Wednesday, January 7, 2015

The 11th day of Christmas. Epiphany. Getting it...


This is the 11th day of Christmas. And today we celebrate Three Kings’ Day. El dia d elos tres reyes magos, the Epiphany.  We open our service by singing O Come All Ye Faithful.  And then after greetings, we introduce the kings. Jeremy begins with an oriental riff and the we swing into We Three Kings, including a Spanish verse.   And before we sing, Jeremy lights the frankincense and myrrh, its pungent aromas wafting through the sanctuary.

Our prophetic lesson is  ISAIAH 60: 1-6. It’s a passage about the coming of light. (1,3)And camels. (6) And gold and frankincense.(6b)  (Wait ...what’s missing? Myrrh. Hmmmm…)
Psalm 72: 1-7, 10-14 gives us kings, of  Tarshish and of
of Sheba and Seba. Well, that makes three….but it ends with a very explicit plea:
12  For he delivers the needy when they call, 
          the poor and those who have no helper. 
13  He has pity on the weak and the needy, 
          and saves the lives of the needy. 
14  From oppression and violence he redeems their life; 
          and precious is their blood in his sight.

It’s easy to let words like that just slip past us. We have to listen to them, let them sink in.
                                                (Nothing like the way Jeremy does it...)

Then we do the traditional Puerto Rican song:  DeTierra Lejana, (from a distant land, and Jeremy takes it to a mambo complete with claves and repeated venimos…
The gospel, Matthew 2: 1-12, is Matthew’s birth narrative, and the story of the Magi.  Then Jeremy and I trade verses on James Taylor’s Home by another way at the same time both his most explicitly spiritual and political song.

So it’s the 11TH day of Christmas. We’re celebrating epiphany…the three kings day…It’s Matthew’s story…there are no shepherds…just kings..still…centuries of popular culture has mashed them all up…like the grand finale to the Radio City Music hall Christmas spectacular…with all those animals, and finally  the camels and the kings and then, the pop  one solitary life scrolling down by Dr. James Alan Francis, solemn, proclamatory, evangelical.( )….we’re filled with images…the story captures the imagination.

There is this poem by TS Eliot, for example:
The Journey Of The Magi
'A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the 
The very dead of winter.'
And the camels galled, sorefooted, 
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
and running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty and charging high prices
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.

Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
With a 
running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kiking the empty wine-skins.
But there was no information, and so we continued
And arriving at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you might say) satisfactory.

All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or 
? There was a Birth, certainly
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.

And remember O Henry’s  The gift of the Magi? The woman who sells her hair to buy her husband a watch fob and the husband who sells his watch to buy her combs for her hair. Typical O’Henry irony. But the true gift is love.

And who remembers Amahl and the Night Visitors? I grew up with that, every year…The Giancarlo Menotti opera on television. Annually. The regal kings. The poor shepherd boy and his widowed mother. The deep rich songs.

And a recent play by our friends, the Representatives,....of orient are...playing on the themes of  epiphanies and magi..

There is no number in the Bible, but we settled on three. And gave them names: Balthasar of Arabia, Melchior of Persia, and Gaspar of India. (And in our family, when we needed a fourth, Orientar…)

They would seem to be Zoroastrian, or Persian…astrologers back in the day when that was an honored profession. But in other traditions, they come from far flung different places and only met on the road outside of Bethlehem. And one was black. And one tradition has them 3 different ages. Young, middle aged, old. 

Something here captures out imagination.. over the centuries…they are exotic, they are mysterious, and hey, they’re kings….

Did you know that their bodies are Cathedral in Cologne? Won in a trade with St. Helena. And yes, check this out. …in 2004, the skulls examined…and indeed, they were three different ages, and indeed, they are dated  to the 1st century…so, who knows?

What was Matthew up to here? If we go by the Biblical story, they come to an oikos, a house. Only Mary is there. No Joseph. And it could be as much as two years later. (Herod wants to kill all baby boys under 2 years old…)
SO maybe he’s making these points:

1.Outsiders get what insiders miss
2. This is a story about inclusion. The multicultural emphasis was clear as early as 7th century when the Venrable Beade named them. This is Matthew’s welcome to gentiles…ALL the nations…
3. And even though the Magi were surprised at what they found, they would still worship
And oh yes, the myrrh….Matthew tells the whole Gospel story in the  birth narrative, so there must be a foreshadowing of the grave, an embalming spice is added to Isaiah’s list…

And what of epiphany? It literally means manifestation, (in Spanish, the same  word is for demonstrations…), We have come to  think of it as instantaneous revelation…getting it…

So what do we get?

1.     Those from outside may need to show us the way
2.     Our expectations are  likely to be upset….
Don’t be afraid to take a journey, even if you’re  not sure where you’re going….keep going….and be willing to be surprised once you get there…

After the reflection, Jeremy and I are going to sing Early on One Christmas Morn by Frankie “Half-Pint” Jaxon.  On Sundays he sang with the Cotton Top Mountain Sanctified Singers.  On Fridays and Saturdays, well, that’s another story…

A striking but visibly agitated woman has entered the service. Sat down by Russ. Spilled her coffee. As we begin to pray, she’s making a phone call. When Marsha asks her gently to turn of her phone, she snaps, my child has been kidnapped….

We carry on…

Following our Eucharist, our final song is the African-American Jesus the light of the world. And then our final blessing.

Conversations. Questions. And then then Session meets. With even more questions.  Hard questions. And after our hours together, I feel tired. A post-holiday down is coming down….


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