January 8, 2017 | Isaiah 60: 1-16, Matthew 2: 1-12 | Rev. Nancy Talbot –
In some parts of the world January 6th, the festival of Epiphany is an even bigger day of celebration than Christmas Day. In some places, instead of hanging stockings by the fire for Santa to fill on Christmas Eve, on the 12th day of Christmas children leave shoes filled with hay outside their homes for the camels that carry the Magi to eat on their journey to Bethlehem. When they wake up on the morning of Epiphany, they find their shoes mysteriously filled with presents, the same way children in our part of the world find their stockings filled with gifts from Santa. In some cultures, Epiphany is the day when gifts are received rather than December 25th.
Although I can’t imagine fighting the cultural tide of gift-giving that accompanies Christmas day in my own household, I like the thought of separating the giving and receiving of gifts from the celebrations of December 25. If we were to do that, it might help us to see the 25th as the day when we open our hearts to receive the spiritual gifts of Christmas: hope, peace, joy, love, the promise that Emmanuel, God is with and among us and born within us, and January 6th as the day we offer our gifts in response to what we have received.
Much has been made over the years about the Magi and the gifts they bring to the infant Jesus. Gold, frankincense and myrrh were traditional gifts given to Kings in the ancient world. Some see further significance in the gifts as foreshadows of Jesus death and resurrection given that myrrh in particular was used to anoint bodies for burial. But all this focus on the meaning of the three gifts can distract us from the other gift the Magi bring, the fourth gift as it were.
Listen again to the reason the Wise men say they have travelled from the east to Jerusalem: “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?” they ask “For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” The purpose of their journey is to pay homage.
We might think that the homage they pay is the giving of the three gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, except the story says that when they found the house where the child was with his mother Mary, they first knelt down and paid him homage. Then, they opened their treasure chests and offered him gifts. The fourth gift of the Magi is the gift of paying homage.
In our contemporary English bibles, the word homage is translated from the Greek word proskyneo which literally means to prostrate oneself. In medieval times paying homage was the way a vassal publicly acknowledged their loyalty and service to a lord or master. The Magi are not just giving material gifts in this story, before they make that offering, they make an offering of themselves, giving themselves, body mind and spirit completely over to this child. Essentially they are pledging to him their allegiance, giving themselves over to love.
No wonder Herod is afraid. If this new king can inspire people to undertake a strenuous journey to an unknown location so they can pay him homage, then the magnitude of their efforts suggests that the established powers, which have put Herod in charge of the region, are at risk of being challenged. (*) Herod is scared because he senses that something even more powerful than him is at work in the world.
What’s intriguing to me, is that it’s not just Herod who is afraid of the child the way he is compelling the Magi to seek and find him. All Jerusalem is frightened with him. Something I noticed in the story this week that I had never noticed before is that the chief priests and scribes had to have been among those frightened people. That’s who Herod consulted about where the Messiah was to be born. The scribes and Pharisees, the religious leaders of the day, clearly know about the prophecy that the Messiah will be born in Bethlehem of Judea but they don’t seem to be curious about the possibility that the prophecy might actually have been fulfilled. If they were, wouldn’t they have joined the Magi on their journey to find the child? Maybe they too are afraid that their own position and their own authority is about to be upended.
That’s the thing about fear isn’t it? Once fear has a hold of us it shuts down our curiosity and it paralyzes our movements. It makes us cling to the established order. American preacher Nadia Boltz Webber when referring to the fear in this story says that fear keeps us isolated and small, it steals away possibility.
The Magi are not afraid, they are open and curious, focussed and determined to continue on their journey.
One of the things I love about this story, is that the only time the Magi can make any headway on their journey is when the sun has set and the stars have come out. During the daytime they can’t orient themselves, they have to ask for direction. And it turns out that the people from whom they seek their information, namely Herod, are not particularly trustworthy in their intentions. But at night when darkness falls, the sky lights up and they can once again find their way without the guidance of anyone else but themselves and the wild star.
It’s a bit ironic isn’t it that the cover of darkness, the thing so many of us fear, is the only time the Magi are confident enough to move forward making use of their own gifts and skills and intuition.
