January 6, 2008 Feast of the Epiphany (RCL, Year A) Isa. 60: 1-6, Eph. 3: 1-12; Mt. 2: 1-12
It’s just a very odd story. Very odd. These Magi, sometimes called Kings. Astrologers perhaps. Who knows, really? Priests of the occult, studying the heavens for mysterious messages from their home in the distant East, Persia or Arabia. Then their long trek across the deserts. Not a Biblical part of the story, but important for Amahl and the Night Visitors. Riding camels, I think, or maybe even transported across the miles on flying carpets . . . . Time passes. Months. Years. We’re off the clock and the calendar. Received in Jerusalem by Herod the King, who is spurred into his famous rage by their strange tale. Sent along then, with words of some ancient prophesy echoing in their ears, until, we are told, the Star they had for so long followed now in this one moment “stopped over the place where the child was.”
Which is pretty darn precise, in terms of celestial navigation. Calculating to the millisecond. How does that work, exactly? Over this particular house, in this particular neighborhood, in this particular town. But no question about it. The knock on the front door. Is this the place? Is he here? And then the immediate recognition. Falling down in worship and adoration. The presentation of these three peculiar gifts. Myrrh was always my favorite. I love its sound, and how it’s spelled. I’m told it is an oil used in the ancient world in the process of embalming the dead. I mean, what’s that about? Not exactly your typical baby shower present. And finally the hurried departure from Bethlehem, prompted by a dire word of warning received in a dream.
St. Luke’s telling of the Nativity story, with the overcrowded Inn, the Stable out back, the Babe in the Manger, the Shepherds, even the Angelic Choir, seems simple and positively uncomplicated, by comparison. A kind of rustic realism, over against this rich, wild, exotic romance.
We watch the Kings in our Children’s Pageant, year after year, colorful and dramatic always, but somehow incongruous. How in the world did these guys get here? It’s like one of those scenes in the old Star Trek series, when the space travelers of the 24th century are beamed back to some moment in the 19th century American Wild West. But of course it wouldn’t be Christmas without them, in their stately procession up the center aisle. Field and fountain, moor and mountain, following yonder star . . . .
In some ways I think Matthew sees rumbling around in this story the same deeper truth that St. John tries to get at in the poetry of the great opening prologue of his Gospel, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” The dusty streets of old Bethlehem become the crossroads of all history, the point of connection for every strand of God’s divine intention for all the created universe. A Silent Night of cosmic proportions. The skies themselves ring out with music. Even the stars of heaven somehow bend from their natural course to participate in the miracle of miracles.
There is this paradox about Christmas, which is the paradox perhaps at the center of our life of faith. Like us, somehow: those strange figures following that impossible Star across the empty landscape. What we confront in so many aspects of our searching, our wondering, our questioning, our believing. Which is that we get right down to this strange intuitive ground where what doesn’t make any sense at all is the only thing in our whole experience of life that can possibly make sense.
The Creator of the Universe, the Lord of Time and Space, on a bed of straw. Stretched out on an old rugged cross. His body broken and his blood poured out, in this Bread, this Cup. Impossible, yet necessary. It couldn’t have happened this way. But it must have happened this way. A collision of realities that sends us into new psychic and spiritual territory.
I ran across a quote from St. Bernard of Clairvaux, the 12th century Cistercian Father and Benedictine reformer who is one of my favorite devotional writers: "They fall on their faces,” he says of the Magi, “they revere him as king, they worship him as God. He who led them has instructed them too. He who urged them on by means of the star has himself taught them in their inmost heart."
It is this new season, the 12 Days of Christmas behind us now. Real life resumes, and brought to us once again this year, this Epiphany morning, as every year, by Kings and a Star, and a message, whispered, a moment of recognition of truth and identity and meaning that fills our “inmost heart.” Turns us all into mystics, poets—wandering out at the very edges. “He who urged them on by means of the star has himself taught them in their inmost heart.” How he teaches us.
How could they have sought him? How could they have found him? How could they have known him? How could it be—any of it? A kind of magic, really. I think about the C.S. Lewis phrase, "a deep magic." A transformation of time and space, an elevation of what we are and who we are, to a new level of reality and meaning. From the calendar on the wall to a new calendar of the heart and spirit. Christmas coming to an end, as we enter a life that is always Christmas. Always Christmas: where he is always being born, every moment, in a continuous birth, coming to life, here and now, with healing, with forgiveness, with hope and transformation--in us and through us and for us. The world put right again. In the end it’s about Jesus, about him and us, face to face, in this impossible moment, at the beginning of a new world. Star of wonder, star of night, star with royal beauty bright; westward leading, still proceeding, guide us to thy perfect light.