These Wise Guys Got It
January 6, 2019, Epiphany
epiphany – noun: 2) an appearance or manifestation especially of a divine being; 3) a (1) : a usually sudden manifestation or perception of the essential nature or meaning of something; (2) : an intuitive grasp of reality through something (such as an event) usually simple and striking
Twenty-four years ago at this time I was in Chicago for a campus ministry conference at a hotel by O‘Hare airport. January is apparently a good time to get an excellent deal on conference space and accomodations in Chicago. Nobody wants to go there. It’s often frigid. And this particular week it was cold even by Chicago’s standards. Temperatures were in the single digits the whole time and the wind chill made it feel colder. I made something like $25 on a dare from friends for going outside and running around the hotel in just my shoes and gym shorts.
It was also a chance to go and spend a couple of days with my late grandmother Connie after the conference was done. For starters, she proposed that I take the El train and meet her at her church, St. James, the Episcopal Cathedral of Chicago, for their Epiphany service. St. James is what we church folks call a “high” church. Most of their services have plenty of incense, bells denoting the progressions in worship, fancy priestly garments and a rather formal order to things. “Smells and bells,” it is called.
The Epiphany service there was a major deal for some years. Apparently somebody had gotten the idea to go big and theatrical on the occasion, and so for accuracy purposes they paid to truck in three genuine Siberian camels from a zoo in Minnesota to lead the procession into the Cathedral.
A couple things to know about Siberian, or Bactrian, camels. They have two humps that distinguish them from the one hump common to the dromedary, or Arabian, camel. They can be much heavier; a full-grown Siberian camel may weigh more than a ton. They have long been excellent pack animals, and were likely the major source for transporting goods on the Silk Road. They look like a funky cross between a camel and a sheep dog and may have been an inspiration for the tauntauns in The Empire Strikes Back. They are well-adapted to handle extreme weather changes, lack of water and high altitudes.
Which didn’t make the three Siberian camels outside St. James any happier with the Chicago weather. I remember them having no interest at all in leaving their warm transport trailers. They were quite literally pissed off, spraying all over, spitting, bellowing, digging their heels in and generally making things difficult for their handlers.
But eventually they cooperated and so three ornately costumed (and somewhat nervous) wise men saddled up and led the procession into the Cathedral, followed by the St. James youth group and small kids bearing gifts to the Christ child for the Heifer Project.
I will forever remember this scene when I think of Epiphany and our passage this morning from the gospel of Matthew.
Because it was completely ridiculous.
There we were, my grandmother and I along with maybe a couple hundred hearty souls and camera crews, for Siberian camels aren’t often seen in downtown Chicago. All there to recall and celebrate that the baby Jesus has shown up.
The Epiphany passage about the visitation of the wise men is only found in the gospel of Matthew amongst the four gospels in the Bible. It’s unique to Matthew for a couple of notable reasons. Matthew is the most Jewish of the four gospels, written for an audience most immersed in Hebrew scripture and culture. Accordingly, the gospel of Matthew takes the most glee in tweaking conventional Jewish sensibilities. Why that boring genealogy in chapter one? To show off the women in Jesus’ lineage, several of whom were women of ill repute.
We get more of this in the Epiphany passage. Many of us may be somewhat inoculated to the subversive presence of the wise men in the baby Jesus story. Smart dudes bearing gifts to the Christ child? Of course! That’s how it should be. Smart people should recognize the special and divine nature of baby Jesus. Plus, it’s real cool to have a couple kids dress up in robes and fancy hats for a Christmas pageant. Striking. Cute.
That’s not how Matthew’s early audience would have necessarily seen it. Two things give it away that the presence of our wise guys may be a bit more complicated, a bit more problematic than we might immediately think.
We learn at the offset that our wise men are from the East. So who cares? Oh, the audience should. Unfortunately I can’t get you to participate because our otherwise wonderful Green Bibles don’t have maps in the back. This is too bad, because geographical context matters sometimes. At some point early in my faith life I was reading this passage and got the bright idea to look at the map in the back of my Bible and point east, which is to the right on the page. What do you get? What modern countries are to the east? (Iraq/Iran)
Babylonia. Persia. Empires and cultures that had at various points overthrown and occupied Israel. Not the best of neighbors, then as now. They were often enemies and, for a variety of reasons, definitely NOT co-religionists. This is not an interfaith dialogue moment. It’s designed to challenge, even offend, the sensibilities of the target audience hearing the story.
Well, at least they are “wise men.” Ah, we think, they are learned, distinguished, impressive people. We learn later that they have precious goods, gold, spices, perfumes. Hey, they’re even rich. Cool.
