Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Resolving Our Longing

So what is the significance of these three mysterious figures who arrive at the crèche today? We sing about them as kings, but the commentaries tell us that they were not political rulers. They were not running for office. If we retold their story to bring it into the present, these three would not be stumping for votes in New Hampshire: not three would-be heads of state ringing the doorbell, promising hope, change, and universal health care.

The version of Matthew’s Gospel we heard this morning says that “a band of scholars arrived in Jerusalem from the East.” That way of putting it observes the fact that nowhere does Matthew say that there were three visitors from the East (and Matthew is the only one of the Gospel writers who tells this story at all); rather, he says there are three gifts. By tradition, three gift-bearers have been assumed. Or not: perhaps it was “a band of scholars”.

Great. Just what’s needed. A committee. Another committee of academics. Maybe they’ve come to study the Messiah’s ontological ground of being. But is a team of visiting scholars from abroad cause for Herod and most of Jerusalem to become terrified? Not likely.

Matthew suggests that their particular brand of study is observing the stars, reading the silent signs in the heavens. And, from the fact that they made such a long journey, we see that they tested the theories they discovered by looking up. They sound rather like scientists, don’t they? Whatever else we notice about these magi, let’s give them credit for using scientific method, putting theory to the test, applying what they’ve learned.

It may make an interesting sermon, one day, to imagine what the three gifts would be if held in the hands of scientists offering them to God. Christian tradition sees the three gifts Matthew mentions (gold, frankincense, myrrh) representing royal power, divine presence, and a holy death. What 21st-century gifts might carry those meanings?

But don’t chase that rabbit for long. Far more important is noticing what purpose the gifts fulfill in the larger story.

They are all about recognition. The three gifts describe who Jesus is and what he will do.

He has come to bring order finer and broader than that of a kingdom: in his reign of justice and peace, no one will wear a gold crown, gold will not be a market commodity hoarded by the powerful and the privileged. In the hands of the Messiah, gold represents a living wage and fair trade.

He has come to ensure that God will be felt as one open hand touches another, that divine presence will be known in such simple actions as the breaking of bread, that God will be recognized where two or three gather and where one struggles alone. God will be nearer than breath itself, permeating all of life as burning frankincense fills a room.

He has come to quell our rebellion against death and dying, to show that even death is subject to the new creation that God is bringing about through this Incarnation. All the crazy things we do to deny that we are mortal and to distract ourselves from our own frailties, all the ways we resist change because something might die, all the ways we get stuck, even paralyzed, by fear of letting-go… On all these, on all of us, he who makes peace by the blood of his cross will pour fragrant oil of anointing on the very things we dread, making them holy and useful.

Through the gifts we see who God is in Jesus Christ, and what God is doing in the world. The gifts serve the larger purpose of revealing, showing, truth. That’s what we celebrate today, the Feast of the Epiphany. That’s a very old Greek word, epiphany, and it means showing, revealing.

Nothing can rob this story of its sheer wonder and mystery. We need the gift-bearers to be magi more than we need them to be politicians, scholars, or scientists. We need them to be mysterious enough to catch our breath—not by their lamé and sequins, impressive as they are, but by their being so “other”, so out of the ordinary, so from beyond our borders that they shake us up, as they did for many in Jerusalem.

Magi catch the imagination to recognize that God is always at work outside the doors and windows of our closed shops and homes and churches. Beyond the tight systems we build to ensure security, enshrine order, guard privilege, and keep death at bay, beyond all this status quo of our own making, God the wholly Other moves freely and acts in new ways. There’s nothing like the arrival of magi to set a fresh breeze blowing through the old alleys of our own Jerusalem.

Epiphany: showing, revealing. Recognizing God, paying attention to the truth in our own experience, being open to what’s ahead of us, even right in front of us. Epiphany.

We sometimes use that word when we feel we’ve made a discovery: an “aha” moment, an epiphany. What goes on in such a moment? A longing… that is somehow met… And joy that this should be, our longing become reality… and sheer surprise, that it should come this way as gift and sign… gratitude for the gift, wisdom to read the sign, courage to let this new energy shape our living.

Speaking of longings and fulfillments, have you made new year’s resolutions?

If so, perhaps yours is based on an epiphany, a recognition that it’s time to respond to a yearning, a longing. Whatever becomes of your resolution (every January is littered with unkept resolutions, we know), be grateful for the gift of recognizing that it’s time to act upon your longing.

Be wise to read that sign as one that is meant to open you not just to your own responsibility to do something about it, but also to open you to the support you’ll need to make the journey. Notice that the Wise Men didn’t travel alone.

And might it help if you imagine what you’ve resolved to do as a gift that you may bring to the crèche? Might this help you discover how important and valuable to God is whatever that resolve represents—your health, your relationships, your faith? Whatever that fulfillment might be, that it’s part of what God is yearning to do in the world?

And may it help you take courage, to see all over again that the crèche of Jesus is the place where God is vulnerable and powerful at the same moment? You will see this again on Good Friday, when love holds the holiness of his flesh against wood, not of a manger but of a cross, that our fulfillment cannot be measured in terms of success or failure, but in the full embrace of God whose energy shapes new life.