One Small Saviour of Life
Pray tell, dear people, were you shocked––this morning––to see upon your video screen a Christmas tree still lit? And Christ candles still burning, upon an Advent wreath?
You shouldn’t be. Christmas is NOT over. In fact, Christmas was so important to Christians of yesteryear that they assigned not one, but twelve days to it; hence the “Twelve Days of Christmas,” which is more than just an annoying Christmas carol about a romantic pair of overzealous gift-givers. What I like about the Twelve Days of Christmas is that one can finally slow down enough to drink in its profound richness as a “season of the spirit;” Christmas Day but one day, in twelve.
There are so many things I like to do over Christmas––and did––even now; even at the close of the infamous 2020, which will go down in history as a year of dismay and disorder! Pray. Check. Reflect. Check. Reminisce. Check. Dream. Check. Remember Christmases past and contemplate Christmases to come. Check. Read great books. Check. Eat great food. Check.
Watch great movies. Check. Take long walks in the wind and snow. Check.
Yes, it was a little lonelier than usual, maybe even darker than usual––but that’s okay. God is good; 2020 is over; and a new horizon is dawning, by the Spirit of God; by the mercy of God . . .
And I pray that you––and I––would have the grace to see it.
I even listened to the Queen. Yes, the Queen. The Pope may deliver a Christmas message, so too the King of Sweden; the King of the Netherlands, the King of Belgium; the King of Spain;
the President of Germany––and so on and so on! But hey, the Queen is the Queen!
The Queen’s message is not only a precious commonwealth tradition––but one of the only occasions when the Queen voices her own views and not those of her government. Each has a theme, decided months in advance, and is accompanied by archival footage from all over Elizabeth’s realm.
This year the Queen––as you may or may not know––has addressed the Commonwealth not once, but three separate times, to great effect.
In any case, having listened to this year’s Christmas address––which I also thought impressive––
I decided to go back and listen to a few others. And in doing so I was struck––in particular––
by the address she gave seven years ago. Its theme? The power of “reflection.” Few would take Elizabeth II as a noted philosopher, given to reflection; but here she is, in 2013, commending us to slow down; to understand the world––and the message of Christmas––more clearly than ever before.
“I once knew someone who spent a year in a plaster cast recovering from an operation on his back,” she began that year. “He read a lot, and thought a lot, and felt miserable. Later, he realized this time of forced retreat from the world” [––sound familiar, O ye of 2020???––]
“had helped him to understand the world more clearly . . . We all need to get the balance right between action and reflection. With so many distractions, it is easy to forget to pause [––and pause we did in 2020––] and take stock. Be it through contemplation, prayer, or even keeping a diary, many have found the practice of quiet personal reflection surprisingly rewarding, even discovering greater spiritual depth to their lives.”
Not a bad introduction, if you ask me, and strangely a propos to 2020. The Queen may not be a Wise Man, but she is a very wise woman.
But this is not all. A few lines later––and very modestly I think––she referred to another event of personal significance: “Here at home my own family is a little larger this Christmas. As so many of you will know, the arrival of a baby gives everyone the chance to contemplate the future, with renewed happiness and hope.” She refers, of course, to the birth of her great grandson Prince George on July 22, 2013.
The birth of a baby!! Can it change a world?? The Wise Men, masters of reflection, “of long thinking in the same direction,” to paraphrase Nietzche, thought so . . . Yes, the Wise Men, also known as the Magi, whom we met in our reading this morning, i.e. in the Gospel of Matthew. They are among the most mysterious figures in the New Testament. The Wise Men were philosophers, i.e. lovers of wisdom; men who had given themselves over to reflection as a whole way of life. But instead of becoming musty, and pretentious, and insignificant, their retreat from the world had made them understand it much more clearly.
Magoi (magoi), by the way, is plural of the Greek word magoz, from which we derive the word “magic”––though magic––so called––in the sense of sorcery (the means by which evil persons bring harm to others by manipulating spiritual power) had nothing to do with who they were, or what they did. The Greek term is derived from an Old Persian word from a still older language called “Avestan.” There, the word magus refers to a member of a priestly caste called the magâ-unô. Are you still with me? And the magâ-unô were striking in this way: they were followers of a great Persian philosopher called Zoroaster.
Now Zoroaster was no ordinary philosopher. He had an astonishing idea: (unlike everyone else around him). Zoroaster believed that there weren’t countless gods, but only two: one that he called the “Illuminating Wisdom;” and the other, that he called the “Destructive Spirit.” As it were, God, and Satan.
And the Magi, most historians believe, were the priests of Zoroaster. With Zoroaster, they believed that there was––in fact––in benevolent terms, only one God: and they had the faith to believe that he could be found. And so the Magi searched, and searched, and searched for the One.
