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Sunday, January 19, 2014

Reading the Signs

The Rev. Pete Berry
Christmas 2 -- Year A
Sunday Jan 5, 2014
Matthew 2:1-12

Let us pray
Lord Jesus may your light shine our way, as once it guided the steps of the magi:
that we too may be led into your presence and worship you, the Child of Mary, the Word of the Father, the King of nations,  the Savior of mankind; to whom be glory forever. Amen

I hope you all have been having a wonderful Christmas season – remember that today is still part of it – it is the 2nd Sunday of Christmas – 12th night – at least I think it is, although I’m never sure whether we count it from sundown on Christmas Eve or end at sundown on Epiphany Eve. Just to confuse things more, the lessons are definitely for Epiphany – so I guess all we can say is we stand at the cusp of the two seasons.  Please remember to come tonight to St Mark’s Epiphany Party and experience more of that seasonal transition—it promises to be great fun.

Those of you who happen to have been here on Christmas Day had the opportunity to hear Colin Brown preach on the Infancy Narratives in the only two gospels that contain them – Matthew and Luke. More precisely you heard him preach about a book by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, the now retired Pope Benedict the 16th. That book was a surprisingly honest assessment of one of the most significant issues in Scriptural research – historicity versus truth with a capital T. The important question is much less whether these Biblical events happened exactly in the way Matthew gave them to us; the real question is what is the purpose of including the two stories in their gospels – what did Matthew and Luke intend by setting them almost as a Prologue to the rest of their work. If you think about it, they are not really necessary to the proclamation of Jesus – Mark didn’t include such a narrative, and John’s prologue is of a very much more philosophical and theological nature. John is concerned with the cosmic pre-existent logos not with the way in which that Word became flesh to dwell among us. So an Infancy Narrative wasn’t really needed by Matthew or Luke -- but we would be so much poorer in art and literature, and understanding of God’s “capital T truth” without them. Extending this a bit, many modern scholars find them to have likely been literary constructions of the two evangelists with little historical veracity within them – Benedict did not go quite that far but others certainly have. The issues for that school of thought -- what did the evangelists hope their communities would understand about these stories which were written in the 70’s or 80’s -- a very long time after the events described. I won’t talk about Luke, but instead I will focus on Matthew today – this is Year A of our lectionary, after all. But the issues are quite similar for both stories.


Matthew’s story was written for a mixed community at a time when the increasingly harsh debate between the Jewish faction and those who accepted Jesus as the Messiah, had them on the verge of a total split.  There is a set of prayers dating from roughly this period – the so-called “Eighteen Benedictions” which railed against Jewish heretics and prayed thusly -- “[We ask] God to destroy the malshinim ("slanderers" or "informers"), all His enemies, and to shatter the ‘kingdom of arrogance’.” At the putative Council of Jabneh or Jamnia in 90AD, these benedictions were made a mandatory part of Jewish worship. These guys didn’t mess around – with a blessing like that being thrown at you you’d better be able to duck and cover! Matthew’s over-arching purpose in the face of the growing split was to portray Jesus as the fulfillment of the Jewish prophets. The infancy story of the Magi is loaded with many references to the Hebrew Scriptures in order to hammer home that point, over and over. It’s difficult to find them all because in part there are differences between the Hebrew Scripture and the Greek Septuagint versions of them. But just a few include the following

Psalm 72: 10 – “May the kings of Sheba and Saba bring gifts”
Psalm 72: 11 -- "May all kings fall down before him"
Numbers 24:17 – this is part of the narrative about Balaam, a seer from the east who saw the Davidic star rising in Old Testament times
Isaiah 60: 1 – “Be enlightened, O Jerusalem for your light has come; and the Glory of the Lord has risen upon you.”
And then when taken together Micah 5:1 and 2 Sam 5: 2 describe a Davidic king who will rule over Israel

So leaving issues like textual accuracy and Greek versus Hebrew to the scholars –and to Colin Brown, I hope you get the feel of this understanding.

 So if that was Matthew’s purpose, what has the church made of the story down the ages?

The Visitation of the Magi is one of the most-beloved events in Christian art and history. We all know it well – or think we do -- from the annual Christmas pageants we have experienced, the ones that jam Luke’s account up against Matthew’s as one long continuous story with the shepherds and sheep and the angels and the Wise Guys and the lowing cattle all crammed together in a stable. And that is not only fun, it’s perfectly acceptable and maybe the only way we fully experience the riches of the Christmas season. But we really should look at Matthew in its own terms and disentangle it from the Lucan narrative to understand what Matthew is all about. The biblical account in Matthew simply presents an event at an unspecified point after Christ's birth in which an unnumbered party of unnamed "wise men" visit him in a house, not a stable, with only "his mother" mentioned as being present.

So -- some unknown number of eastern astrologers at some unspecified time after the birth of Jesus, possibly influenced by a Zoroastrian perspective made a journey westward to see what was going on in Bethlehem – or maybe by then it was Nazareth, because Matthew tells us that having been warned in a dream the Holy Family had journeyed there by way of Egypt, thereby re-creating the Mosaic tradition,  reliving the Exodus, reprising the entry into the land of freedom, and recalling the prophecy about Jesus being called a Nazorean. Most modern scholars in fact say that this juxtaposition was quite intentional—Jesus is the new Moses – they both were born in strange circumstances – they both had to escape from hostile and dangerous political enemies who were seeking their lives – they both save their people. They both enter the promised land from Egypt.

