly-contradictory truths. It also means to be prepared to receive revelation—the Word of God for us—wherever and whenever God chooses to give it. God speaks in many varied ways, often unexpected and surprising.
Surprise! God spoke through foreign magicians.
Surprise! God spoke through the birth of a child to Palestinian peasants.
Surprise! God has spoken to people throughout the ages—the poor and the rich, the learned and the simple, the old, the young, far and near.
Surprise! God is not finished with us, but invites us daily to live into the mystery of his riches, revealed through the child of Bethlehem, announced by a star, and proclaimed through the lives and witness of those who have heard the call.
Let us continue to live the mystery, to follow the star, and to seek Christ in all his glory at all times and in all places.
The Rev’d Robin Walker
Holy Trinity Anglican Church, Edmonton
January 5, 2013
[i] About 18 km by the shortest route today, subject to check-points and security barriers.
[ii] sci·en·tism n.
1. The collection of attitudes and practices considered typical of scientists.
2. The belief that the investigative methods of the physical sciences are applicable or justifiable in all fields of inquiry. http://www.thefreedictionary.com/scientistic