Magi Musings…an Epiphany epilogue

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(the Epiphany mural above was personally photographed by the author at the Saint-Etienne-du-Mont in Paris)

I must confess that before I moved to Paris to work at The American Church, I did not know what Epiphany was, so if you find yourself wondering the same question…no worries!

In the liturgical worship of the Christian calendar, Epiphany is celebrated on Wednesday January 6 this year with Epiphany Sunday on January 10th.  This celebration marks the arrival of the wise men or “magi” to worship the infant Christ.  Of course we do not know how many of them came to visit Jesus, but we do know that at least three significant and symbolic gifts were presented.  We also do not know when precisely they arrived, but most scholars maintain it was probably a few months (or even up to two years) after the birth of Christ.  Either way, it is important to celebrate their arrival of these first Gentiles to worship the Savior of the nations.

Epiphany also concludes the 12 Days of Christmas, which contrary to some, is the 12 days of giving gifts after Christmas, not before. Epiphany is celebrated among liturgical denominations and specifically within Orthodox Christianity. In fact, many of my friends both in France and here in Greenwich who are originally from places like Russia, Romania, Ukraine and Greece, wait until January to give and receive their Christmas gifts.  The season of Epiphany also marks the end of Christmastide and when the decorations are stored and festivities conclude, thus ushering in a new season of preparation for Lent.

The actual word Epiphany can be translated “manifestation”, “striking appearance” or “vision of God”.  It is a Christian feast day that celebrates the revelation of God the Son as a human being in the person of Jesus Christ. Western Christians commemorate principally (but not solely) the visitation of the magi to the baby Jesus, and thus Jesus’ physical manifestation to the Gentiles.

I rather enjoy rethinking my normal Christmas traditions and assumptions and appreciate the continuation of the season and spirit into January. I was always one who wanted to keep up decorations at least through New Year’s day, but now I actually have a theological reason to do so!

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Concerning the magi, we do not know much about their story (background, beliefs, or future faith journey), but we know that they were guided and lead by light.  They responded in faith with what they had.  a vision. a desire. a star.  hope.

Many of us are on a similar journey.  We do not know where it will end up but we hope to encounter the Christ along the way.

I  wonder what they were thinking during the day, week, and months of their pilgrimage.  These individuals were scholars, astrologers, and cosmologists.  They were intelligent, observant, and rational people I assume.  They were men of science…and faith it appears and God revealed himself to them in means they could understand and interpret.

A reasonable conclusion from this story is that God worked, and works, in mysterious ways and we should not limited God to work only within traditional “religious” or even “Christian” parameters.

Many questions come to mind looking back upon this fascinating story

What the magi were hoping to find?

How much of God’s story did they know or understand?

I suppose we cannot know.  But we do know that God spoke to them in amazingly clear and directive ways and we may do well this season to ask if God is speaking to us?

Are we prepared to see divine signs of God’s guiding and direction in strange and unusual ways?

May we be open and ready to discover God, not only through these miraculous manifestations but also  in the commonplace; arts, conversations, culture, and sciences.

It has become clear to me that God desires to be discovered in all, and through all things.  He is a self-revealing God, and we should not box God in by our own expectations and limitations.  God will come to us.  The question is…we will let God do so?

How still we see thee lie….

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Every year around this time, especially during a candle-lit Christmas Eve service,  we sing the familiar carol “O Little Town of Bethlehem” accompanied with nostalgic images of a quite, sleepy, peaceful village town in Israel.  Historically we believe this to be true, but alas times have changed.

I recently visited Bethlehem, situated in the Palestinian West Bank and what I found was rather disturbing.  The once peaceful environment is now literally walled out.

This is a complex history behind this, which is worth familiarizing yourself with but depending on which resources you read and people you speak with, the causes and impact vastly differ.

Yes, there are two sides to every story, but for most of my life living in America, I only heard one side of this story.

I recommend watching the link below for a brief observation of what is going on in Bethlehem, from an often unheard voice in this sad saga.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uA4U-rlkg9Q

Yes, I realize there is truth in both sides of the stories, but too often we never get to the point of honest dialogue and meaningful discourse when exposed to only one perspective.

