Sunday, January 6, 2008

From a Far Country

The magi, whose story we tell on the Solemnity of the Epiphany, came from "the East" to do homage to the newborn "king of the Jews" (Matthew 2:2). The Christian imagination long ago turned them into three kings, though the gospel text says nothing about number or royalty. Christian scholarship has suggested them to be astrologers from somewhere as far away as Persia or as near as Arabia or the Syrian desert. No matter: they were and are exotic figures, cloaked in mystery, who came from a far country do pay honor to the newborn Christ and then disappeared as suddenly as they had come.

If they came from a far country, how much farther is the country from which we have come to worship the Word made flesh. Our journey originated somewhere east of Eden, in the hostile land to which the primal human beings were banished after that unfortunate picnic on a menu of forbidden fruit (cf. Genesis 3). Aelred Squire devotes a chapter of his classic Asking the Fathers to "the land of unlikeness" in which original sin landed us after Eden. The chapter is not about geography but about exile from our own truth as men and women created to live in God's likeness. God, say the scriptures, has been laboring ever since to persuade us to come home again. The moment when we turn from worshipping at the ancient shrine of the great God Ego to worshipping the God enshrined in Christ marks a milestone on the long road back to where we belong. It's a fragile moment: we tend to come and go between one shrine and the other for a lifetime. But it's a decisive moment. We can, like the Magi, go back to where we came from, and sometimes we do, if only for a visit, but we do not go unchanged.

When we first arrive at the house where we see "the child with his mother" (Matthew 2:11)--whatever the shape of the house, whatever age our image of Jesus--we are not likely to produce gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, at least not if we come as adults. We may more likely offer, embarrassed, a rather shopworn heart, some tatty prayers that vanish as quickly as the smoke of burning incense, and plenty of reason for the mourning myrrh signifies. We are always astonished to find that the gifts are not only received but welcomed and cherished. It was only that old hissing whisper from Eden days that tried to convince us that only high class, undamaged goods are acceptable at that "throne". We may be persuaded to snatch them back again after all, but we will find them as great a source of delight to the One we want to honor every single time we present them again. The Receiver may even throw a party--as long as the giver is the first of the gifts (see Luke 15).

Every year, Epiphany reminds us that the journey is not over. We still have a ways to go on a road likely to be marked by all sorts of detours, backward looks, even times when turn back altogether and have to retrace our steps to the place of meeting. All that matters, really, is that we keep forging ahead. Because we are not headed backward to the Eden from which we like to imagine we came, an Eden of childhood innocence unmarked by tears or pain or struggle -- or the growth that demands all three. We are headed forward toward a place much farther than Bethlehem, which even Jesus left long ago for the road to Calvary. It is a place which will not even fully exist till all of us get there, or so we are forced to think from within the narrow confines of a reality defined by time past, time present and time future.

Whether or not the magi were kings, they were, as we have always called them, wise. Fittingly, then, they have left us a legacy not of material treasures but of wisdom gleaned from hard experience. They have taught us that we may have to travel a long way to get from the far country to the place to which the star is leading. They have taught us that the journey is worth the trouble. And they have taught us one thing more: to see the star, we have to be willing to travel in the dark.

Note: Aelred Squire's book, Asking the Fathers, was originally published by Morehouse-Barlow in 1973. A new edition was published by SPCK in 1994. I am under the impression that I've seen a more recent edition published by an American house, but I can't find any information to substantiate that.

©2008, Abbey of St. Walburga

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