Not so much. The word in the Greek for wise men is “magoi,” which is from where we get the word “magician.” They interpret the stars. They’re wizards, sorcerers, psychics, idolaters! Yuck!
True, they were skilled. As with many ancient cultures, there was both a science and an art in understanding the stars. The science is what we call astronomy, the “laws of the stars.” That’s fine, then and now. You can still work hard, get a PhD., and a legitimately complex science job in astronomy. You might work for NASA, send probes into space and try to learn about the past, present and future of the universe. Complicated stuff.
In ancient times this was essential for other reasons. Knowing where the stars were in the sky meant a way of knowing the seasons, when to plant, when to harvest. Food equals life so this was essential. It was also useful for the spread of humanity and development of civilizations. As one example, the ancient Polynesians navigated by the stars, which is how they traversed the South Pacific and eventually found Hawaii, maybe the best place on earth for humans to thrive. The Mayans knew the stars. The Toltecs, the Incas. This may be somewhat lost upon us today. If I look up at night and see a light there is a good chance that it is something on its approach to land at Ontario. In the past, if you were a moderately successful culture, astronomy was a given.
But there was usually a continuum from astronomy into astrology, the art of “words and meaning of the stars.” Like those little horoscope scrolls that you can buy at the check-out in the super market. Or Miss Cleo.
The Hebrews were not okay with this. It was a major bone of contention between them and other cultures, including those to the east. In the Jewish worldview, stars and other heavenly bodies were created by God. They were not divine in themselves. So those who essentially worshipped the stars were idolaters, ones who abused the commandment that “thou shall not have other gods before me.”
So the arrival of magoi coming to pay homage to baby Jesus is scandalous. Or, for our purposes today, ridiculous. Who, right off the bat in Matthew, “gets” who Jesus is? Astrologers! There’s nothing even about shepherds. That’s in Luke and is what lets us have fuzzy lambs in nativity scenes everywhere.
Apparently it’s fine with Matthew, even desirable, that our wise guys use their skills at star-gazing to discern someone very special has shown up. So they make pilgrimage to Bethlehem, to meet this special one in person and worship.
I’ve learned a lot from Muslim friends about pilgrimage. The haj, the pilgrimage to Mecca, is the fifth and final pillar of Islam, in which Muslims retrace the steps of Father Abraham and the prophet Mohammad (peace be upon him). There are many benefits of the haj to a Muslim and prime among them is that being there makes one’s faith intensely personal. The time, energy and resources spent in journeying to Mecca makes real one’s own commitments, one’s own sense of the reality of God’s love, forgiveness and call to do right in our lives and world. It’s powerful and transformative.
For it is in their seeking, their journeying, that the wise guys are too transformed. We hear that they were “overwhelmed with joy,” that their minds were blown with happy wonder. They have found the one for whom they were looking. They have received. They kneel down to the baby, who is the great gift, who is the source of their joy.
I love what happens next, and the elegance of how their response is worded in today’s text: “Then, opening their treasure chest, they offered…” They offered expensive stuff we learn, the standard that is gold, the wonderful smelling and sounding “frankincense” and “myrrh.” And then they vanish from our story, having worshipped the baby and left Herod without what he wanted. They go home to their normal lives, forever changed.
It is simple process to articulate, a way to think about our spirituality that perhaps is timeless.
Seeking/learning/journeying – to find that, and whom, is most real and wonderful
Cherishing in joy – the one who is Love that shows up
Giving (extravagantly) – of whatever our best is, not settling for less
Of course the wise guys aren’t the only ones in the Matthew passage who make some form of a three-fold move. While thye’re the only ones who make it into our countless children’s Christmas pageants every year, there is another party in the scriptural passage, a contrast to the joyful journeying of the magoi. It’s Herod.
The counter-narrative to a joyful, ridiculous, inclusive faith is fear. Fear seeks to control, to dominate the unknown, to protect its own narrow, even personal interests. And fear metes out all kinds of horrors, large and small, to those who cause it.
Herod is frightened. Thus, Herod seeks to destroy the One whom he perceives as a threat to his power, and the only learning he desires is the location of the child so that he can do so. Herod cherishes, or clings, to being king. It’s good to be the king. Herod, because our faithful magoi resist and don’t give him what he wants, doubles-down and broadens the scope of the destruction in order to attempt to wreak his own ends. He ultimately fails but we are sobered by the passage’s desciption, known as “the slaughter of the innocents.” He kills children. He demands ethnic cleansing.
Matthew, unique amongst the gospels, gives the listener a choice. What will you seek? What will you cherish? What will you give? What will I?
Thank you God for having shown up. May we receive you and yours with overwhelming joy. May we cherish the ridiculous.