For those seeking hope, reconciliation and restoration (and have not giving up hope even in the midst of the current strife and turmoil), there are some wonderful resources and organizations I have been made aware of recently.

I have highlighted three worth looking into.

One is a documentary, one is a conference and one is an NGO.

All aim to use the tools of truth, honesty, open conversation and friendship to bring an end to the hatred and hostility in the birthplace of the Prince of Peace.

http://littletownofbethlehem.org/

http://christatthecheckpoint.com/index.php/en/

https://www.musalaha.org/home/

O little town of Bethlehem,
How still we see thee lie!
Above your deep and dreamless sleep,
The silent stars go by.
Yet in thy dark streets shineth
The everlasting Light,
The hopes and fears of all the years,
Are met in thee tonight.

O morning stars, together
Proclaim thy holy birth
And praises sing to God, the King,
And peace to men on earth.
For Christ is born of Mary,
And gathered all above,
While mortals sleep, the angels keep
Their watch of wondering love.

How silently, how silently,
The wondrous Gift is giv’n!
So God imparts to human hearts
The blessings of His heaven.
No ear may hear His coming,
But in this world of sin,
Where meek souls will receive Him still,
The dear Christ enters in.

Jolly Ole’ St. Nicholas….. of Myra

I will never forget the day my parents broke the horrible news to me about Santa.  I had been watching TV and a commercial with the big man in a red suit appeared and I ran to the TV and kissed his image and exclaimed “Santa I love you!”.  It may have been the borderline idolatry and worship of this fictional character or the fact I was 16 that lead my parents to share the “truth” with me.  (Ok, I wasn’t exactly 16….).   So, they sat me down and told me the cold hard facts that put Santa on equal terms with the Easter bunny, Tooth Fairy, and Hulk Hogan. Yet I still choose to believe that Wrestle Mania was real!

I was crushed.  Certain fantasies are meant to only last so long I suppose.

Looking back what I find interesting is the “truth” about Santa Claus was more of demythologizing of him than shedding light on the actual truth of his origins.

I know many parents who do not let their kids believe in Santa (they use clever mind control tactics developed in Russia)

Others, without the budget or insanity, simply prohibited the images of jolly ole’ Saint Nick and the watching of Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer in their homes.  Now clearly, if you live in the U.S one would have to lock up your child inside to completely isolate them from Santa.  Besides, he knows when you are sleeping and knows when you are awake!

What many do is realize the cultural saturation of the Coca-Cola Claus propaganda, and at an early age tell their children he is simply a myth.  These kids then become more mature and sensible than their peers because they are not deceived into believing a lie.  Think about the mom in A Miracle on 34th Street and you begin to get the picture!

Now this can be done with a bit more tact and sensitivity than some parents use, and certainly more than Vince Vaughn in the following scene:

Don\’t drink the Kool-Aid from \”Fred Claus\”

Parents, please don’t get mad at me if you happen to take that approach.  To each his or her own.

However…..rather than the above mentioned approaches, here is what I propose and some close friends are doing.  (I think this can and should apply to all Christians and not just parents)

We can reclaim good ole’ St. Nick by sharing the story of the historical (and very real) Saint Nicholas.  I find it interesting that many people do not know there was a real clergy member of the Church named Nicholas, and those who do, know very little about his life and faith.

By teaching about the life journey and faith of saints like Nicholas, tribute is paid to the “cloud of witnesses” who have gone before us.  Theology, doctrine, discipleship, piety, and obedience can be on display and promoted during the season instead of just shiny little lights and Xbox games.

I personally believe that reclaiming Saint Nicholas back to the truly “Christian” aspect of Christmas can tie in the theological implications and reality of the incarnation with the cultural phenomenon that has become the holiday on December 25.

Attempting this dialogue and conversation may serve better than placing Santa at the nativity  (although I suppose I can appreciate the intent)

I am no expert of the life and teachings of Saint Nicholas, Bishop of Myra, but I will provide a brief synopsis and helpful links for further research and study.

