Epiphany—Year C, Isaiah 60:1-6, Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14, Ephesians 3:1-12, Matthew 2:1-12
Today, is the culmination of an epic journey. We know the story of Matthew so well, but there is so much we don’t know. Like, just who are these wise men and where do they come from? There is an eighth century Syriac manuscript held in the Vatican Library called the Revelation of the Magi. Brent Landau, the scholar who translated it, thinks the original text may have been written as early as the mid-second century, which would date it less than one hundred years after the time Matthew’s story was written. It’s a first-person account from the perspective of the magi. So, let’s weave these stories together and see what we get.
We are in the time of King Herod. Jesus has just been born in Bethlehem of Judea. Now, at the time of Jesus’ birth, way over in the far East, not just the Persian East, but the far East, a brilliant star appeared. Some wise people of deep, deep prayer, monk-like mystics really, saw this sign. These wise people, magi some called them, were from the mythical land of Shir, possibly in the region of China. They may have been as few as twelve, or they have been many times that number. They were descendants of Seth, the third son of Adam, and they were the guardians of an ancient prophecy that a star of indescribable brightness would someday appear heralding the birth of God in human form.
Now, when the long-prophesied star finally appears, the star isn’t simply sighted at its rising, like Matthew tells the story, but this star descends to earth, ultimately transforming into a luminous “star-child” that instructs the magi to travel to Bethlehem to witness its birth in human form [I knew we were right to have a human starbearer in our Christmas play—yes!]. This star then guides the magi along their journey, miraculously clearing their path of all obstacles and providing them with unlimited stamina and provisions.
Eventually, they come to Jerusalem, and they start asking around, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him. King Herod called together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet.”
Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared, and he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.” Ooooh, do you believe old King Herod?
Well, the magi set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. Finally, inside a cave on the outskirts of Bethlehem, the star reappears to the magi as a luminous human child—the Christ child. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
This luminous star, now manifest as the luminous Christ child, commissions them to become witnesses of Christ in the lands of the east. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road. Once home, they tell this story, preach the faith some say, to everyone they knew. Eventually, Thomas, remember Thomas, doubting, committed, wise, wise Thomas, eventually, Thomas found his way east and baptized them. Thus, the wisdom revealed at the birth of Jesus joins the wisdom experienced in the life of Jesus joins the wisdom discovered in the death and resurrection of Jesus.
So, is this how it really happened? Does this tell us who the magi really were? Landau, the scholar who translated the manuscript, doubts this was actually written by the historical wise men, but it does give a snapshot of some community in early Christianity whose practices looked a lot like these magi. But let’s leave behind our questions of historicity—those who, what, when, where, and why questions— because they rarely get us very far any way. Let’s work at this at the level of myth, and remember—and I’ll put this question to our kids, what do we know about myths? All myths are true, and some of them really happened.
First, these extra stories that fill in the gaps, like The Revelation of the Magi, are great because they allow us to insert ourselves into the story in new ways.
So, the star appears to people who understand contemplation, who are steeped in the practice of silence and meditation. We, here at St. Luke’s, are trying to grow in this practice. What luminous things are we beginning to notice? What synchronicities are beginning to show up in our lives because we are paying attention? Are we willing to take big, huge leaps of faith based upon a dream that may come to us, or an intuition, or a hunch? Are we willing to set out on journeys into unknown territories to follow a something that we can’t even explain to our friends. I mean, the magi follow a star-child, does that sound crazy or what? But if we heed the voices that are calling to us, would we sound any less crazy? Are we willing to risk looking a little bit crazy to the sensible world around us? Are we willing to trust that, if we step out on this journey in faith, we will indeed be given the provisions we need all along the way, that the obstacles that stand in our path will be cleared away?
And what about that scene in Jerusalem? Oh my. All I can think about is the fiasco we see over and over in Washington D.C. I won’t go so far as to name a Herod figure, but I did notice that, in the story, all of Jerusalem was frightened right along with him. Everybody in the center of power was scrambling to figure out just who this threat to their power was. Everybody was aware that they had something to lose. Everybody was afraid. Never mind the wholeness and healing that was possible through this child—if they were going to lose power, this child had to be found and silenced. Those in power had become attached to their power; you can’t worship a new possibility, even if it is full of God, if you have made an idol out of your comfort and power.
We may not be as dysfunctional as our nation’s capital right now, but where are we dug in? To what, in our orbit, in our life, to what have we become attached? What have we turned into an idol that is keeping us from seeing and bowing before a new possibility? Have we grown so independent and self-contained that we find it difficult to bend our knee before anything at all?
And they find the Christ child in a house, by some accounts, or in a cave, by other accounts. Both locations invite us to pay attention to where Christ is being born. Can we see our ordinary homes as the place where Christ is being born, as the place where Christ is being revealed? Or maybe we find ourselves in a cave these days, a dark space, somewhat isolated, not so comfortable—can we see that this dark space is also a place where Christ is being born, a place where Christ is being revealed?
And when this luminous child reveals himself to us, when we catch a glimpse of Christ in whatever way he manifests himself to us, can we allow our breath to be taken away? Can we allow wonder to catch our hearts off-guard? Can we let this luminous wonder ignite our generosity? Can we throw off our well-honed moderation, our well-cultivated self-restraint, can we cast these to the winds and lay our very best gifts, in whatever form they take, before our God, and let God do with them what God will?
And as we depart this encounter, can we heed the voices of warning—in a dream, in our thoughts, through a friend’s counsel—not to return the way we came? Can we understand that this encounter changes everything, and that we have to find our way home by another road? Can we see that once we meet this luminous child, we are free to go a new way? If the magi were skilled at keeping silence, then they had surely gone round and round with shadow voices, their own or others. It pays to be able to hear the shadow speak and to heed that voice. Their willingness to do so gave this new fragile life the chance it needed to survive.
These wise people were not meant to stay in Bethlehem and become the new Jesus groupies there. They were meant to carry this experience in their souls, and to carry it back home where they could radiate its light there. Where are you called to carry this radiance? Where is the place you are meant to share your experience? Can you risk that what you have encountered here may not be understood out there, and will you risk shining with this luminosity anyway?
I love that Thomas eventually meets up with this motley crew. Wisdom found in one place will always find its way to wisdom found some place else. We need not fear wisdom wherever it reveals itself. If the magi have come to tell us anything, they have come to tell us that. They did not fear the luminous star, they did not fear traveling to the West, they did not fear the luminous child, they did not fear a powerful king, they did not fear their folk back home—maybe cultivating the practice of silence had taught them not to fear at all and had freed them to journey forward in faith. Don’t we all long for that kind of freedom?
Quite a journey those magi made, but you and I have a journey that is no less epic, if we but say “yes” to the invitation to make it, and then, have the courage to tell our tale. The pen is now in your hand—how will you tell the story of God’s revelation to you? Amen.
The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC
January 6, 2013