A couple years ago I was introduced to the traditional Maori practice of wayfinding. I’m sure that wayfinding exists in other cultures, but it was a Maori women who first told me about it. Traditional wayfinders navigate both land and sea by orienting themselves with the stars, the movement of wind and water and the contours of the land. The best wayfinders are so familiar with the night sky that even when the stars are obscured by clouds, they are able to get their bearings. They are not afraid of the dark, they are friends with the dark. They know how to find and receive the gifts that darkness can bring. It’s as if the darkness actually heightens their senses and sharpens their focus. They are able to give themselves over to the direction of the stars because they trust that the stars will help them to find their way.
I know that many of you here this morning, like the magi and traditional Maori wayfinders are also familiar with making your way in the dark, not necessarily because you have chosen to go out walking under a star lit sky, but because the circumstances of your lives have thrown you into dark places.
If that’s the case you might already be aware of the gifts that only darkness can bring, the way it is that when we have no choice but to wait and watch for the light to emerge, when we give ourselves over and embrace the darkness in which we find ourselves, we experience the kind of light we cannot experience in any other way.
This past week I’ve had the privilege of journeying with a 21 year old young man named Henry who was airlifted to Lions Gate Hospital after it was determined he had contracted bacterial meningitis. When I first met him and his parents in the ICU last friday he was fighting for his life. But every day his parents prayed for him and held onto the tiniest threads of hope, the smallest glimmers of light. Over and over again it was the presence of Christ’s healing light that we evoked for him. Thankfully on Friday of this week that light began flooding in and I am happy to say that Henry is on the mend. But in their darkest hours when there was no assurance of his recovery, I was humbled by how faithfully, his mother in particular focussed in, clinging to the fragments of light flashing in front of her and giving herself over only to hope and love.
We often speak of darkness only in negative terms. We wear dark close to signify death and grief or we talk about evil lurking in the shadows. And yet seeds need the darkness to be nourished, babies are conceived and grown in darkness, wounds heal better under wraps, we sleep better in the dark and only in darkness can we follow an evening star.
So when times are dark, there’s something about this story of the Magi that reminds us of the choice we have in our lives, to dwell in fear, or to give ourselves over to the way of light and love. There’s something about walking through darkness that calls us to sharpen our focus and be more attentive to what it is and who it is we are giving our lives to on a day to day basis. And there’s something about the story of the Magi that says the more we give ourselves over to love humbly enfleshed, the more able we are to detect false gods and royal pretenders.
We are in a time in our world right now when we need to have that kind of ability for discernment. Perhaps one of the greatest gifts of dark times is that they call forth in us the desire to change and the desire to work together for the sake of the common good and often the desire to allow ourselves to be guided by something we cannot always see when all is merry and bright.
A few years ago my brother and sister-in-law travelled to Tanzania to hike Mt. Kilimanjaro. My brother and his wife are two of the most physically fit people I know, and yet they described the journey to the top of the mountain as one of the most challenging experiences of their lives. That’s because not only was it a physical challenge, it was also a spiritual, mental and emotional challenge as well.
The hike to the summit took a total of 5 days. On the fourth day came the time to plan the much anticipated climb to the top. They stopped hiking early that day so they could go to bed early and rise at midnight to complete the last leg of the climb. They were told this would allow them to summit at sunrise. But there were other reasons they approached their desired destination by cover of darkness. Their guides knew that if they could see how close to the edge they were travelling or far to the summit they had to go, they would never make it to the top.
The guides knew that in the darkness the distractions would be few and the travellers would be more inclined to listen to their guides to show them the way. So by night they travelled deep in darkness with only all headlamps and the form of their companion hikers in front of them. At one point my sister-in-law looked to her side for a split second and glimpsed how close they were to a 2000 meter drop. They were doing by night what they could not do by day. As they journeyed the only words the guides repeated over and over again were these: faith and trust, faith and trust, we travel by faith and trust.
I don’t know how the gifts of the manger have been made manifest for you this season, the gifts of hope, peace, joy, love, the gift of Emmanuel, God who is with us. For me they were received in part at the bedside of a young man for whom those of us without medical training could do nothing more than cling to the light and love of a presence far greater than any of us in the midst of a very dark time.
If you are not sure of the gifts you have received and even if you are, today we have another gift for each of us to receive. We are calling these star gifts. On each of these stars is a word. The invitation is to take a star from the offering plate and ponder the word that is on it. Take your star home with you and keep it in a place where you will be reminded of it. Allow your word to guide you, pray about the meaning of your word – especially if it is a word that challenges you. Pay attention to the way the word influences your life this year. Maybe it will be the key to how you pay homage to the Christ child this year.
(*) quote from Thomas H. Troger, Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 1 page 216, Westminster John Knox Press, 2010