By Rev. Heather J. Blais, Rector
One of the great musicals of the last decade is Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton. Miranda tells the story of Alexander Hamilton’s life, and the incredible sense of urgency with which he worked for his cause. Over the course of 6 months, Hamilton composed 51 of the 85 Federalist Papers.* This is one reason why in the song Non-Stop the question is begged of Hamilton:
Why do you write like you're running out of time?
Write day and night like you're running out of time?...**
This past week these lyrics kept reminding me of Mark’s gospel. While Mark only left us with a single work, featuring a mere 16 chapters, it is written like the world might end tomorrow, and we must understand the good news NOW. Mark’s sense of urgency manages to make Hamilton seem rather relaxed, which we know was hardly the case. All this is to say, in Mark’s gospel we are meant to not miss a beat. There are no extra words, only what is needed to make the point. This can leave us with more questions, but also invites a greater curiosity.
Mark’s gospel begins by diving head first into Jesus’ baptism. Just as Jesus was coming up out of the water, “...he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased” (Mk 1:10-11). Or as the Message translates:“You are my Son, chosen and marked by my love, pride of my life.” This was a private and intimate moment between God and Jesus. There were no witnesses. Instead, Jesus is enveloped and marked by God’s love.
Because we live two millennia after Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection it is easy to forget that we understand the text with two thousand years of theological interpretation layered on top. We know the end game; or at least, how the Church has come to understand the text. This often interferes with receiving the text as Mark’s original audience would have. Whenever we can, as best we’re able, I would encourage us to try and hear the text as though it were for the first time.
Can you imagine what Jesus must have made of this encounter? He arrives at the Jordan River ready to be baptized, as an act of spiritual renewal, and gets far more than expected - a transformational experience of the divine. God says, to him alone, “You are my Son. I love you beyond measure, and couldn’t be prouder.” Is it any wonder that after such a momentous experience, Jesus is immediately driven into the wilderness for forty days? It is only after this wilderness time that Jesus is ready to begin his public ministry.
The entire time he keeps his full identity to himself.
Until we reach today’s text featuring the transfiguration. Here God reveals Jesus’ full identity to a handful of disciples, with some very clear instructions that the disciples are to ‘listen’ to Jesus. Jesus and the disciples have been ministering together for quite a while. He had only recently begun to prepare them for all that was about to unfold with regard to his impending suffering, death, and resurrection. The disciples were having a difficult time understanding and accepting this news.
It is at this point that Jesus brings Peter, James, and John on a short pilgrimage to Mt. Hermon.*** The four of them were alone on the mountaintop when Jesus was transformed; even his clothes took on a shimmering brightness. Then Elijah and Moses appeared, and were talking with Jesus. The disciples were at a complete loss as to understand what was happening. As Peter began to introduce the idea of making three dwellings, a cloud overshadowed them, and God’s voice was heard through the cloud, proclaiming: “This is my Son, the Beloved, listen to him!” (Mk 9:7).
Whereas at Jesus’ baptism, God spoke directly and privately to Jesus: You are my Son.
At the transfiguration, God spoke directly to Jesus and the three disciples: This is my Son.
With this encounter, God is telling Jesus: This news is no longer for just the two of us. Ready yourself. Likewise, God is saying to the three disciples: My love is revealed in the life of my Son, Jesus. Listen to him!
Scholar Amy Lindeman Allen notes that,“In Mark’s gospel, Jesus never directly claims this status for himself. While the disciples generally respect his authority, it is in this moment that they begin to understand the depths from which it originates. This is the core of the revelation: Jesus’ status as beloved of God.” ****
Moses and Elijah were also present for this mountaintop transfiguration.***** Their presence reminds the three disciples of how God has acted and been revealed throughout history. God had been at work with Moses, the founder of ancient Israel. Much like at the transfiguration, God and Moses communicated on the high, holy mountain of Sinai, with clouds enveloping them. God had also been at work with Elijah, the prophetic restorer of ancient Israel. Just as Jesus' work had taken on a similar role. Moses and Elijah’s presence at the transfiguration affirms God’s revelation to the three disciples.
This entire episode must have been quite an experience for the three disciples.Referring to Peter, the text says, “He did not know what to say, for they were terrified” (Mk 9:6). Other translations describe them as stunned and frightened. The Message sums the scene up well:
Elijah, along with Moses, came into view, in deep conversation with Jesus. Peter interrupted, “Rabbi, this is a great moment! Let’s build three memorials—one for you, one for Moses, one for Elijah.” He blurted this out without thinking, stunned as they all were by what they were seeing.
