Sunday, January 6, 2013

A Cold Time We Had Of It

The Pope created a stir this year by pointing out the Gospels
don’t say anything about the traditional animals and angels
being at the stable for Jesus’ birth.
Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams
         sparked a similar controversy five years ago
         with some things he said about the 3 Wise Men.
The papers sounded as if he were attacking the story.

But, like the Pope, he was just distinguishing the parts of it

found in Scripture from those that are not.

Anglicans base our beliefs on three sources

– Scripture, Tradition, and Reason.

We spell all three with capital letters.
Some of what we know about the Wise Men is in Matthew.
Other parts come from sacred tradition

         along with the Creeds, the saints,

six Stations of the Cross, and most of our theology.

The Bible doesn’t tell us how many Wise Men there were,
         where they came from, or their names.

If we had nothing more than Matthew,

        it would be hard to interpret the significance of this visit,
and we might not be celebrating the Epiphany as a High Holy Day.

But Christian Tradition is long, deep, wide, and rich.

Three of the world’s greatest 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.

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.

Around 500 A.D., an anonymous artist in Ravenna, Italy
         crafted a beautiful 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.

 The Wise Men’s Epiphany visit is a lovely old story.

We have been telling it in sermons, songs, paintings, and poems
         for centuries because it is true in the deepest sense of truth.

We have cherished this story

--  not because we are certain of the historical details --

         but because it teaches us the way to peace and holiness.

Three Wise Men came from the East.

Different traditions give them different names

but we know them as Caspar, Melchior, and Balthazar.

We know they came a great distance.

and that  they were astrologers.

One of them would have been from Persia.

There is a tradition that one came from Africa.

And there is actually some evidence to support

         the idea that one came from China.

Remember, these pilgrims were not Christians.

They did not subscribe to our Creed or our religious practices.

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 one of the new mystery cults like Mithraism.

But none of them were Christians.

None of them were Jews.

And they were not the same religion as each other.

They would not have agreed about much of anything.

They could not have even agreed on the significance

of what it was they were looking for.

But they were all looking for something, all seeking something.

When the search finally brought them to the humble stable,

         they knew they had found it.

So Matthew tells us, they fell down before the child Jesus

         and they worshiped him.

The modern translator has weakened the language

         to say they “paid him homage.”

But “worshiped him” is a perfectly good translation.

To fall down and do prostrations or to kneel is an act of worship.

In the 5th Century, St. John Chrysostom noted

that the Wise Men did not give Jesus
                  the customary gifts for a great man.

Their gifts were traditional sacrifices offered to God.

The original Greek text says they worshiped him.

Therein lies the sacred beauty

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 Epiphany, the Adoration of the Magi,

         this Holy Day 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.

The stable where the wise men knelt

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 that priest.

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 point of 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 that point without coming to an agreement.

They did not adopt a common creed or moral code or political ideology.

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 this Epiphany to do likewise.