The story is told of Magi who came from the east looking for a child born King of the Jews. They claimed to have seen a star at its rising and had come to the conclusion it portended a momentous birth; a birth that warranted a long journey, a paying of homage and the offering of expensive gifts. Despite what we’ve been led to believe, we do not know their names, their occupations, how many of them there were, where exactly they came from, or what their mode of transportation might have been. All these details were added hundreds of years later as well-meant embellishments. But by now, the embellishments have become part and parcel of the legends of Christmas. We see Melchior, Gaspar and Balthasar everywhere portrayed as three kings, kneeling before the baby in the manger, right alongside Mary, Joseph, shepherds and angels. We sing of them traveling to the holy land on camels, majestically bringing gifts meant to honor Jesus as “King and God and Sacrifice;” following a star that moved through the heavens until it came to rest over Bethlehem.
It’s a beautiful story. Actually though, if you read it carefully, you’ll notice a few things. The number three is never mentioned, nor are camels, nor are kings. We’ve heard a thousand times the line from Luke that says Jesus was born “in a manger because there was no place for him in the inn.” (Luke 2:7) But when the Magi reach Bethlehem, Matthew tells us Jesus isn’t in the manger anymore. “On entering the house,” he says, “they saw the child with Mary his mother.” So the Magi and the Shepherds weren’t ever actually in the same place. And furthermore, whatever Magi were, they almost certainly were not kings. The word Magi was often used to mean people who practiced magic; magicians. Or, the Magi could have been Magians, a Persian tribe of priests, possibly Zoroastrian. Most likely though, the Magi were astrologers; people who divined signs and portents from the heavens. Considering how important the star is to the story, that’s what seems to make the most sense.
The point though, isn’t to tear apart anyone’s enjoyment of Christmas. Stories get embellished over time. Details are added and rearranged. Who of us hasn’t heard a story, and then passed on what we might call a slightly improved version? That’s what we do. We know full well that the exact details of that long ago first Christmas are mostly lost in history. Today, what’s most important to most people isn’t so much what actually happened as it is the meaning we make of it. The Magi from the east, whoever they were, have come to represent a journey of faith, a seeking for meaning, and a kneeling before that which is most precious.
Whenever this story is told, I find myself thinking of that wonderful song, “The Impossible Dream,” from Don Quixote.
This is my quest, to follow that star
No matter how hopeless, no matter how far.
To fight for the right without question or pause.
To be willing to march into Hell for a heavenly cause.
And I know if I’ll only be true to this glorious quest
That my heart will lie peaceful and calm when I’m laid to my rest.
What a great song. I feel inspired every time I hear it, which is actually kind of ironic, since, in the story, Don Quixote himself suffers from incurable delusions. He is forever off “tilting at windmills,” forever the butt of jokes, forever grandly inspired by a vision of his true love Dulcinea; a vision that bears absolutely no relation to reality. Don Quxiote is the very model of someone off on a pointless, hopeless errand. And yet, the song he sings rises above all that. Whether or not his quest makes sense to the world, the whole meaning of his life rests in his being faithful to his calling, following his own star, serving a purpose that was larger than his own life, marching into hell for a heavenly cause.
The story of the Wise Men can easily be seen in the same light. Forget about all the details that were or were not a part of the historic event, assuming there actually was one. How do you think the world would have responded to their journey? How would our world respond to it? Three men, presumed to be wise, leaving home and family, following a star to an unknown destination. It isn’t at all hard to imagine their friends making them the butt of jokes, thinking they were nuts, off on a pointless journey, tilting at windmills. The truth is though, that’s one of the choices life presents to us. Are we going to spend our time always doing what makes sense in the eyes of the world, or are we going to, at least occasionally, respond to a deeper longing that calls us to be a part of something larger than ourselves?
I remember back in college one of the interesting questions people always seemed to be asking was, Why are you here? What do you see as the purpose of your education? Every so often someone put out a survey of how people were responding to questions like that. I clearly remember, about half-way through my college years, there was a sea change in the way students were answering those questions. Apparently, there used to be a pretty high percentage of students who believed they were in college to become well-rounded, well educated people. They thought of themselves as having the privilege of being exposed to and wrestling with the wisdom of the ages. They were there to discover how their lives might fit in and contribute to the larger enterprise of life on earth. But somewhere along the way all that changed, largely, I imagine, because a college education got to being so ludicrously expensive. More recently, most college students are most interested in finding the shortest possible route to the best paying career.