Peter’s instinct was to preserve this life-changing moment, which is an understandable response. Throughout human history mountains have been considered sacred places that yield transformative experiences. In Sanskrit, one of the oldest languages in the world, there is a word for this, darshan.“It suggests a face-to-face encounter with the sacred on earth; with a physical manifestation of the holy.”*****
These holy encounters transcend mountaintops. We are transformed by the sacred everyday:
…when we are outdoors in God’s creation and feel the peace of the Holy One
wash over us.
…when we see things through the eyes of our children and grandchildren.
…when we are overcome with gratitude for a loved one no longer with us.
…when we hear God’s call, and finally feel courageous enough to say yes.
…and in the thousands of other ways we encounter the holy in this life.
Like Peter, we may want to hit pause to memorialize these sacred moments. But it doesn’t work that way. We take in the glimmer, and then return to our messy, broken, and complicated lives. Yet that glimmer changes us; it helps point us forward, just as the view from the mountaintop shows us the many paths we might take as we wander through the wilderness of our lives.
The glimmer of the holy invites us to listen and be present in the moment. God was pretty clear with the disciples about this, “Listen to him.” Listen to what Jesus is saying about what will soon unfold. Listen to his teachings about my love. Listen and be present.
Like the rest of us, in light of the startling revelation of the transfiguration, Peter is ready to get to work and start building memorials. Peter exemplifies the human experience in this manner. God knows that we like to do, do, do, as it is far more comfortable for us than being present to the uncertainty within ourselves and our world. Which is why God is telling us to Listen. Be present.
It really is quite fitting that we hear a version of this story each year before we enter
the wilderness time of Lent. Lent is a season for self-examination and repentance; prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and for reading and meditating on God's holy Word. It is a season of working our way through the wilderness. Sometimes we do that work with a whole lot of doing, by taking things on or trying to break unhealthy habits. Maybe this year we work our way through the wilderness by being. Being present and listening to what is unfolding within the wilderness. To discern what needs tending and care at this juncture in our relationship with God and ourselves, as God’s beloved children. To hear what God may have to reveal to us this Lent.
What if this Lent, we simply listen. What might we hear if we:
Listen to the voices of creation and the earth herself.
Listen to the suffering endured by neighbors near and far.
Listen for the Holy One in scripture, literature, and media.
Listen for God at work and at home.
Listen for God in our relationships.
Listen for what needs tending within ourselves.
Listen for what God has to say to us.
This Lent, what do we need to lay down on God’s altar so we might be able to listen?
What might God be saying that we need to hear this Lent?
What might happen if we learn to listen with this kind of intention every day of our lives? Amen.
**** The Jewish Annotated New Testament, p.88
**** Preaching, p.77
***** See Oxford Annotated New Revised Standard Version Commentary discussion of Moses and Elijah in Mk 9
Robert MacFarlane, The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot, p. 269.
By Rev. Heather J. Blais, Rector
Today, let us turn our attention to the book of Isaiah. The Revised Common Lectionary, which determines the set of readings churches use for Sunday worship, frequently draws upon the prophet Isaiah.* In fact, over the course of the three year cycle, Isaiah is assigned 51 times. To give this some context, we hear 31 readings from Genesis; 24 readings from Jeremiah; and 22 readings from Exodus. The only text that we hear more from in the Hebrew Scriptures are the Psalms; which are featured nearly every Sunday.
First and foremost, Isaiah is a book of poetry. Poetry that has helped support core beliefs within Judaism, including the belief that a messiah would act to save God’s people; the significance of Jerusalem; and the importance of economic and social justice.*
Poetry which early Christians began to interpret as an anticipation of Jesus. While a Christian lens can be a meaningful way to interpret the text, I often find it more helpful to try and understand the text in its original context.
Something that is helpful to remember when we are listening to the Hebrew Scriptures is that these texts were originally written for Israel. This is not referencing Israel as a present day nation state. Israel is more than a place, it is a resilient and faithful body that has been in covenant with God for over a millenia.*****Just as God formed another covenant with Gentile Christians, what we think of as the Church, which actually began with Noah following the flood and was expanded through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. As we sit with these holy scriptures, let us remember there is enough space at God’s table for both interpretations, for both traditions, for God’s covenant with both Israel and the Church. But we’ll hear more about all that on Good Friday - so stay tuned.
Isaiah was composed over the course of two centuries.** The first section, referred to as First Isaiah, was written in the 8th century BCE, while the latter additions, referred to as Second and Third Isaiah, were written in the 6th century BCE. Scholars believe Isaiah, son of Amoz, composed most of the first section, while students of Isaiah's school of thought composed the latter sections.