Nicholas, who was born during the third century in the village of Patara. At the time the area was Greek and is now on the southern coast of Turkey. His wealthy parents, who raised him to be a devout Christian, died in an epidemic while Nicholas was still young. Obeying Jesus’ words to “sell what you own and give the money to the poor,” Nicholas used his whole inheritance to assist the needy, the sick, and the suffering. He dedicated his life to serving God and was made Bishop of Myra while still a young man. Bishop Nicholas became known throughout the land for his generosity to the those in need, his love for children, and his concern for sailors and ships. Under the Roman Emperor Diocletian, who ruthlessly persecuted Christians, Bishop Nicholas suffered for his faith, was exiled and imprisoned. The prisons were so full of bishops, priests, and deacons, there was no room for the real criminals—murderers, thieves and robbers. After his release, Nicholas attended the Council of Nicaea where it is reported he helped defend the deity of Christ in AD 325. He died December 6, AD 343 in Myra and was buried in his cathedral church, where a unique relic, called manna, supposedly formed in his grave.

Because of the many miracles attributed to his intercession, he is also known as Nikolaos the Wonderworker He had a reputation for secret gift-giving, such as putting coins in the shoes of those who left them out for him, and thus became the model for Santa Claus, whose modern name comes from the Dutch Sinterklaas.

There are many legends and fables about his miracles and acts of service which help explain the progression towards the modern-day creation of Santa Claus.

During this Christmas season, we should keep focused on the real miracle of Christ’s incarnation.  Let us never lose sight of that.  However, if you are like me and still really do enjoy the North Pole, those cute little elves, and leaving cookies for Santa, then perhaps getting back to the actual origins of Saint Nick just might keep yourself and kids balanced a bit more than previous years.

St. Nicholas of Myra

Bishop of Myra, Defender of Orthodoxy, Wonderworker, Holy Hierarch

(Also called NICHOLAS OF BARI).

Christianity Today- The Real Saint Nicholas

Catholic Online- Saint Nicholas

stories and tales about Saint Nicholas

Blog post from The Resurgence

All Souls and Saints

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On the interesting aspects of living in France for four years was learning about their distinct holidays, most of which were religious in origin. Every October, schools in France close for two weeks for the “Toussiant” holiday break, and many French families travel across the country to visit relatives and loved ones.

“toussaint” is the French phrase for “All Saint’s” and is celebrated as All Saints Day. It is a deeply historic religious festival celebrated on the of 1st November each year in France. In other traditions and customs it is also known as “All Hallows” Day, with the preceding evening called “All Hallows Eve” (a.k.a Halloween by us Americans).

This tradition has been honored and held in high esteem here throughout Europe since around 609.  The feast of All Saints, on its current date of November 1, is traced to the foundation by Pope Gregory III and is the day when all the Saints recognized by the Roman Catholic church are honored.

Today, La Toussaint is marked by the lighting of numerous candles in cemeteries and the decorating of graves with chrysanthemums, the flowers associated with death. Stone lanterns of the dead, which are lit during the festival, can also be found in many cemeteries, especially in the Massif Central region in central France, and in Brittany. Family reunions are held to honor the dead, church bells are rung, and churches are decorated with chrysanthemums, candles and banners.

On the eve of Le Jour des Morts churches are draped in black, funeral songs are sung and prayers for the dead are recited. People visit cemeteries to pray at their family graves, and then there are festivities involving singing and telling stories about their deceased relatives.

This day becomes a day of honoring and remembering loves ones and Christians who have gone before us.  This “great cloud of witnesses”, as the author of Hebrews states, can and should serve as examples of inspiration and perseverance.  It can serve us well to acknowledge these men and women of God and pay tribute to their lives and legacies.
Many Americans, like myself, still visit the graves of loved ones on special occasions (birthdays, Christmas, anniversaries).

So as Autumn descends upon us, the leaves fall from their perches above and pumpkins are on great display on front porches throughout our communities, may we remember the origins of the old “Halloween” tradition.

In keeping to the true spirit and history of this day, let us pay tribute to those “saints” who let their light shine in the darkness long before us.  Old Testament heroes, the Apostles from the New Testament, the early church fathers and mothers , “saints” from the early century Churches, Protestant Reformers, and personal examples such as grandparents and other relatives are all part of our legacy of faith.
These people are, and should be, included in the “cloud of witnesses” that serve as an example to believers now.

I will conclude with a wonderful quote about the inspiration and example of “saints” and what I personally come to appreciate the blessing in setting aside time to honor them.

