This year we at Urban Skye are presenting a Liturgy of Peace in Denver at Pomegranate Place every Thursday evening during the month of December. Advent is a waiting time during which we may focus on the ache of our hearts and the longing for the coming of God into this hurting world. The first evening focused on the ache for meaning and the hope of God. The reflection is written by guest blogger, Urban Skye director Dave Meserve.
The Magi: Strangers (The Ache for Meaning and the hope of God)
Pomegranate Place – December 9, 2010
by Dave Meserve
They blow into the Nativity Story somewhere “from the East,” enjoy their 12 verse cameo and then disappear into legend. All the while the Church asks, “Who are those guys?” They are The Magi and few characters in all Holy Scripture capture our imagination quite like them.
At our second week of Advent Liturgy, we consider our “ache for meaning” with these mysterious Magi as our guides. If the response to our “ache for acceptance” (our first week’s liturgy) was The welcome of God, our ache for meaning is met in the Hope of Faith. The beautiful irony is that this path is most clearly revealed through strange, pagan astrologers. Not your typical models of faith, especially if you grew up a first century Jew with stories of “Daniel vs. The Magi” embedded into your earliest memories.
Our best guess of their origin is Persia (modern day Iran). In AD 614, a Persian army swept through Palestine destroying church and synagogue but sparred The Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem when they saw a mosaic of the Magi in Persian garb. Other than that, we know little. We refer to “We Three Kings” because of the John Henry Hopkins verse (1857) reflecting the sentiment of the day where three gifts equals three kings. The idea of them being “kings” comes from Isaiah 60:3,
Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.
The wise men, as we rightly call them, have become archetypal symbols of faith for all who seek and particularly for those who are outside the mainstream of religious faith. For our liturgy, we will follow their hope of faith through three well known archetypal symbols found in Matthew 2:1-12.
I. The Star.
Apparently, the heavens really do reveal the glory of God (Psalm 19:1-4). Historians debate what celestial anomaly actually transpired to lead these astrologers. Some think a conjunction of planets in 7 BC or a lunar eclipse in 5BC. Regardless, these star gazers where watching ones (see our “consecration of space” prayer). Their “pagan” practice of astrology revealed to them the birth of king that was to change the course of history. How they knew the meaning of the star is a mystery, but they recognized in its glow that a Voice not their own was beckoning to them.
Our Disney version of “the voice” does not come from the heavens but from within us. My cynical daughters (who grew up loving Disney) now mock their ubiquitous message of “just follow your heart” as the path of all modern princesses. In fact, they toss me that line when I question their actions with a sarcastic, “Pops, I’m just following my heart!”
The Magi and their ancient wisdom did not seek within as much as without. They watched for a Voice not their own to guide them on their path and found it in The Star. It was this hope in faith that animated their lives supplying a meaning they could not muster on their own.
Meaning comes through seeing God’s stars and following the Voice that is not your own.
Where do you see “stars” that speak to you? When have you found yourself in a “thin place” (as the Celts called it) where the distance between you and The Divine is small? What leads you to perceive the wonder of Christ in a fresh way?
Lend us the eyes to see
And the courage to act
On Your revealing of the Peace Child.
May Your stars grant us meaning this Advent.
II. The Journey.
Sadly, the “journey” has become something of a tired metaphor. Everyone seems to use it to describe the path of faith (it now finds its way into Church names) but this is all for good reason; it is an enduring, archetypal image for life and symbolic of Magi’s story.
In America, one of our strongest symbols is that of “home,” especially at this season of the year. We are routinely asked if we are going home for the holidays, or who is coming home to join you and then we sing of that sentiment. Yet, our model of meaning from the Magi is to leave home on a journey. All journeys of meaning involve leaving what is familiar and homey in order to experience something beyond.
Like Abraham before them who left country, people and home (Genesis 12:1-4), the Magi left the East and traveled West in search of meaning. That’s where the star led them and that cross-cultural journey seems to be important.
Professor Peter Kreeft writes of this in his article, “The Meaning of Christmas.” He articulates the need we have to mimic the Magi in their pilgrimage as Oriental wisdom must turn West to find Christ, and the West—Rome—must go East. For Christ is born at the center.
The East’s mentality is mystical and mythical. The Eastern mind has no trouble believing in the supernatural. It needs to make a pilgrimage to the material and the natural, to the Christ in whom all truths in myths become historical fact. He is the dying and rising God myths point to like a star.
The West, on the other hand, has a practical, materialistic mentality. This was true of Rome and it’s still true of the modern West. It must make a pilgrimage to the East, to the spiritual and the supernatural. Christ is everything: Each culture can become whole only in Him.
Whatever our journey of faith, it moves us beyond what we know in the trust that God will reveal more. The Magi needed Jewish wisdom to complete their quest (though their trust in Herod was tragically misplaced).
Meaning comes by living faith as a journey and especially a journey with others.
We may be home for the holidays yet we can still experience a journey of faith during Advent. Are you on a pilgrimage? Are you on with others? What words do you use to describe the journey you are on? Can you trust that God is leading you?
Though our destinations lack clarity
And our roads bend and twist,
Help us lean into our journeys
With Your peaceful confidence.
May our journey grant us meaning this Advent.
III. The Gifts.
We all know of these gifts and remember nostalgically, “The Gifts of the Magi” (whether or not we’ve actually read it!) Beyond their sentimental quality, the gifts have long held symbolic meaning for the church:
Gold Reveals that the Christ child is a King in fulfillment of all prophecies and worthy of such obedience.
Frankincense Used in worship (Jewish and pagan) and reveals the Christ child as one worthy of worship and will be a priest for the nation.
Myrrh Valuable for its medicinal qualities and widely used for embalming, it reveals the Christ child as fully human and one born to die for the world.
If you have a church background, you’ve likely heard these theological connections. They do have a deep meaning. Yet, this Advent, I’m caught by something else: these are very impractical gifts! This is not your typical baby-shower. Like an ancient version of the “gift card”, the Holy Family would have likely cashed these in over the next few years while they were living as refugees in Egypt. Where’s the fun in that?
We’ve all been taught that giving is meaningful in and of itself. True enough. And we’ve been schooled in the “it’s the thought not the gift that counts” mentality (but try telling that to an 8-year old). Yet, the meaning of the gift is not completely in its “usability” for the receiver. Gifts have meaning for us because we value them.
The wise men brought gifts that were deeply meaningful to them. They represented what they wanted to bring into the relationship with the receiver, the Christ child. They gave to the Holy Family what they most cherished. And that speaks of a different kind of meaning.
Meaning comes in the giving of what gifts you find meaningful to share.
In the humility that “every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above” (James 1:16-17), we offer our gifts this Advent. This is in contrast to the false humility of being hesitant to know and to show the beautiful gifts we bear. What gifts do you have? What do you uniquely bring to the party? Can you own your gifts and then offer them wherever your journey takes you?
May we remember from where our gifts come
And see for whom they are most needed.
May we be generous in ways beyond us
To bring peace to others as we find peace within ourselves.
May our giving grant us meaning this Advent.
We ache for meaning in our lives and may have lost hope that this season leading up to Christmas will provide anything more than busyness. Advent offers a way to be counter-cultural, to live in the ache rather than numb it, and to renew our hope that there is a God who gives us stars to follow. There is a God who invites us on a beautiful (and risky) journey toward the Peace Child. There is a God who has granted you gifts needed for others you meet along the way.
This is the God of the watching ones, the waiting ones, the slow and suffering ones. The God who gives us a good word for our souls.