And who can blame them? When you have to mortgage ten to twenty years of your future just to get a Bachelor’s degree, that doesn’t leave a lot of room for electives. But I can’t help feeling a sense of loss that this is what we’ve come to. Is training people to maximize their own self-interest really a mark of higher education? People used to make jokes that all the philosophy majors ended up driving taxi’s for a living. But I can’t help wondering what happens to a society that makes no room for its idealists and dreamers. I’m a dreamer myself. I’m sure I’m prejudiced in that direction. But I’ve always believed that the mark of a real “higher” education, is that it leads us into places that are “higher.” It points us to something bigger, larger, grander than ourselves; something that leads inevitably to the humility that comes of knowing we are not, actually, the center of the universe. As it turns out, that’s the kind of humility we need to have before we can appreciate what paying homage is all about.
The story is that the Magi came to Bethlehem in order to pay homage, an act of humbling themselves before something greater than they were: the King of kings, the Lord of lords. In medieval Europe, paying homage became a ritual sometimes performed between a vassal and his feudal lord. In exchange for protection, the vassal “promised not to harm his lord or to do damage to his property.” According to Webster, this ritual “consisted of the vassal surrendering himself to the lord, symbolized by his kneeling and giving his joined hands to the lord, who clasped them in his own, thus accepting [his] surrender.”
How does that strike you? Can you imagine yourself surrendering before your feudal lord? Oh boy, surrender is a tough one for us isn’t it. Our entire culture is saturated with the message of rugged individualism. We aren’t supposed to surrender to anyone. I love the line from the old space movie, Galaxy Quest: “Never give up! Never surrender!” In our culture, we aren’t supposed to bow down in homage before anything. Of course, we do claim that God is the one exception to that rule. God is the one place in our lives where homage is appropriate. But seriously, if we can’t allow ourselves to bow before anything else in life, bowing before God isn’t going to feel very comfortable or natural now is it.
Barbara Brown Taylor wrote a wonderful book she called, “An Altar in the World.” One of the chapters is about the practice of prayer. She talks about all the various experiences she has had, both personally and professionally, both within her own Christian tradition and in the other faith traditions she’s explored. At one point, she talks about visiting a Mosque with her students and watching the Muslim practice of prayer. First, she describes the practice:
Stand facing the direction of Mecca with your hands behind your ears; move your hands to meet at the center of your body; bend at the waist once, then again, then kneel until your forehead touches the floor; sit back on your heels with your hands on your knees; bend forward again; stand up; repeat the sequence all over again.
Taylor then goes on to this reflection:
I heard one Muslim woman say how hard this was for her at first––not because she was out of shape but because it was hard for her to bow before anyone, even God. It had taken her a long time to get her feet under her, she said. It had taken her a long time to stand up for herself. To be asked to bow down before God––not just once or twice but five times every day––required her to surrender some things she had worked very hard to possess.
Well, that’s the heart of the matter isn’t it. We work very hard to stand up for ourselves, and when our faith asks us to pay homage, it can be a real struggle. Sacrificing and surrendering don’t come naturally to us. Asking for help isn’t what we’ve been taught. None the less, kneeling before God is precisely what we need to do if we’re going to move deeply into the heart of our faith. One of the questions I was asked during last week’s conversation sermon was about what to do if we find ourselves losing our faith. What I said then, and what I would say again, is that often, what we need most is to fall on our knees; to surrender, to allow God to be our sovereign.
As it says so beautifully in Reinhold Neibuhr’s Serenity Prayer…
God grant [us] the serenity to accept the things [we] cannot change, the courage to change the things [we] can and wisdom to know the difference, living one day at a time, enjoying one moment at a time, accepting hardship as a pathway to peace, taking, as Jesus did, this sinful world as it is, not as [we] would have it, trusting that You will make all things right if [we but] surrender to Your will, so that [we] may be reasonably happy in this life and supremely happy with You forever in the [life to come]. Amen.
Our calling, in faith, is to be impossible dreamers, to follow a star, believing that no matter how hopeless or far the journey may seem, it is that following which allows our souls to rest in God. Our calling, in faith, is to fight for the right, not, perhaps, “without question or pause,” but in trust that in God, all things do work together for good. Our calling, in faith, is to kneel in homage before that which is immeasurably greater than we are, following the example of those we have come to call the three kings. The story calls them Magi, but by their willingness to journey in faith, and by their paying homage, they did in fact behave like kings, they were in fact exceptionally wise. May we be just as faithful, that we may become just as wise.