“ … In addition to the sun, which is the image of Christ, there is the moon, which has no light of its own but shines with a brightness that comes from the sun. This is a sign to us that we men are in constant need of a “little” light, whose hidden light helps us to know and love the light of the Creator, God one and triune. … One might say that the saints are, so to speak, new Christian constellations, in which the richness of God’s goodness is reflected. Their light, coming from God, enables us to know better the interior richness of God’s great light, which we cannot comprehend in the refulgence of its glory.”
– Pope Benedict XVI, as quoted in “Benedictus”

….to all who are beloved of God in Rome, called as saints: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

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– Romans 1:7

Setting Sail Together

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I am both challenged and inspired by the quote from Mark Twain:

“20 years from now you will be disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the one’s you did. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”

I confess I am not much of a sailor.  I quite enjoy the experience but lack the knowledge and confidence to be out in open water by myself.  However, I have enjoyed the unique experience of sailing with a trusted captain and there is nothing like the freedom of open water with a fresh wind behind you.  For there lies freedom, liberation and an open horizon full of possibilities, discoveries and wonder.  Yet, this experience begins by a willingness to leave the dock and decide to set sail.

Though unpacked boxes still pervade our new living space, we already feel at home and deeply appreciate the warm welcome received upon arrival in our new community and congregation in Connecticut.   All of life’s changes and transitions can be challenging but I have learned that, in many ways, we are all constantly on a journey of process.  I have learned to be open to all that God has to teach me during these times of changes and to embrace new beginnings.

So here we find ourselves arriving in a new harbor fresh from France full of excitement and anticipation for what lies ahead.  Six months ago, my wife Lauretta and I could not have envisioned our young family relocating to a more perfect community than Greenwich and congregation than Round Hill Community Church.  www.roundhillcommunitychurch.org

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We knew that change was in the air but had no idea how wonderfully God would breath into our sails and gently guide us here.  We have learned that God can be trusted to navigate our voyage and when we open ourselves to the guidance and direction of God’s Spirit, joy and peace empower our sails.

I am honored and humbled to begin my new calling as the Associate Pastor at Round Hill Community Church and am eager to dive into conversations, develop relationships and deepen our faith together in the weeks, months and years to come.

So I encourage us all to explore, dream and discover together all that God has in store for our communities in the year ahead!  May we embrace one another and encounter God in our midst as we live out the call to a be a force for God and good in our community and world.

“May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.” -Romans 15:13

Following the trail of Patrick

On March 17 I had the unique privilege of celebrating Saint Patrick’s Day in Dublin, Ireland. This “bucket list” trip was special and memorable for many reasons. I was always able to spend time in Northern Ireland following the Saint Patrick trail and learn more about the the man and missionary called Patrick. Much information and inspiring was discovered at the brand new Saint Patrick Center, the only museum in the world dedicated to the history and story of Saint Patrick. http://www.saintpatrickcentre.com/

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During my travels I visited a number of historic sites included Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, where it is said Patrick baptized converts in a well in AD 450. IMG_4372

 

 

 

 

 

 

Saul Church, the site where Saint Patrick built the first Christian Church in Ireland in 432 AD.

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also his burial site in Downpatrick.

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It was a remarkable and memorable experience which I highly recommend if you have the opportunity to visit the island of the Irish.

My time and travels in Ireland provided me an opportunity and invitation to expand the horizons of the Christian faith as well as sounds, sights and spirits of this great culture. During my remaining few months living in Europe, I do hope to experience a few other new countries and cultures, as so much can be learned that help broaden and expand our minds, hearts and lives.

I leave you with these words from Patrick that serve well for us all as we enter into the Eastertide season celebrating Christ’s resurrection and presence with us!

 

Christ be with me, Christ within me,

 

Christ behind me, Christ before me,

 

Christ beside me, Christ to win me,

 

Christ to comfort and restore me,

 

Christ beneath me, Christ above me,

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The real Saint Patrick

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I have the privilege this year of celebrating Saint Patrick’s Day in Ireland this year.

This has long been a dream of mine and thanks to a kind and generous friend (and supportive wife) I will be taking in the sounds, sights and spirits in Dublin on March 17th.