Isaiah wrote at a time when ancient Israel had been divided into two kingdoms: the Northern Kingdom of Israel and the Southern Kingdom of Judah. While Isaiah predominately wrote to the people of Judah, where he lived; his text, in many ways, is a message to all the people of ancient Israel. The overall focus of the text is the descent of ancient Israel into exile and death, and then their promised ascent to new life and well-being.**
Isaiah chapter 40 is a critical juncture in the book. During the initial 39 chapters, we see that the Assyrian empire is a superpower on the rise.Their increasing presence forced smaller kingdoms like Judah and Israel to either cozy up to Assyria for protection, selling their souls in the process, or risk revolt. The Northern Kingdom of Israel risked such a revolt in 722 BCE and it resulted with their people being deported and dispersed throughout the Assyrian empire.** Isaiah was of the opinion that there was a third and better option - that Judeans should stay free of any political or military alliances, in order to rely on God alone to protect them.
This opinion must have been challenging for the people of ancient Israel to hear and accept. After all, they could feel the danger on their heels, and they needed to determine how to act now. Trusting the God of Israel would have been the faithful choice, but it also might have felt too risky with such a real and imminent threat on their horizon. After all - what if the God of Israel didn’t protect them as promised? Or didn’t protect them in the way they wanted to be protected. Maybe it would be better to take matters into their own hands.
This dynamic is at the heart of humanity’s relationship with God. God is here, though often not in the ways we anticipate, and we are left with reservations. Having faith that God will be our safety, our protection, and our guide can feel more impossible than trying to simply take matters into our own hands. And so, often we do just that. Even when we have the knowledge and experience that God always shows up for us. It may not be in the way we want or how we expect, but God is always here with us. Loving and protecting us like a mother tends her newborn child.
When we arrive at Isaiah chapter 40, the text shifts into Second Isaiah. And at this point, quite a lot of time has gone by. The Judeans are now living in exile, having been forcibly removed from their home. They have lost Jerusalem, and all that it symbolized in their relationship with the God of Israel. They feel defeated, ashamed, and are having a crisis of faith.
We sometimes forget that for much of antiquity, deities were generally national or regional entities.
They were accessed locally in particular physical locations. If people lost access to that physical place, they lost access to their God. Losing Jerusalem would have compounded the sense of loss and shame they were grappling with.
So can you imagine how good Isaiah’s news must have been?
Have you not known? Have you not heard?
Has it not been told you from the beginning?
Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth?
It is he who sits above the circle of the earth,
and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers;
who stretches out the heavens like a curtain,
and spreads them like a tent to live in;
The God of Israel created the foundations of the earth, and reigns over heaven and earth. We are but grasshoppers, always in God’s view.
Have you not known? Have you not heard? It is the God of Israel,
who brings princes to naught,
and makes the rulers of the earth as nothing.
Scarcely are they planted, scarcely sown,
scarcely has their stem taken root in the earth,
when he blows upon them, and they wither,
and the tempest carries them off like stubble.
Isaiah is smashing the glass ceiling of humanity’s limited thinking. The God of Israel is more powerful than any prince, ruler, or empire. Isaiah is reminding the people of ancient Israel - You think the Assyrian empire is strong? They’ve got nothing on our God. No ruler - yesterday, today, or tomorrow - will ever be as mighty as our Creator God. Isaiah is practically shouting with a profound sense of urgency.
Have you not known? Have you not heard?
To whom then will you compare me,
or who is my equal? says the Holy One.
Lift up your eyes on high and see:
Who created these?
He who brings out their host and numbers them,
calling them all by name;
because he is great in strength,
mighty in power,
not one is missing.
Why do you say, O Jacob,
and speak, O Israel,
"My way is hidden from the Lord,
and my right is disregarded by my God"?
Have you not known? Have you not heard?
Isaiah is breaking everything down with this proclamation. While many ancient deities could only be accessed or felt in specific locations, the God of Israel crafted the whole of creation and is accessible everywhere. It was irrelevant that the people were no longer in Jerusalem, the God of Israel is everywhere, always. For us this is a given, but Isaiah is doing something radical and unheard of at the time. He is introducing monotheism, with the God of Israel reigning over the whole of creation. The people need to know!
Have you not known? Have you not heard?
The Lord is the everlasting God,
the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He does not faint or grow weary;
his understanding is unsearchable.
He gives power to the faint,
and strengthens the powerless.
Even youths will faint and be weary,
and the young will fall exhausted;
but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength,
they shall mount up with wings like eagles,
they shall run and not be weary,
they shall walk and not faint.
