January 6, 2008 Paying Attention Rev. Sally Harris (Isaiah 60; Matthew 2: 1 - 12) The Psalmist prayed: I call each of you to open your inner ears, to see with spiritual eyes And to trust that even amidst the outward chaos, all is working toward the wholeness of humanity. Bring to our recollection all that we have denied so that we might help rebuild the soul of the world with trust, love and wonder ~adapted from Psalms for Praying, by Nan Merrill Ps. 145 I wonder if God came to the edge of heaven and flung a Star into the sky, laughing with joy as it lit the darkness of the earth; and the angels hearing the laughter of God, begin to congregate in some celestial chamber to practice their alleluias. I wonder if God planned the subtle dance of stars creating a sign for those with discerning eyes and a ready heart. Yes amidst the vision of angels, bending low, and the shepherds, and the Magi, we hear a voice calling to each of us: Pay Attention, raise up your eyes, look around - start star-gazing! In a commentary on Matthew, Stanley Hauerwas, a professor at Duke University observes that sentimentality is one of the greatest enemies of understanding the gospel, especially the Christmas story and the events surrounding the birth of Jesus. This chapter in Matthew ends all such Hallmark readings of the Bible. The story of the pagan magi worshipping Jesus ends in carnage when king Herod slaughters innocent children in order to strengthen his rule. This is an old story, retold many times in our own day, in which political powers annihilate their opposition to protect their power. It is a story that demands our attention. Every January 6 western Christians recall this story of pagan Magi and power politics as we celebrate the feast of Epiphany. Epiphany; epiphaneia, a word, a season of disclosure, manifestation, unveiling - the appearance of that which brings hope. Pay attention, this season of Epiphany whispers to us… a baby born in obscurity is found through cosmic signs and protected through comprehensive dreams. Wise ones, a father and mother follow the signs and dreams for new life to be brought into being. In paying attention the Christ child is found and sheltered from all that would destroy new life, hope for the world. The historical obscurity of the magi tantalizes our speculation. Contrary to tradition, Matthew doesn't say that there were three of them. The historian Herodotus wrote that the magi were a caste of priests from Persia who could interpret dreams. That's good, because there are five dreams in Matthew's birth narrative, (Chapters 1-2) and four of them warn of the murderous intentions of king Herod. These priests from Persia paid attention to stars and to dreams. Others think that the ancestry of the magi reaches back to the Kurds two millennia ago. That would be an interesting irony in our modern geo-political context. It wasn’t until the third century, that some began interpreting the magi as three kings, a reading which would include a clash of kingdoms: on the one hand, pagan kings who bow down to the newborn king of the Jews, and, on the other hand, the imperial king of Rome who tries to murder him. Assuming that the magi had followed the main trade route from Persia (modern day Iran), they would have probably used horses to cross over mountainous and rocky terrain, switching to camels once they reached the desert. It can be assumed, since their journey did not need to be kept secret, that they traveled along the main trade route of their era. This meant that they would have followed the Euphrates River up through what is now Iraq, crossed over the harsh and desolate Syrian desert, passed through the lush Jordan Valley and arrived, after a journey of several months, at the gates of Jerusalem. They would have seen harsh and barren deserts, lush green hills, mountains and rivers. To a group of weary travelers, unaccustomed to such turbulent and varied conditions, it might have seemed as if they had traveled across the entire stretch of the world. Indeed they would have crossed over political, cultural and religious boundaries. What happened next most likely came as a shock. It is not implausible to assume that this journey was also diplomatic in origin. If the stars were predicting that a new king had been born, it would prove useful to pay tribute to him and his family. They may have assumed that Herod, the ruler of Judea and Palestine, had produced a son, an heir to his seat of power. On these matters we can only speculate but it is fairly safe to assume that the Magi would have seen the world not only through a spiritual, but also a political lens. But there was no known newborn king of the Jews in Jerusalem and King Herod had become sickly and paranoid. Those who stood a chance to replace him on the throne knew that now was the time to make their bid for power. To thwart these attempts, Herod had already killed his previous wife and several of his sons. King Herod knew that the new king the Magi were seeking could not be one of his own. After consulting with his advisors, troubled Herod (who had spent no time star-gazing) asked the pagan priests from Persia what time the star had appeared and then shared Hebraic prophecy with them; encouraging them to: "Go and search diligently for the young child; and when you have found him, bring me word again, that I may come worship him also." Of course, Herod hoped to have the child slain, destroying any potential threat to his rule. After a journey of several months and over a thousand miles, the Magi finally found their way to Mary, Joseph and their son Jesus, a family of differing race and religion. Here they offered "Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh." Gifts not easily or quickly parted with and they imply that the Magi meant to legitimize the newborn's rule. Matthew even describes the Magi falling down to "worship" the newborn. What did they envision for this small child and his future? What sort of nation did they imagine that he would lead? What did these foreigners learn from their travels abroad - their pilgrimage? What influenced them to risk their lives for a child of prophecy? Did they think of him as a political 'King' or had some of their discoveries given rise to a more spiritual interpretation? What sort of conversations did these wise ones have with Mary and Joseph? Did their cultural and religious differences seem irreconcilable? Were they able to communicate at all, or was the language barrier insurmountable? The story does not say. But what we can glean from this layered narrative is that these pagans from Persia, these first pilgrims of the Christian story invite us to pay attention to our own pilgrimage. The story encourages us to let go of expectations – on a pilgrimage, things will never turn out exactly as you expected. There will hardships and surprises. Pay attention to the subtle shifts of the sky and discern the details of your dreams. Be aware of your distractions. Practice the arts of attention and listening. Walk humbly – See the world from a new perspective – pilgrimage, like art and poetry, is at every station concerned with meaning. Practice welcoming the stranger – who would have guessed that foreign dream-deciphering diplomats would be among the first to welcome this babe in Bethlehem. (resource: Dan Clendenin) Traveling our heart’s path Not all the year so bright, Fear and anxiety, too, arise. Still the path leads forward. Round the next bend – Delight, surprise, mystery? In all O God, you show the path that leads to life. (Shelagh McCulloch-Taylor) Will we come and see the Light?
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