Epiphanic

Matt. 2:1-12
1/6/08

Two Sundays ago we heard excerpts from Handel’s Messiah. It was a glorious moment in the worship of this church. Later in the afternoon I sat at my desk in my den at home and wrapped Christmas presents. Ben had his head on my foot and I was listening to WQXR on my computer. Every year WQXR has its “classical count down” in which it plays the top ten or so favorite pieces that were chosen by its listeners. Number seven on the “count down” came on, and it was Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony, “The Pastoral.” After a few minutes I found myself overwhelmed and weeping. Faye was concerned and asked what was wrong. “Nothing is wrong,” I said, “it is just that I can’t believe that I am so privileged to hear such unbelievably beautiful and wonderful music. How can we be so fortunate as to have the music of Handel and Beethoven to listen to? It is just beyond words.” Faye patted me on the head and Ben took his head off my foot. I busied myself with the prosaic task of gift-wrapping.

Later I went up to the hospital to check things out. When I got on the elevator I noticed that this big guy standing next to me had on one of those phones that clips right on the ear. It looks like it protrudes directly from the head. I looked at him and said, “Klingon?” “No,” he replied, “Cyborg.” The door opened and he vanished. I chuckled to myself, because we both knew the story line from the series “Star Trek,” which was about adventures in space, the cosmos and the galaxy.

So much that we see and know about the meaning in life comes from those areas in our experience that are aesthetic and narrative. Incredible music lifts us up and gives us insights and epiphanies that are literally beyond words and non-conceptual. Even so, the aesthetic experience is deeply moving, real and meaningful. So it is also with narrative and literature. I would never claim that “Star Trek” was great narrative or literature, but at the same time I would have to acknowledge that the web of story and the creation of a whole legend created connections and associations that reflect our human condition and have changed our cultural environment.

Today, on the Feast of Epiphany, we have the passage of The Gospel of Matthew which tells of the visit of the Magi to the infant Jesus. The story of the three wise men is a wondrous narrative. There is drama and intrigue with Herod seeking to learn of the birth of the king of the Jews. Herod summons the mysterious men from afar who can tell him about what portends for the future. The Magi are led by a cosmic event, a bright star which comes to rest over a stable in Bethlehem. They bring gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Warned in a dream, they avoid Herod and depart on a different way from whence they had come. This is a wondrous story, unique to Matthew’s Gospel. On the one hand it is simple and straightforward. On the other hand it is connotative and full of implications, echoes and foreshadowings. We are encouraged to read between the lines. Herod says that he would like to come and see Jesus. Instead of reading this literally and taking it at face value, we know that Herod is duplicitous, deceitful and cruel. Hence we hear these words as sinister, threatening and ironic. Like the music of Beethoven, the score of the narrative is broad but it beckons us to listen or read it closely.

Scholars have pointed out that we really don’t know how many Magi there were. We don’t know for sure that there were only three. It seems likely that the Magi were descendents of the Median tribe that attempted to overthrow the Persians. Having failed, they became priests to the Persian kings and henceforth instructors in philosophy, medicine, the natural sciences and astrology. We also know that there were broad expectations of a king who would change the world. Such expectations were found in Tacitus’ Histories and Josephus’ War of the Jews.” There were, then, wise men who served as counselors to rulers and who read the “signs and portents” in the skies and on earth. They followed the “star wars,” and looked for events in the galaxy that marked significant moments on earth. Legend has it that the Magi were three and that their names were Melchior from Persia, Gaspar from India and Balthasar from Arabia. Gaspar was young, Melchior was old and Balthasar was swarthy. Some scholars proclaim that these Magi, also called “kings,” were not gentiles. Well, maybe “yes” and maybe “no.” They certainly were “outsiders” and “from afar.”

