Sunday, January 3, 2010

A Cold Time We Had Of It

One of the best things about being an Episcopalian
is that we celebrate the whole season of Christmas
– not just the first day.
The story is too rich, the meaning is too deep,
to capture in just one worship service.
So on Christmas Eve, we hear Luke’s story of the birth
in the days of Caesar Augustus.
Later, we hear John’s operatic, celestial poem
about the spiritual meaning of the Word becoming flesh.
Now we hear from Matthew about the 3 Wise men.
But Matthew only tells us the bare bones of the story.

Anglicans base our beliefs on three sources
– Scripture, Tradition, and Reason.
Sacred tradition tells the rest of the story.
The Bible doesn’t tell us how many Wise Men there were,
where they came from, or what their names may have been.

If we had nothing more than Matthew’s account,
it would be hard to interpret the significance of this visit.
But Christian Tradition around the Wise Men
is long, deep, wide, and rich.

Three of the world’s greatest religious paintings
– one by Fra Angelico, one by Esteban Murillo,
and one by Leonardo DaVinci –
all portray The Adoration of the Magi.

Anyone who sees these paintings knows they too are divinely inspired.
Around 500 A.D., an anonymous artist in Ravenna, Italy
crafted just as inspiring a mosaic of the wise men’s journey,
and 1,400 years later, T. S. Eliot gave that mosaic words
in his poem The Journey of the Magi.

When we sing We Three Kings, the symbolic meaning of each gift
set out in the verses goes back to a Spanish poem
written by Prudentius in the 4th Century.
That’s as old as parts of the Nicene Creed.

The Wise Men’s visit is a lovely old story, we have been telling
in sermons, songs, paintings, and poems
for many centuries because it is true
in the deepest and most important sense.
We have cherished this story not because we are certain
of the historical accuracy of each detail,
but because it teaches us
the way to peace and holiness.

We believe that three Wise Men came from the East.
Different strands of the tradition give them different names
but we know them as Caspar, Melchior, and Balthazar.
Certainly they came a great distance.
And certainly they were astrologers.

At least one of them would have been
from Persia or thereabout.
There is a tradition that one made a round about route
from Africa.
And there is actually some evidence to support
the idea that one came from China.

Now let us be clear, these pilgrims were not Christians.
They did not subscribe to our Creed or our religious practice.
They were not Jews.
St. Matthew says that they were astrologers.
And astrology was strictly forbidden in Jewish law
and condemned by Jewish prophets.

The Persian was a Zoroastrian worshiper of Ahura-Mazda.
The one from China lived by the analects of Confucius.
The African may have followed a traditional African religion,
or perhaps the established paganism of the Roman Empire.
Most likely, he followed one of the new mystery cults.
But none of them were Christians.
None of them were Jews.

And they would not have agreed with each other
about much of anything.
They could not have agreed on what it was they were looking for.
But they were all looking for something, all seeking something.
When their search brought them to the humble stable
in the little town of Bethlehem,
they knew they had found it.
So Matthew tells us, they fell down before the child Jesus
and they worshiped him.

I regret the modern translators’ choice to soften the language
to say they “paid him homage.”
To say they worshiped him is a perfectly good translation
of the original Greek.
To fall down and do prostrations or to kneel is an act of worship.

St. John Chrysostom’s 6th Century Epiphany sermon
emphasizes that the Wise Men did not give Jesus
the gifts due to a great man.
Nor did they give him things of practical value.
Their gifts were traditional sacrifices offered to God.
So let us not draw back from the clear truth of this text.
They worshiped him.

Therein lie the beauty and the sacred truth of this story.
Therein lie the beauty and the sacred truth
of this moment so loved by artists through the ages.
These wise men who were so utterly and completely different
from each other – different in race, religion, and nationality –
forgot their differences and knelt together
in awestruck reverence before a mystery
they could not begin to understand.

Brothers and sisters, the Adoration of the Magi
is not window dressing on the faith.
It is not a quaint tale we can take or leave.
It is essential because it teaches us what we are here to do.
We are here to kneel in awestruck reverence
before the holiness of Christ.

Our Gospel lesson is crystal clear that
the stable was not a debating hall
and neither is the church.
Like the Wise Men, we have our differences.
Human beings are entitled to their opinions.
The fact we have so many of them is part
of what keeps life interesting.

But the church is not a town meeting
or a popular news program
with a point and counterpoint
exchange of verbal barbs.
The Church is not a talk show
for controversial celebrities to rant at each other.
The church exists to kneel before the holiness of Christ,
a mystery we cannot begin to understand.

Like the Wise Men,
we are different from each other as we can be.
Some are liberal. Some are conservative.
Some like incense and sanctus bells.
Others prefer their Sunday morning casual and simple.
Some like one kind of music.
Some prefer a different style.
Others don’t want any music at all.
Some like a priest. Others can’t stand him.
And that’s all fine.

It’s human to have opinions and preferences.
The thing that holds us together isn’t agreeing
about any of those things.
It is our shared willingness
to lay aside our opinions, tastes, and preferences
to kneel before the holiness of God.

The truth revealed by the Wise Men’s journey
is that, despite their differences, they traveled together.
And that probably wasn’t always easy.
T. S. Eliot attributes these words to one of them,
"A cold time we had of it
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey . . . "

The cold may not have been just the weather
and the length may not have been just the miles.
The Wise Men probably exchanged an opinion or two
along the road.
Their differences must have made the trip even colder
and even longer.
But they stayed on the road and they stayed together,
until at last, together, they worshiped the Lord
in the beauty of holiness.
They came to Christ without coming to an agreement.

They did not adopt a common creed or moral code.
But they knelt and prayed as one.
They followed the light as best they saw the light,
and when they met the Christ,
they fell silent and worshiped him.
God grant us the grace to do likewise.