Meeting the unexpected

On New Year’s Eve, the roadway was completely covered in snow. All I could see in the waning light of day was the general shape of the roadbed curving slightly to the right in front of me.

I couldn’t see the customary yellow and white lines on the pavement to guide me. There were no tracks left in the snow of cars gone down this way recently. The snowfall was fresh and the road was not well-travelled.

I could control my speed, of course, but I didn’t have a lot to go on. Would I get home in one piece? First, I had to slow down. And even be prepared to stop.

The Magi were on a journey to arrive at the home of the young Christ child. Christmas cards and the popular mindset show the Magi at the baby Jesus’ side on the night he was born. But that is likely not the case.

The Gospel of Matthew indicates the Magi visited the holy family’s “house” in Bethlehem, hardly a description of a cave or stable for animals.[1]The Gospel of Luke, from which we read the birth narrative on Christmas Eve, does not mention the Magi.

The Magi were on a journey that took months if not years to accomplish. Their journey took time. Their coming to Jesus, so to speak, was not an immediate, instant, snap-of-the-fingers conversion. Their experience was slow, plodding and winding course across the deserts of the Middle East. On their journey to find Jesus, they had to have the long-view in mind. A whole lot of determination. And a commitment to the journey with all its fits and starts.

I also get the impression, reading through these verses from Matthew, that the Magi who were nearing the end of their long journey had to make in-the-moment changes to their plans. They had to check their assumptions and change their minds about initial expectations.

For example, at least half the Gospel text for today focuses on Herod. Initially, the Magi came to him in good faith, believing the Roman governor would sincerely help them. But an angel of the Lord had to steer them away, literally by a different road, and from Herod’s manipulating, plotting, fear-ridden treachery. The Magi had to trust ‘new information’ and make changes to their flight plan in mid-stream.

Then, the gifts. Three gifts: Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh. In biblical times, these gifts were usually given to a king or a person with highest status. Gold was such a gift. From the Hebrew scriptures, when The Queen of Sheba visited King Solomon she gave him precious gifts: “Arriving at Jerusalem with a very great caravan – with camels carrying spices, large quantities of gold, and precious stones” (1 Kings 10:2). The spices that she brought with her might very well have been frankincense and myrrh.

The gifts themselves are a powerful sign of what these visitors originally intended. The Magi were coming a long way to worship who they considered the true King. Not Herod. Not Rome. But the divine Son of God.

And, still, not what they expected.

The meaning of these gifts needs to be examined in light of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. For us, what is ‘kingship’ in light of Christ—certainly not what we might first assume: glory, power, military strength and victory. Jesus’ journey took him through the defeat and humiliation of the cross. That’s the kind of kingship Jesus is about.

Myrrh represented healing. Healing in the light of Christ was not so much about an instant cure to earthly disease. But rather, healing is a transformation of the inner life of our attitudes and finding wholeness and grace in every moment of life, especially in the midst of suffering and pain. The king whom the Magi came to worship was a king who, in truth, represented values and meaning that countered—were at odds with—the values of the world.

And that is why this story starts the season of Epiphany in the church. Epiphany means, Revelation. The baby Jesus is revealed as the Son of God who shows us the way of God—God’s path of transformation and salvation. The season of Epiphany invites us to participatein this way. Participating in this journey asks us, like the first Magi, to be prepared to change course and examine our standing assumptions about God and the world.

It’s the manner in which the truth is revealed that ought to catch our attention in the biblical story. And this way is both apparent by what these three gifts mean, and by the expectations we first bring to this story.

For example: We assume and even say ‘it’s biblical’ that there were three men and they were three kings. But that’s not what the bible says. For all we know, there could have been a whole caravan of them. And what if some were women?

Although we sing, “We Three Kings of Orient Are,”, these visitors from the East were also not kings. The term Magi is a plural form of a word in Greek which means, literally, Zoroastrian priests.[2]And, maybe they earned the title ‘wise’ because of their skills in interpreting dreams and understanding astrology.

It’s as if the proverbial rug first needs to be pulled from underneath us before the truth is revealed. We don’t come to it straight on. Our expectations first need to be checked, and likely over time, over turned.

Once on New Year’s Eve when driving down a country road covered in snow in the middle of a blinding snow storm I thought I was driving in the middle of the road. I figured I best check that assumption. Thank God I did.

