I’ve mentioned this comparison before but I want to repeat it, given the Epiphany Sunday we celebrate today. A wise friend of mine once compared how people from the eastern part of our world think/imagine and how people on the western part of our globe think/imagine. Most of us here today are creatures of western thought. My wise friend would say, if you tell someone trained in western thought a story s/he will ask, “did it happen?” and if tell someone immersed in eastern thought the same story s/he will ask, “is it true?” Sit with that distinction for a spell.
I am as western a person as you will find, I like facts, linear thinking, figuring things out on a scientific basis. It’s why the western world has excelled in technology, capitalism and has remained productive and efficient. We like to dissect things, pull them apart, sort out fact from myth. The eastern mind is different, the truth is less factual, detailed, rule based, and more mysterious, captured in story and myth. There is more silence and uncertainty in eastern thought, more focus on matters that cannot be easily explained. Neither is better but they are different ways of processing information and challenges.
I think most Western Christians prefer the Luke Gospel story as it relates to the incarnation. Our heads may hurt in trying to explain that Jesus is both God and human, a holy incarnation. But we call relate to a story like Luke 2, one with Mary and Joseph, a donkey, a stable, shepherds, a live birth. These are concrete things we can imagine, almost touch. This story makes sense to us, even if it is about a “virgin birth” that feature appearances by angels.
The Eastern Church has always loved the story we are given this morning in Matthew 2, a tale of astrologers finding whereabouts of Christ in the stars and then following the celestial trail to boy living in Jerusalem. Brent Landau, author of Revelation of the Magi: The Lost Tale of the Wise Men’s Journey to Bethlehem shares three things you might not know about the Magi.
1) The Gospel of Matthew doesn’t say how many Magi there were. Three became the most popular answer because of the three gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. But some paintings in Christian catacombs have two or four, the Revelation of the Magi has a list of twelve Magi with names, and other Christian writings imagine an entire army of Magi!
2) Early Christians didn’t agree on where the Magi were from. The most popular answer was Persia (modern Iran), but others thought they were from Babylon or Arabia. In the Revelation of the Magi, they come from a land called Shir, which, because it is located at the eastern edge of the inhabited world, is probably equivalent to China.
3) Nobody knows what the Star of Bethlehem really was. Some early Christians thought it was an angel or the Holy Spirit, and more recent theories include a comet or a supernova. In the Revelation of the Magi, the star is none other than Christ himself in celestial form.
What these revelations have in common is that they posit this story with more mystery and “otherness” than we experience in the birth stories of Jesus. We don’t know how many of this Magi there were, we don’t know where they came from and the connection between the star and the Christ can be seen as a map or as one in the same. There is more mystery and wonder and awe in this story than we western thinking folks are used to, more than we like to ponder.
Amy Lindeman Allen, Professor of New Testament at Christian Theological Seminary and an ordained Lutheran minister, says this of the Epiphany story, The magi have been assigned many roles as kings, sorcerers, astronomers, or wise men from the East. What we can know is that they came from affluence (based on their gifts) and that they knew how to track a star. They simply kneel before Jesus and offer him their gifts of indulgence: “Gold, as to a king; myrrh, as to one who was mortal; and incense, as to a God.” With the festival of Epiphany, we move to a celebration marked by honoring, not ourselves, but our God.
The gifts themselves are “beyond us”, that is they are not items we can typically imagine receiving or giving. We would never consider giving or receiving a gift fit for a King/Queen, nor a gift that reminds us of our mortality, nor a gift that assumes some Divine status for ourselves or the one we are honouring. These gifts help us understand that we are fitted for a relationship with something mysterious, something “other”, something celestial and heavenly.
As I get older I am less and less certain I know things. Yet I am at the same time more and more open to things I would previously have thought magical or mystical. It is as thought my western brain has realized the limits of its ability to absorb truth and wisdom and is now finally aware and open to a reality that can’t always be explained with reason or linear thought. It is not about logic and emotions, it is about the difference between proving everything with a photograph and evidence and accepting that some truth can only be imagined in myth and mystery.
I am a doer and I am a thinker and both of these identities give me a sense of completion, a satisfying awareness that I have made the messiness and chaos of life into a more tidy structure, satisfied others and myself with task and order. But sometimes I need to let go of these impulses and free myself to follow a star, whether what I am following is the destination or it leads me to a new home, a new place of belonging and community. I don’t need to make sense of these dreams and visions but I do need to move and set a course to where the Spirit is leading.
When I arrive I know I will bring gifts of my own, I know God has given me abundant gifts and you likewise. I do not offer these gifts with a fear they are not “good enough” or that God must somehow give me/reward me with something to earn my generousity. Instead, like the Magi, I am compelled to journey, compelled to bring my best and most of all compelled to kneel at the site of this star, this child, this truth and give thanks for the mystery made real, a grace-filled gift that reveals God’s love for me, for you, for everyone and everything. Amen.