I’m sure you all know the game of “telephone”—you stand in a line and whisper something in the ear of the person next to you, and see just how garbled it comes out at the end. Gradually as with the game of “telephone” or the artistic embellishment which is part of the so-called technique of midrash, the Magi or Wise Men were promoted to kings. The kings eventually were determined to have been exactly 3 in number – perhaps because there were 3 gifts mentioned by Matthew. Still later piety identified them with specificity as the old man Caspar of Tarsus, bringing gifts of gold; and Melchior -- the middle-aged man from Arabia bringing frankincense; and the young man Balthazaar, increasingly described as black-skinned and coming from Ethiopia or some other part of Africa, bringing myrrh. By the 5th or 6th century their ages had been exactly determined as 60, 40, and 20 respectively. Obviously not much of this is really dependent on historical accuracy but is spiritual speculation, a love story that just grows in the hearts of the churches people. The “capital T truth” is that the revelation or manifestation or epiphany to the gentiles was being treated by Matthew as the inevitable and unavoidable and undeniable fulfillment of scripture, in hopes of tying the gentile mission tightly to its prophetic Jewish roots. Maybe he was also hoping to heal the rift – or maybe it was early apologetics -- we simply don’t know.

Similarly the meaning of the gifts has been hotly debated when in fact they were ordinary offerings and gifts given to a king. There was just such a presentation of gifts to Emperor Nero by the Armenian king Tiradates in 66AD. Maybe the memory of that actual event was part of the back-story for Matthew’s Infancy Narrative. Lots of differing spiritual meanings have been assigned to the gifts – myrrh as foreshadowing the death and burial of Jesus since it was used in embalming; frankincense as symbolizing prayer or an offering of praise to a ruler; gold as a valuable gift fit for a king. Whatever analogies have been used over the centuries, the real importance is that these gentile representatives brought items from the everyday stuff of their lives – the things of Magic and astrology –and laid them at the feet of the king of peace. The gifts to Jesus became a symbol of God’s gift to us in Jesus. The story invites us all to make offerings of the stuff of OUR lives and bring them to Jesus, who is God’s great gift.

Why did I say astrology instead of magi or wise men or kings? It’s pretty clear, I think, and it is the explanation which makes the most sense out of the text – and this brings us to the Star of Bethlehem. What was it and when was it? Some suggestions that have been put forward – a comet, a supernova, a triple planetary conjunction. None of these is adequate for a whole variety of reasons but in 1999 Michael Molnar wrote a book entitled “The Star of Bethlehem” which I find quite convincing on the matter. And here I need to delve a bit into the “double conjunction” of Science and History. Some of you know that I’ve been taking a course on the fundamentals of astronomy -- 96 half hour lectures on a set of 16 DVD’s. I really enjoy stuff like this on NatGEO, and Science, and the Discovery channel and wanted more details. So far I’ve learned a lot, including about Molnar’s theory.

Planets as we now know, revolve around the sun and apparently move from east to west from the perspective of Earth. The point of their rising which crosses the horizon steadily moves westward.  But sometimes planets seem to go backwards making a strange reversal from their normal forward path through a reversal or retrograde phase and then back to the normal direction. So they seem to carve out a Looping or S-shaped pattern against the backdrop of the celestial stars and their associated zodiacal signs in the firmament beyond. It turns out that on April 17th in the year 6 BCE, Jupiter the “Regal Star” was temporarily blocked from view by the moon. That would certainly have been significant in the eyes of eastern astrologers. Jupiter then continued its forward motion until August 23rd when it began one of these crazy loop-to -loops in the constellation of Aries the Ram, which itself was a symbolic of the Jews. It remained visible in Aries on the eastern horizon just before sunrise as it then in the words of the text “went before” going through that constellation until it apparently stood still on Dec 19th before returning to normal path. Molnar figured all this out from a Roman coin that clearly shows the event was real – he even got an award from the Numismatic Society for his analysis. So his theory – and I do find it compelling -- is that these astrologers believed they had observed a sign that heralded the birth of a divine, immortal, and omnipotent person born under the sign of the Jews, the constellation Aries the Ram. Their observations sent them off to find out just what this could be all about. The story says nothing about their expectations or motives other than that. That is all subsequent enrichment.

What does all this suggest to us? Certainly it is NOT God inviting us to get hooked on horoscopes and astrology. But like these Wise Guys from the East, with the best of OUR experience and OUR clearest understanding of the world and ourselves, WE are to become increasingly aware of the signs of God at work in creation, in our lives, and in our times. And we should expect to be challenged and changed by them. Be open – be vigilant – be curious – be available - be willing to reflect to adapt and adopt and to change. Prepare to grab hold of the possible because with God nothing will be impossible.

Now...TS Eliot was one of the great writers and poets of the 20th century. Born in St Louis on September 26, 1888 he died on Jan 4, 1965 – he was still alive when I studied him in college and I really came to love his work and his psychological realism. He is probably best remembered for his play about Thomas A’Becket – “Murder in the Cathedral”, his epic poems including  “The Wasteland” and “Four Quartets” among several others, the whimsical poem “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats” -- and his book and score for the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical Cats which is based upon it. He was a man of faith and his body of work includes essays on a variety of spiritual matters and Anglican Saints such as George Herbert. In 1927 he also wrote a much shorter poem called “The Journey of the Magi” as I was reminded by Zachary Abbott when I told him I would be preaching today. I think there is nothing better to illustrate that long-ago spiritual invitation and challenge and its impact on that particular group of travelers. I would invite you now to close your eyes and immerse yourselves in their experience. Just listen -- feel what they felt – see the sights, hear the sounds, smell the animals and the wet vegetation -- touch the hot dusty road – embrace their fears and frustrations. Make them your own.

Journey of the Magi (read by T.S. Eliot)

Thanks be to God – Amen.

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