In a moment no other vehicle was passing, I stopped and opened the driver’s side door. With my boot, I scraped away the fluffy blanket of snow believing I would find the dark asphalt of the road and maybe even a lane marker painted on the hard top.

To my horror, I turned over stones and gravel, indicating I was already on the shoulder of the road. Had I not stopped at that moment, my vehicle was heading in the direction of the deep ditch on the side of the road.

Thank God, I had it in my mind to stop when I did, and scratch the surface of my belief. Then, I was able to change course.

The star finally stopped over Bethlehem, showing the Wise Ones where the destination of their journey lay. At this sign, “they were overwhelmed with joy.”[3]Arriving home in one piece from driving in less-than-ideal road conditions gave me a sense of joy. The joy comes because of the journey, maybe because the journey was difficult. Maybe because the journey called forth the best from you, to meet the challenges and make headway despite the journey’s challenges, pain and suffering.

The amazing thing is that God somehow brought the Magi–the Wise Ones–to the exact location of their hopes and dreams. Perhaps not what they expected at first. But this gift they surely recognized.

Here are some questions for reflection as we enter this new season after the Epiphany: What was the most important gift you received this holiday season? Did you expect it? Why is it important? How did you receive it?

God has given us the greatest gift in Jesus. Where we find him will be shown to us, on the journey. This grace continues throughout our lives.

May our trust grow in a God who has this uncanny ability to trust and have faith in us to get home. Let us pray: God, you led the Wise Ones by a star to find the Christ child. Lead us as we strive to follow you in living our faith. No matter how long it takes. No matter how winding the journey. Help us trust your promise to bring us home. Amen.

 

[1]Matthew 2:11

[2]Niveen Sarras, “Commentary on Matthew 2:1-12”, http://www.workingpreacher.org

[3]Matthew 2:10

An Epiphany reflection

Two kings stand amid the sand dunes under the star speckled desert sky dressed in their regal attire. Their camels peer over their shoulders at the third ‘wise man’ holding the hand of Frankenstein. Yes, Frankenstein. 

The two confront the third, pointing accusatory fingers at what they do not understand: “Right, we’ve picked up the gold and the myrrh … What on earth is THAT?!”

We know the story (Matthew 2) of the magi who visited the infant Jesus bearing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Yes, frankincense. 

We might have an idea of what gold is. But frankincense and myrrh? Basically, these are fragrant spices. But they are not the kind of gifts we would normally give anyone today, let alone a king or queen, president or prime minister. Because we are not familiar with these kinds of gifts, we get tripped up over the words and confuse them with other things. Today we know more about Frankenstein than we do about frankincense. Yet, in Jesus’ day, these were very special gifts.

Let me show you a gift I received this Christmas season. It is three bars of hand-made soap. One of the bars of soap actually has gold flecks in it, as well as frankincense and myrrh essential oils. It is called the “Gift of the Magi Soap”. I suppose there are other things about this gift that can remind me of God, the Christmas story, and the reason Jesus came to the world. 

For example, three bars of soap stand for the Trinity: God is the Father who created everything and everyone; Jesus is the Son who came to wash us clean from our sin; and the Holy Spirit gives us the strength to be the people God has called us to be — to love and care for all people. Of course, the three bars also remind me of the three wise men bearing their special gifts for the baby Jesus.

These days, we will not bring frankincense or myrrh to give to Jesus. Some may bring gold. But the point is not what kind of gift it is. It is that we are willing to bring something special from our own lives to give back to God. It is our offering, whatever it is — our love, our passions, our money, our time, our talents. Maybe even myrrh and frankincense, who knows? 

In this new year, let’s spend some time first thinking about what we can give to God. And then do it. We don’t need to be kings, queens, presidents or prime ministers to give anything of value to Jesus. Because in our baptism we are all princes and princesses in God’s kingdom. And, because our various gifts are important to Jesus and his mission on earth today.

When the gift seems strange

Because of the nature of my work, I cannot travel, like many Canadians do, to warmer climes during the holidays. I confess having fantasized celebrating Christmas Day or Easter morning in the tropics.