And who else believed in One God? Why the Hebrews, of course! “Hear, O Israel,” reads Deuteronomy 6:4: “The Lord our God; the Lord is one.” No wonder the Magi were looking to Palestine with great interest. No wonder their interest was piqued when the fruit of long spiritual reflection made it clear that something BIG was going down west, something big enough to suit up for, and get moving.
As it were by the Spirit of God the Magi figured out that there was really only One God
––not thousands of gods, as the Persians believed––and that this One God could be found.
Further to this, they had figured out, again by the Spirit of God, that something monumental relative to this was taking place in Palestine––the birth of a new King. A strange star had appeared in the heavens (they also believed that earth and heaven, by way, were strangely connected, one reflecting the other, and vice versa); and so they believed that the appearance of this star was of overwhelming significance.
Needless to say it also customary––nowadays––not only to believe that all roads lead equally to God, but that that God cannot really ever be found. Despite everything Jesus said about the matter, and that the “bravest of all persons” intellectually is neither a theist, nor an atheist,
but an agnostic––one who says, in effect, “knowledge of such matters is impossible; one can never solve the question one way or another,” and God, therefore, can never be known.”
But the Magi not only knew that this God could be found, but that they were being called to search for him, come heaven or hell, life or death, angels or demons. They had taken to heart words of Jesus, well before they had even been spoken. I am thinking of the Sermon on the Mount, which reads, in part,
“Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.”
And search they did.
Would you search, and search, and search for the Truth until you found it???? It; or him??
Would you? Even in a time of Covid? Would you cross the world for him, though a babe in arms, red and raw? Would you prepare gifts for him, gifts both rich and rare? Would you give your life to him––and for him? Would you?
The Wise Men said “yes, we will.”
“A cold coming we had of it, just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:”
writes T. S. Eliot of the Wise Men, which I quoted on Christmas Eve.
“The ways deep and the weather sharp; the very dead of winter. . . .
And the camels galled, sore-footed, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times when we regretted the night-fires going out,
and the lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile
And the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty:
A hard time we had of it.
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That “this was all folly,” this our journey . . .
There was no information, but we continued
And arrived at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you may say) satisfactory.
All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down . . .
This: were we lead all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I have seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
with an alien people clutching their gods.”
When the Wise Men first reached Jerusalem they were shocked to find that no one really knew anything about the coming of this King, save rumors. Yes, both the chief priests and the scribes, knew the prophecies, and knew them well. They knew that if and when Messiah appeared, he would be born in Bethlehem. Instead, they were merely “troubled.”
We know why Herod was troubled! He was worried that if “Messiah” actually appeared He would prove a usurper. “If takes one to know one,” Herod no doubt said to himself, “and I’ll fix that, as I fix everything, at the point of a sword.”
As for the Wise Men, they were single-minded and single-hearted. They brought gold, fit for a king; frankincense, an extravagant perfume used for worshipping God; myrrh, a precious ointment most often used in embalming. In the words of the earliest Christian theologians, Origen, “gold, as to a king; myrrh, as to one who was mortal; and incense, as to a God.”
All of these they laid before him.
What will you lay before him, this Epiphany Sunday??
“What can I give him, poor as I am?”
asks the Victorian poet Christina Rosetti.
“If I were a shepherd, I would give a lamb.
“If I were a Wise Man, I would do my part.
Yet what I can, I give him . . . .
Give my heart.”
Could 2021 be a time for reflection, and for a profoundly new level of giving to God,
and receiving from God? Could it be a time for finding––as the Queen suggested some years ago––a whole new balance between reflecting, and acting; a time in which we are unafraid to take real stock of who we are and what we do––and then to act on those findings?
Could it be a time that we search for the One, until we have found him––I mean really find him?
Saying goodbye to the “Many” which have always distracted us? (The “Many” things; the “Many” excuses, like the excuse of agnosticism; the “Many” gods, even––gods who are not gods, fit for worship, but merely distractions, preoccupations, wastes of time.) Could 2021 be a time in which we dare to take a journey; a great journey, of the spirit, reconnecting with the God who made us? The God who came to earth as a man? The God who gave himself for us? The God who saves, heals, and sets right? Will you pray new prayers and light new candles; candles which will never go out, Covid notwithstanding?
“In the year ahead,” concludes the Queen’s message, “I hope you will have time to pause for moments of quiet reflection. As the man in the plaster cast discovered, the results can sometimes be surprising. For Christians, as for all people of faith, reflection, meditation, and prayer help us to renew ourselves in God’s love, as we strive daily to become better people. The Christmas message shows us that this love is for everyone. There is no one beyond its reach. On the first Christmas, in the fields above Bethlehem, as they sat in the cold of night watching their resting sheep, the local shepherds must have had no shortage of time for reflection. Suddenly all this was to change. These humble shepherds were the first to hear and ponder the wondrous news of the birth of Christ – the first noel – the joy of which we celebrate today. I wish you all a very happy Christmas.”