What can we say about the wise men? Well, they were not kings and there were not three of them, at least, that is, according to Matthew. We may presume that they were not historical figures but characters in a parable. Matthew imagined them to be magi, a word from which we get magician.
But they were not magicians in any sense in which we understand that term. Rather, according to the New Testament scholar Marcus Borg, they were quasi-religious figures. Some have suggested that they were astrologers, although to think of them primarily as such is misleading.[i]
They came from the East, presumably Mesopotamia, but more from a mythical geography, following the star. They were Gentiles and not Jews, drawn to Jesus as one who was the “light of the nations.” I imagine that these wise men were clever, complicated, with mixed motives, and even, as we are fond of saying these days, more spiritual than religious.
And they were late arrivals. The simple barefoot shepherds were at the manger long before, even the cattle.
They may even remind us of ourselves.
I trust that you all had a delightful Christmas Eve, as I have been assured you did. London was crazy. Half the globe, it seemed, was on Christmas vacation in London. One of you said to me recently, having been on a trip spanning the continents, that traveling is for young people not for us oldsters. I tend to agree.
However, amidst the crowds and chaos, we had a great time; except, that is, when I got trapped beside a desiccated mummy at the British Museum. Unable to move due to the press of hundreds of people, I was barely able to breath...
If you ask me what the “high” point of my trip was, I can tell you precisely. Not surprisingly, it was not in London but in Cambridge on Christmas Eve, at a Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols at King’s College Chapel.
Standing in queue with six hundred for six hours from before dawn with a brisk wind blowing out of the west, though not the high point, was delightful. All were in good Christmas cheer and we met friends with whom we hope to stay in touch with for years to come.
But the service itself, in that glorious space of soaring fan vault and stained glass as the sun slowly set in the western sky, was sublime. Because the acoustics are so fine, there is no need of sound amplification in a sanctuary vastly more spacious than this, just the sweet voices of the choristers accompanied at times by the organ.
We heard for the first time a piece for unaccompanied choir by Bob Chilcott, a modern British composer who, in earlier years, was a chorister at King’s. It’s titled Shepherd’s Carol, a tune set to words by an anonymous author.
In it the shepherd’s address Mary at the manger, reflecting on their epiphany in the hills on a calm winter’s evening, watching the frosted meadows that winter had won, and a star shone in the night, the silence more lovely than music.
They heard a voice from the sky...telling of God being born in the world of men. And so we have come, they say, our day’s work done, Our love, our hopes, ourselves, We give to your son. It’s a lovely, meditative piece that exudes calm and transcendent peace.
Of course, there is now no way to recreate the sound or the mood, the melody repeating and enhancing, weaving a beautiful web of music in that candlelit space. Nor is there any way to convey my experience in that moment though, I found later, Sukie was equally touched. That it brought tears to our eyes hints at its gracious power to move us.
But I’ll try, in the hopes that you too have had a similar experience, though perhaps in a different setting.
It is my conviction that our most powerful moments are profoundly simple even prosaic, like some barefoot shepherds, our day’s work done, sharing our love, our hopes, ourselves, giving all to the child.
And this precisely because our lives are so complicated, we live so much in our heads and not in our hearts, trying to figure our lives out, get it right; in short, striving to be good, competent, fulfilled people.
It then it happens.
We lay that heavy burden down and find ourselves welcomed and loved and embraced, wholly and completely, through no merit of our own, but by sheer gift.
On the plane back home, while being entertained by 40 teenage Irish school boys on their way to a skiing holiday in New Hampshire, I happened to be reading Choose Life, a collection of Christmas and Easter sermons by the now former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams. It seemed to me that he captured something of my experience at King’s. In his Christmas sermon The Kingdom of the Simple, he talks about the wise men coming to the manger.[ii]
He reflects on the wise men, like us clever, resourceful, complicated people, who manage to screw things up more often than not, late-comers to the manger. And so I close by sharing a few excerpts from that sermon.
He says: Yet—here is the miracle—the three wise men are welcome. You might expect that a faith which begins in such blinding simplicities, the child, the cattle, the barefoot shepherds, would have no place for the wise men...
Coming to the Christ child isn’t always simple. It just is the case that people come by roundabout routes, with complex histories, sin and muddle and false perceptions and false starts. It’s no good saying to them,’You must become simple and wholehearted’, as if this could be done just by wishing it.
The real question is, ‘Can you take all your complicated history with you on a journey towards the manger? Can you at least refuse to settle down in a hall of mirrors, and go on asking where the truth really lies? Can you stop hanging on to the complex and...recognize where the map of the heavens points?’
So: don’t deny the tangle and the talents, the varied web of what has made you who you are. Every step is part of the journey; on this journey, even the false starts are part of the journey, experience that moves you toward the truth.
We know how much we long for that sheer presence and accessibility of God, that bare fact of the child in the manger, the life in Galilee, the mystery laid open. But we come as we are; room is made for us, healing is promised for us, even usefulness given to us if we are ready to make an offering of what W.H Auden called our crooked heart.
In the straw of the stable, the humble and complicated are able to kneel together. If God is there in the simplicity of the baby in the straw...that means he is there in the naked simplicity for the sophisticated and troubled as well, those who have had long and tortuous journeys, cold comings, to the stable.
The childlike response of longing and delight can come even from a heart that has grown old and tired...let no-one think they are too compromised, to entangled to be welcome.
* A Sermon Preached at St. Nicholas Episcopal Church, Scarborough, ME; The Second Sunday after Christmas Day;January 5, 2014