The Second Sunday after Christmas Day
The Very Reverend Torey Lightcap

 

On Wednesday of this coming week, January 6th, we will mark the occasion
Of entering into the season of Epiphany.
Because of how things are arranged right now,
I thought it best to encourage us to observe this day in our homes this year.
But a reading like this one can help us to anticipate Epiphany
While also keeping us in the infancy story of Jesus at Christmas …

Today is about taking the thousand-mile trip
From the head to the heart.

The first thing to know is that the gospel we just read stands alone:
It isn’t repeated anywhere else, so what’s presented is all we have to go on.
(Matthew goes with the wise men and the star and Herod; Luke goes with the shepherds;
Mark and John are altogether silent on the Nativity.)

Then there’s the fact that no actual number of kings is given.
Surely there were three of them, right?
If not, why did we always think there were ?
How did that happen? Well, culture is a powerful transmitter of ideas.
We find over the years a number of traditions
That try to make the best of the confusion,
Arguing that if there were three gifts presented,
Surely there must have been three presenters presenting them.
In 1857 the deal was sealed when John Henry Hopkins, Jr. wrote a song –
“We three kings of orient are” –
He wrote it for a Christmas pageant for his nieces and nephews,
And three it was.
Which would be fine; three is a very nice number, I’m sure; but just a guess.

Furthermore, the term “king” turns out to be loaded. To the gills.
We aren’t able to find the word “king” anywhere in this passage
(Other than in reference to Herod or Jesus – and those are decidedly different usages).
Looking back into Isaiah,
We find reference to kings being drawn to light,
Which is a poetic allusion Isaiah makes to Jerusalem
Being a place where the glory of God will be known
Once it has been restored. Okay. But. Those three kings in particular?

Still, looking at Matthew through the most popular versions
Of the Bible currently available,
They would find references to “wise men,” “magi,” “astrologers,” even “scholars.”
But no “kings.”

According to my Greek dictionary, the term magoi is the plural form of Magus,
The title reserved for a wise man or priest
“Who was expert in astrology and the interpretation of dreams
And various other occult arts.”
Another dictionary says these were Persian men,
And that they occupied a particular priestly caste, or rank, within their society.
They worshipped the one true god they called Ahura Mazda.
The “Mazda” part, yes, certainly a name coopted in our recent past by the automobile industry,
But this was for them the one
From whom they saw all truth and order flow in the universe,
And so they were said to abhor falsehood and chaos.
The author of Matthew is saying that because they worshipped a wise god,
This made them wise –
Wise enough to be compelled to come find the Christ child.
And smart enough not to get entangled in local politics
And take another way home.

Well, at least we have some of their names, right,
Even if there were more than three of them: Melchior, Balthasar, Caspar.
Then too, if we place those under the microscope,
We find that no one in history would come up with such a list of names
Until 500 years after the fact, when memory may have faded some.

And on and on we could go, dismantling the Nativity, piece by piece.
Such is the modern predisposition –
The scientific outlook, the hot desire to explain things away –
To fold a mystery that cannot be contained into a tight, manageable bundle –
So that we have it clearly, even as we may have missed the point.

Let me tell you a story told by Phyllis Tickle,
Who wa a prominent thinker in religion up until her death five years ago.
She told this at a clergy conference I attended.

She said she’d been to give a lecture somewhere on the subject of the Virgin Birth.
There’s a lot you could say on the topic, and she went down the list:
Historical concerns around the Virgin Birth; what the text does and does not say;
How Catholics and Protestants had conversed about this over the years;
And how our Christian tradition has generally tended to view it.

She said a boy in his late-teenage years came in and sat down and listened.
Then, after the lecture was over and the applause died down
And she had entertained some questions from the audience
And a few people came up to her and had a little conversation –
After all that, this young man waited and approached.

They were the last two people in the room.
He had a lump in his throat;
He thanked her for everything she said, and then he asked her
Whether she thought the Virgin Birth was true.
She played the academic, hemming and hawing.
Then she asked him what he thought, and he said something like,
“Of course it’s true. It’s so beautiful it has to be true, whether it happened or not” …

In striving for accuracy and insight,
The good professor suddenly realized she had completely missed the point of the whole thing,
Which was adoration.
That young man had stumbled upon something that just had to be true,
“Whether it happened or not.”

What is the appropriate response to such a learning?

As for us, talking about even this small slice of the Nativity story –
It shows us that our first duty is not to argue, or to take the Bible apart –
At least, not unless we put it back together again inside ourselves.
We’re here, first, to worship.

I can only see one response anywhere near appropriate,
And that is to get on one’s knees and swallow hard
And keep one’s eyes open and try not to blink lest one single detail be missed.

Awe. Reverence. Adoration. Worship.

This is a primal “Wow” that goes beyond words, creeds, formulas, hymns, dogmas,
Sculptures and paintings –
Which are all forms of “faith seeking understanding.”
If there is a lament, it is of the loss of that kind of response to this kind of story.

“O come, let us deconstruct him”?
“O come, let us set him into his proper historical context”?
“Explain him away until we are satisfied and he is all but vanished”?

This child, Jesus, will demand of us everything,
And will in turn give us everything – though it won’t be what we thought.
His message will run opposed to conventional wisdom so much
That at times he will seem so far from us that we can’t understand him.
Can we, by our worship, oppose conventional wisdom
And, for a moment, side aside our own thoughts? It’s tough, I know — hard for me too.

I believe when Covid is through rampaging, we may experience a cultural recovery
Of the contemplative mindset — a retrieval of something basic,
Which is the chance to just be in the presence of God,
Without the need to judge or dissect that presence.
To be present to divine presence.

That’s why the men in this story have made this dangerous journey.
They’re compelled there, to see something for themselves.

Think about our lives:
We have an infinite array of options of things to distract us;
We live constantly with an endless need to prove ourselves and never be wrong;
We have a survivalistic tendency to want to be first in line but still look humble;
We ingest so much into our bodies just to keep going;
And we consume an incredible amount of information every day.

It’s a fierce and frenetic existence.
How can we still that and set it aside and just be with God?
I would argue it begins by making a conscious decision to carve out some space
Where it’s possible.

Wherever this journey of faith takes us,
If we can find that stillpoint at the center
That comes from simply beholding the truth,
We will be in sacred space.
That is the fundamental definition of the term –
Not a place so much as a disposition of the heart.

And I don’t believe we’ve lost that capacity, because here we are at Christmas,
Gathered around a child who cannot be explained,
Has no need to be labeled,
And who, at the moment, demands nothing.
Let us then simply let it be, and love this child, and kneel in reverence before him.
If we can’t do that, then all our other practice is in vain.
But to love a thing is to want to behold it, be near it,
To be willing to be inwardly transformed by it …
Until, by degrees, more and more, we come to be like it.

So let’s behold this mystery together today,
On our metaphorical knees, and look together on this one born to us.