I imagine watching a sunrise over the liquid horizon, feeling the warm ocean breezes on my sun-bronzed skin and hearing the crackle of palm leaves above me. I squish my toes into the still-cool pristine sands beneath me and breathe in the salty air. I turn to those sharing the scene beside me, and say: “Merry Christmas”. And we burst into singing together, over the thunder of the crashing surf nearby, “Silent Night, Holy Night”.

I have to confess, I would like to experience this one day. I’m putting it on my bucket list. But I wonder: Will I then miss the typical experience of us northerners who are familiar with a winter setting for the celebration of these holy events? Will I feel I have missed something integral to the experience of a Christmas celebration without the frigid temperatures and snow-laden environs?

Those of you who have experienced a Christmas in a setting that is totally foreign to our typical Canadian winter climate, I’m interested in hearing from you. How did you feel? What did you think? Would you do it again?

As I reflect on our time-worn traditions, I confess how often I put so much emphasis on the ‘window dressing’ of the event, as if what makes the experience enjoyable for me depends on decisions I make or on how much I can control the circumstances. However, in all truth, achieving that ‘picture perfect’ Christmas depends in large part on forces beyond my control; for example, the weather. So, I am caught in-between pretending I can manage an ideal experience whose outcome is ultimately beyond my control.

The real question, therefore, is: How can I receive the gift of Christmas despite the circumstances of my life?

After the worship, we are holding our now annual ‘Epiphany potluck lunch’. Considering the origin of this church tradition, we are practising the spiritual discipline of receiving a gift, unexpectedly. Some of the first potluck meals in North America were held in 1843 at St Paul’s Church in Chicago, which served a large wave of German immigrants swelling Chicago. They held regular potlucks — communal meals where guests brought their own food (from a paper written by Daniel Sack on the social meaning of church socials).

But the original practice was in the spirit of spontaneity. The food was provided for an unexpected guest, but according to the ‘luck of the pot’. There was little or no control over what kinds of food people brought. Yet, attendees rejoiced in whatever they received, however mismatched or unbalanced the contents of meal ended up being. It was, after all, a gift.

In the Christmas story called “The Fussy Angel” which I read in worship on Christmas Eve, the angel assigned by God to look over the Christ child on the night of his birth was frustrated with the imperfect, out of control, events surrounding the Holy Birth.

He chastised the Wise Men for their pricey and pretty yet wholly impractical and useless gifts. “If you were truly wise,” griped the angel, “you would have known that what we need is hot water and towels; goat’s milk and bread; twenty diapers and some soap to wash them with.” Not gold, frankincense and myrrh! (p.15-16, Mary Arnold, “The Fussy Angel”, Ignatius Press, 1995). Yet, the Christ child accepts these gifts, however impractical.

The gifts, of course, hold symbolic meaning: the gold – for a king; the spices – used in burial practices of the time.These gifts point to the identity and purpose of God made human in Jesus Christ, whose destination was the Cross and the empty tomb of Easter.

Admittedly, the whole story about astrologers bringing strange gifts to a child in a strange land sounds somewhat exotic, not real.  It is filled with strange incidents, strange gifts, and strangers encountering one another.

At the same time, there is meaning here. Should we but pause to consider the deeper, sometimes hidden, levels of our experience we may appreciate the gift anew, however strange.

The movie “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” (Fox Searchlight, 2012) tells of a group of seniors who head off to an inexpensive retirement home in exotic India. As unfamiliar and sometimes frustrating as the experience is, when one character asks why he likes it so much, he replies: “The lights, the colours, the vibrancy; the way people see life as a privilege, not as a right.”

Perhaps Epiphany can open our eyes as well to the holy revealed in what we may have previously thought of as strange, foreign, outside our experience.

Perhaps you have celebrated Christmas and New Year’s this year differently from ‘the norm’ — in a different setting, with different people, outside your comfort zone. Perhaps this Christmas was the first without a loved one. Or, perhaps your life circumstances are changing due to ill health. Admittedly, these are all situations to which, on the surface, we may react even reject outright if we had a choice.

But the Christ child teaches us something important: He didn’t reject those outlandish, impractical and useless gifts brought to him by, of all people, foreigners from the East. Instead, he welcomed them into their home with giggles, gurgles, and laughter.

And this grace, this gift of freedom, is infectious. It liberates us to receive and rejoice in the gifts of life, however small and strange they may at first appear.

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