Magi Musings…an Epiphany epilogue

(the Epiphany mural above was photographed by yours truly 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 January 5 this year to mark 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 signficant 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 Orthodox Christianity. In fact, a number of students and young adults from ACP who are from places like Russia, Romania and Greece, wait until January to give and receive their Christmas gifts.  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”, and as mentioned  traditionally falls on January 6. 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. Eastern Christians commemorate the baptisms in the Jordan River, seen as his manifestation to the world as the Son of God. Many of the Eastern Churches follow a different calendar and so may observe this feast on January 19.

I rather enjoyed 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!

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.

As I reflect back upon the story, part of the beauty  for me is the journey of the magi.  People in biblical times were accustomed to rather long and tiresome journeys.  Hoping on a plane and traveling from Asia Minor to Bethlehem in 2 hours was not an option.

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 conclude 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?

Did they fully grasped what kind of Savior-King this would be?

Unlike some of our Christmas gifts, which I am sure were returned on “Boxing Day”, how much thought actually went into their gifts.

Did they really know that this baby would be a King unlike any other?  Did they ever come to understand or know that his baby ould serve as God’s High Priest eternally, and would die on behalf of the human race.

Did they know this on their journey towards Nazareth?

Did they leave their visit with this knowledge?

I suppose we cannot know.  But we do know that God spoke to them in amazingly clear and directive ways.

Is God speaking to you?

Might this new year be one of many “epiphanies”?

Are we prepared to hear the voice of God is 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 him on his own terms?

Dispersing the gloomy clouds of night, Putting dark shadows to flight, The Dayspring has come to cheer us. The Lord has come to be near us. Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel has come to thee, O Israel!

A Peaceful Death….a new kind of New Year’s resolution

(Rembrandt. Simeon with the Christ Child in the Temple. c. 1666-69)

This week, the Christian church wherever gathered celebrates the second Sunday of Christmastide.  Our decorations are still displayed throughout the church halls and sanctuary.  When most people are putting everything back in the box, we find ourselves in the midst of the 12 Days of Christmas, leading towards Epiphany.

In many Christian tradition, the Nunc dimittis (also Song of Simeon or Canticle of Simeon) is read or sung.  Unknown for many (including myself until this past week) is what the Latin actually means….”now dismiss”

The liturgical text for this Sunday is found in the later part of the second chapter of Luke’s gospel.

Jesus Presented in the Temple

22 When the time came for the purification rites required by the Law of Moses, Joseph and Mary took him to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord 23 (as it is written in the Law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male is to be consecrated to the Lord”), 24 and to offer a sacrifice in keeping with what is said in the Law of the Lord: “a pair of doves or two young pigeons.”

25 Now there was a man in Jerusalem called Simeon, who was righteous and devout. He was waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was on him. 26 It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not die before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. 27 Moved by the Spirit, he went into the temple courts. When the parents brought in the child Jesus to do for him what the custom of the Law required, 28 Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying:

29 “Sovereign Lord, as you have promised,
you may now dismiss your servant in peace.
30 For my eyes have seen your salvation,
31 which you have prepared in the sight of all nations:
32 a light for revelation to the Gentiles,
and the glory of your people Israel.”

33 The child’s father and mother marveled at what was said about him. 34 Then Simeon blessed them and said to Mary, his mother: “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, 35 so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too.”

There is much that can be unpacked in this section about Joseph and Mary, Jewish customs, and prophets.  However, the prayer of Simeon is extremely noteworthy and relevant for this particular season of the year.  This man was not one of the high officiating priests of the temple.  He was not part of the machine of ministry.  Rather, Simeon was a faithful, dedicated, and obedient servant of God filled with the Holy Spirit.  He had longed for and awaited God’s promised Messiah, and now upon seeing and believing that this young infant was indeed the Redeemer and Savior, Simeon was at peace and ready to be “dismissed.” His mind and heart were at peace and he was ready to die.

How does this fit in with the start of a New Year

This can be a great time to reflect upon the relationships in our lives.  Our relationship with God, with others, and with ourself.  Are we at peace?  Are we anxiously waiting for something to happen in our life or are we content.  As I read and listened to this passage, I discovered it afresh this year.  While I am not wishing for an untimely death, I do hope that there is peace in my heart and life

I remember hearing my older family members saying “If the Red Sox could just win one world series before I die….”  I vividly remember that cold autumn night in 2002 when the impossible happened and a collective exhale throughout New England could be heard.  I honestly believe that for many, they were now ready for death!

But what about you?  How are the relationships in your life?  Are you at peace and, as much as it depends on you, are you attempting to live peacefully with others…including your enemies?

Like Simeon, when our eyes have seen “the salvation of the Lord”, it changes everything.  When you look back upon last year, was God’s grace, kindness, faithfulness, and salvation evident?  Even in the midst of hurt, confusion, unanswered prayers, and silence…salvation was there.

Will we approach this new year like Simeon did each and every year..in hopeful anticipation and expectation of God’s promises being fulfilled in the in breaking of the Lord’s favor.

The word “dismissal” may conjure up various memories and meanings to you.  For some, it was the long-awaited words finally granting you freedom from a boring lecturer (or church service).  You simply could not wait to get out of there and anything else seemed like a much better option!

I remember back to my childhood school days and “dismissal” time.  Class was never so bad, and usually enjoyable.  However, the real highlight of the day was recess! As innocent and care-free children, we would run around and play and simply be full of life!

Simeon’s life of faith and obedience prepared him for the great dismissal. He was ready to enter into true life.  He was being dismissed into some reality far greater than the mind can imagine.

Hopefully our own eternal dismissals are well in the future.  But as we leave church services this weekend and leave the Christmastide mystery of the incarnation behind, we are dismissed into the world to run and play and be free as we invite others to experience the same.

T.S. Eliot
1888-1965

A Song for Simeon
Lord, the Roman hyacinths are blooming in bowls and
The winter sun creeps by the snow hills;
The stubborn season has made stand.
My life is light, waiting for the death wind,
Like a feather on the back of my hand.
Dust in sunlight and memory in corners
Wait for the wind that chills towards the dead land.
Grant us thy peace.
I have walked many years in this city,
Kept faith and fast, provided for the poor,
Have given and taken honour and ease.
There never went any rejected from my door.
Who shall remember my house, where shall live my children’s children
When the time of sorrow is come?
They will take to the goat’s path, and the fox’s home,
Fleeing from the foreign faces and the foreign swords.
Before the time of cords and scourges and lamentation
Grant us thy peace.
Before the stations of the mountain of desolation,
Before the certain hour of maternal sorrow,
Now at this birth season of decease,
Let the Infant, the still unspeaking and unspoken Word,
Grant Israel’s consolation
To one who has eighty years and no tomorrow.
According to thy word.
They shall praise Thee and suffer in every generation
With glory and derision,
Light upon light, mounting the saints’ stair.
Not for me the martyrdom, the ecstasy of thought and prayer,
Not for me the ultimate vision.
Grant me thy peace.
(And a sword shall pierce thy heart,
Thine also).
I am tired with my own life and the lives of those after me,
I am dying in my own death and the deaths of those after me.
Let thy servant depart,
Having seen thy salvation.