Home by another way
Matthew 2:1-12 010222 Home by another way
Who were these people? Magi from the east, that is all we know. Of course, East could be anywhere. Could have been eastern Judea, just miles from Bethlehem; could have been much further. Persia, Armenia, Parthia. We don’t know. Nor do we know their motives, except that they are students of the sky—astrologers; the scientists of their day. Magi is the title they’re given in the Greek text, from which come our words magic and magician. Were they in fact magicians, or perhaps some sort of priestly advisors in a royal court? We’re not sure.
And how many were there? We’re not told. Matthew tells us they brought three gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh, from which we’ve inferred three magi. We’ve even given them names: Caspar, Melchior, and Balthazar. When we chalk our doors this Thursday on Zoom—I hope you’ll join us—we will use those initials: CMB.
There’s a lot we don’t know about these visitors to Bethlehem. But we do know this—they followed a star, they knelt in homage before the Christ child; they offered him extravagant gifts; and . . . they returned home by another way. Regarding that last detail, Matthew tells us their detour was to route them away from Jerusalem, and a second encounter with King Herod, who waited for their return with evil intent.
At a different level, however, I like to imagine the magi returned home by another way because that’s what happens when we respond to something holy, something worthy and good, with an offering of our own. Deep calls to deep.
Today we will share the sacrament of Holy Communion. We usually think about what the sacrament gives to us: forgiveness and new life; a spiritual oneness with Christ and each other; communion with those we have loved and lost; bread for the journey; a foretaste of something more beyond; a reminder of the hungry who wait beyond this table for sustenance from our replenishment. These are things in the sacrament given to us. Yet we also bring our own offerings to Communion. There’s a brief phrase in the table prayers that expresses this: And so, in remembrance of these your good and gracious acts in Jesus Christ, we offer ourselves as a holy and living sacrifice . . . As if holiness begets holiness, goodness goodness, one offering, another.
What will you offer today in response to God’s offering of grace and forgiveness, mercy and new life ? When you come forward, perhaps kneeling here, or kneeling in your heart where you are in the sanctuary or at home, imagine yourself holding a gift in hand, even as you prepare to receive the gifts of bread and cup. What would that gift be for you today? What would be your gold, frankincense, myrrh? How will you, following the magi, respond to something holy with an offering that becomes holy in the giving of it?
An offering can be a prayer. Let me live my days more by faith than by fear. Let me be reconciled to that person, that group, that tribe. Guide me in a certain decision that has proven so difficult to make. Give me fresh hope by which to continue the gospel work of bringing hope to others. An offering can be our gold . . . something from our abundance—joy, gratitude, consecrating our lives anew in service, in leadership; it can be our ministry of financial support and generosity; our perhaps our devotional practices. Take my life and let it be consecrated, Lord, to thee. My silver my gold. My hands, my lips. Intellect. My heart. Ever only all for thee.
That offering can be many things. It might be a goal, a commitment; or to borrow a word with such currency at the beginning of a new year, a resolution. The fact that Epiphany aligns so closely with a new calendar year always suggests the possibility of new beginnings; of resolving who we want to be and become going forward.
In W.H. Auden’s Christmas oratorio “For the Time Being,” three journeying magi each offer a new year’s resolution of sorts. The first: to discover how to be more truthful is the reason I follow this star; the second, how to be more living; the third, to be more loving. Then all together they say: to discover how to be more human is the reason I follow this star. More truthful, more living, more loving, more human. There is a cluster of resolutions suitable for any of us.
I suppose that in our country Epiphany will now forever be associated with the events that unfolded in our nation’s capital on the day of Epiphany last year. These events were profoundly disturbing and deeply disgraceful, upending our shared notions of human decency, civility, and the sanctity of the democratic process, revealing among other things our capacity for manipulation, deception, and shared violence. In reflecting on those appalling events we’ve had to come to terms with this difficult reality: the deficits we’re contending with in our society are not someone else’s, but all of ours. Remember Solzhenitsyn: The line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. Every American. Every one of us. All of us together. Auden’s words could have been written in the wake of last January: How to be more truthful, more living, more loving, and all the magi in unison, as if to accentuate for us the absolute primacy of this one behavior: how to be more human.
Collective offerings are harder, of course; longer, slower, more painstakingly difficult to achieve. But a different poet’s words both hold us to account, and offer us a beautiful vision: “What life have you if you have not life together? There is no life that is not in community. And no community not lived in praise of God.”
Our offering today could be not a fullness, but an emptiness: a hurt, a longing, a lacking; a failure, a broken relationship, a burden of guilt; a personal or collective grief. Here’s the mystery and paradox of grace—that in the spiritual lexicon emptiness appears on the page very close to openness.
Today, having come to this table of grace, and bringing along your offering—whatever it may be—emptiness or fullness, longing or love—there’s a good chance that like the magi in Matthew, you’ll return on a different path. I don’t mean you come down this aisle and go up that one. I don’t mean GPS will tell you to take a different route back to your house to get around a traffic tie-up. I mean you’ll return home by another way of seeing; another way of listening; another way of pondering the call of God upon your heart just now. If that happens today it will simply mean that following the magi, when you encountered holiness you made a holy offering all your own. What will it be?