I have also longed to visit Ireland to learn more about its rich cultural and religious history.  Though damaged by religious and political divisions and still scarred by the remnants of anger and hostility, much reconciliation has occurred and often through the Church.

The recent critically-acclaimed movie Calvary delves into this topic and I would recommend the viewing.

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http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2234003/

But since this is Saint Patrick’s Day, I wanted to write briefly about the story behind the celebration…the man called Patrick.  If you have never read or familiarized yourself with his life, I highly recommend it.

Once kidnapped in slavery at age 16 and brought from his home in England to the land of savages in Ireland, Patrick had visions from God that gave him strength and lead to his escape.

So inspired and moved by God once home, he felt compelled to return as a missionary to preach the gospel to a land that had never heard the message of Christ before.  The story continues and his writings are full of profound insights, theology, prayers, and confessions that challenge and inspire me deeply.   I have included at the end a hymn written by, or least attributed to Patrick from around 430 AD.

It should also be noted that Patrick was not recognized as a “Saint” until decades later, did not drive out snakes since there were none in Ireland at the time, did not use the 3 leaf clover to describe the Trinity, and was basically kicked out of the priesthood for failure to submit to authority. He was however a great contextual theologian and missionary who reached an entire people for the Kingdom of God!

We have much to learn and celebrate from the rich and diverse history of our faith. The traditions of past and present, while different from our own, provide a wonderful opportunity for our faith to increase.

This national “holiday” of sorts, Saint Patrick’s Day has given me an opportunity and invitation to expand the horizons of my congregation as we learn together to appreciate what God has been doing through his servants throughout the centuries. Of course, we can also expand our food and spirits horizons at your local Irish pub!

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So, as you listen to U2 or The Cranberries (depending on your style) and raise a pint of Guinness  thank God for examples like Patrick, and may we all follow the example of a life of obedience, sacrifice, servant hood, faith, prayer, and mission.

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I bind unto myself today

The strong name of the Trinity,

By invocation of the same,

The Three in One and One in Three.

I bind this day to me for ever,

By power of faith, Christ’s Incarnation;

His baptism in the Jordan River;

His death on cross for my salvation;

His bursting from the spicèd tomb;

His riding up the heavenly way;

His coming at the day of doom;

I bind unto myself today.

I bind unto myself the power

Of the great love of the Cherubim;

The sweet ‘Well done’ in judgment hour;

The service of the Seraphim,

Confessors’ faith, Apostles’ word,

The Patriarchs’ prayers, the Prophets’ scrolls,

All good deeds done unto the Lord,

And purity of virgin souls.

I bind unto myself today

The virtues of the starlit heaven,

The glorious sun’s life-giving ray,

The whiteness of the moon at even,

The flashing of the lightning free,

The whirling wind’s tempestuous shocks,

The stable earth, the deep salt sea,

Around the old eternal rocks.

I bind unto myself today

The power of God to hold and lead,

His eye to watch, His might to stay,

His ear to hearken to my need.

The wisdom of my God to teach,

His hand to guide, his shield to ward,

The word of God to give me speech,

His heavenly host to be my guard.

Against the demon snares of sin,

The vice that gives temptation force,

The natural lusts that war within,

The hostile men that mar my course;

Or few or many, far or nigh,

In every place and in all hours

Against their fierce hostility,

I bind to me these holy powers.

Against all Satan’s spells and wiles,

Against false words of heresy,

Against the knowledge that defiles,

Against the heart’s idolatry,

Against the wizard’s evil craft,

Against the death-wound and the burning

The choking wave and the poisoned shaft,

Protect me, Christ, till thy returning.

Christ be with me, Christ within me,

Christ behind me, Christ before me,

Christ beside me, Christ to win me,

Christ to comfort and restore me,

Christ beneath me, Christ above me,

Christ in quiet, Christ in danger,

Christ in hearts of all that love me,

Christ in mouth of friend and stranger.

I bind unto myself the name,

The strong name of the Trinity;

By invocation of the same.

The Three in One, and One in Three,

Of whom all nature hath creation,

Eternal Father, Spirit, Word:

Praise to the Lord of my salvation,

salvation is of Christ the Lord.

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