They journeyed to Bethlehem where Jacob buried Rachel; where Ruth lived; where David had his home; and a city that Rehoboam fortified. It was near a plain upon which grain was sowed. “Bethlehem” means “house of bread.” A place of sustenance. There are not only historical echoes but there are also echoes of expectation from the prophets Micah and Isaiah. “But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are little to be among the clans of Judah, from you, shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel. . .” Micah 5:2. Second Isaiah tells us “Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you. . . . A multitude of camels shall cover you, the young camels of Midian and Ephah; all those from Sheba shall come. They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord.” Isaiah 60:6.

How rich and soaring is this narrative. It is evocative and incites the imagination. Like great music the narrative leads us to insights and epiphanies (”showing forths”) that straight journalistic history does not yield. The commentator, William Barclay, cautions us, “. . . we must not turn lovely poetry into crude and lifeless prose.”(1) Historical scholars can help us to understand much of the Gospel story, but it is the poetry that lifts and inspires, not the lifeless, mundane prose.

The mysterious Magi brought gold, frankincense and myrrh. Like most gifts these three gifts were symbolic and carried allusions. Gold is valuable. It connotes wealth and along with wealth, power. Incense was used by the priests, who are the bridge builders standing between time and eternity, the here and the tomorrow, the profane and the sacred. Myrrh was an ointment used in the consecration of a king and also in embalming. Myrrh signifies dignity, honor, death and eternal life.

And so Matthew gives us this wondrous story of the coming of the Magi to Bethlehem to pay homage to the Christ child. This story is told on the Feast of Epiphany to mark the “showing forth,” the epiphany of God’s incarnation, to the world, and particularly the revelation to all the nations from all the corners of the earth. We are to mark the revelation of God in Christ Jesus as a universal and a cosmic event of wondrous scope and deep, deep meaning and significance.

Like the music of the Messiah and like the sounds of Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony the piece, the narrative, comes to an end. There is a moment before the applause when you sit, stunned at what you have experienced. You have been transformed. Although you are the same you will never be the same, because you have heard, felt and absorbed something wondrous. Our Feast of the Epiphany will be over soon and we will move on to other narratives and other times. We will possibly forget about the story and about Epiphany.

But as I sit at my desk and feel Ben against my leg, I know that is not true. For I think that the greatness of the narrative of the Magi is not only the showing forth of God’s revelation, but also the showing forth of the inclinations and hunger of our souls. It seems to me that the story of the Magi touches us because it is our story, too. You and I are pilgrims on our life journeys. We bear that which is valuable to us as we journey. We carry our money, our investments, our valuables, our power and worth (not so much literally as figuratively) as we move on. You and I bear a yearning to touch beyond the limits of appearances to the reality of existence. We want to move (like incense) between time and eternity, between the profane and the sacred. Like incense we seek to rise up from the secular and meet that which is religious. Our souls yearn to come to the “holy other,” to enter the mysterium tremendum, the “holy of holies.” We bear myrrh. It is our desire for dignity and honor. It is also our overwhelming awareness of the fragility of life, of our own frailty and or death. Nearly every one of us carries a sense of death in memory of the loss of a loved one, a friend, a colleague or a hope or a dream. Our myrrh is the dark night of the soul, which we carry with us always, which makes us human, and which yearns for meaning and love. Like the Magi, you and I daily walk our separate but common journeys seeking to come to the inn in Bethlehem and to kneel and lay our “gold,” our “frankincense,” and our “myrrh” before the miracle of the Christ child. That is our “epiphany.” That is the showing forth of the real nature of our souls, of our real humanity, of the image of God which is stamped upon each of us and yearns to come home, to come to the stable and to dwell in the presence of God. Epiphany is a feast day. It is a season of several weeks. It is also the condition of our common humanity and the yearning of our souls to be blessed and healed by God. Within the cosmic symphony of God’s great revealing actions, you and I are blessed to have the Gospel narrative, which speaks to our souls and lifts us up in epiphanic moments. Today and everyday, let us follow the star of God’s revelation. Come. Come, let us adore Him. -Amen.

1) Barclay, William. The Gospel of Matthew. The Westminister Press, Philadelphia, 1975, Volume 1, page 31.