The God of Israel is more powerful than any earthly ruler, and stronger than any local god. More than that, the God of Israel is especially available to those who are weak, weary, and waiting. As ancient Israel lingers in their despair, shame, and hopelessness, the prophet Isaiah is waking them up - God is especially with us. All that is required is for the people to wait upon God by putting their trust in God. To choose hope over despair, day after day after day. And when they do,
the Lord shall renew their strength,
they shall mount up with wings like eagles,
they shall run and not be weary,
they shall walk and not faint.
Isaiah was pleading with the people of ancient Israel - hold onto hope! Trust in God! Soon, God would use the Persian King Cyrus the Great to defeat the Assyrian empire, and they would be permitted to return home to Jerusalem. A new day, a new hope, with God as their guide.
Isaiah’s poetry is beautiful and inspiring, and speaks to us as much now as it did to ancient Israel. As I sat with these readings, I felt a sense that we, too, need to hold onto what Isaiah is offering. We are invited to wait upon God, offering our trust, and hope. We are living in strange times. Even if we work really hard to not take in much news, we cannot escape the weary and constant onslaught altogether.
We are reminded each day of:
Yet when we are reminded of the God of Israel, and the same force of love Jesus embodied in his life, death, and resurrection we are reminded to hold onto hope, to choose to wait upon our God. The Creator of the heavens and the earth is bigger than any war, any violence, any politician, any scandal, and is even bigger than the climate crisis. We need not hide under a rock, but wait on our God and be a source of love and goodness. We are to remember we are God’s and we are here to serve God’s dream by working for peace, justice, and mercy with love and kindness. Because when we do
the Lord shall renew our strength,
we shall mount up with wings like eagles,
we shall run and not be weary,
we shall walk and not faint.
God gives us the strength to be God’s hands and feet in this world, to make a difference, to see a new day, a new hope.
As we begin to prepare for the season of Lent, I would invite us to do some reflecting this week:
We walk together, as the body of Christ. We wait together, as the body of Christ. Amen.
**The Jewish Study Bible, p.763
*** This paragraph makes several references to information reflected by Walter Brueggemann and Tod Linafelt in their Introduction to the Old Testament, pgs 191-208.
*****Daniel Joslyn-Siemiatkoski, Talking About Jews: Principles, Problems, and Proposals for Prayer Book Revision
By Rev. Heather J. Blais, Rector
“Here I am, for you called me.”*
In today’s reading from the Hebrew scriptures, we witness the calling of Samuel. The call story is a beautiful and moving account of vocational discernment.
First, though, a bit of background.**
Samuel’s father Elkanah (El-KAY-naa) had two wives: Peninnah (Pen-in-nah) and Hannah. While Peninnah bore him numerous children, Hannah struggled with infertility. Each year Elkanah would bring his family to Shiloh, so he might go to the temple and offer a sacrifice.
Afterwards, he would give portions of the sacrifice to Peninnah and her children, and then he would offer a double portion to Hannah. This generous gift was a symbol of how dearly he loved Hannah.
As you might imagine, this left Peninnah feeling threatened, and in turn, she would provoke Hannah. Year after year, this resulted in Hannah weeping and refusing to eat. Elkanah seemed oblivious to this tension, and the pain of Hannah’s infertility.
He once asked her, “Hannah, why do you weep? Why do you not eat? Why is your heart sad? Am I not more to you than ten sons?”*
One year, following the meal, Hannah was so deeply distressed that she presented herself before God in the temple. She wept and prayed silently for a child. She promised God that should she give birth, she would offer that child as one consecrated for service to God.
Eli, the temple leader, noticed Hannah’s mouth was moving without any sound coming out. Assuming she was drunk in the temple, he went to reprimand her, when he discovered she had been in prayer. Hannah poured her heart out to Eli, who in turn prayed for her. She left the temple feeling better. With time, Hannah became pregnant, and eventually gave birth to Samuel. After he was weaned, she brought him to Eli, to minister in the temple, while she went on to give birth to five more children.
When we meet Samuel in today’s lesson, he is asleep on the temple floor near dawn.
A voice cries out: “Samuel! Samuel!”*
Samuel assumes it must be Eli calling after him, so he runs to him and says:
“Here I am, for you called me.”*
Eli, who had been asleep, retorts: I didn’t call you, go back to sleep.
This happens twice more.
Eli begins to realize this may be God calling Samuel. He instructs Samuel to go lie down, and this time, to stay and respond: “Speak God, for your servant is listening.”
Samuel does as instructed.
And God responds by speaking to Samuel: “See, I am about to do something in Israel that will make both ears of anyone who hears it tingle.”
God then goes on to explain all that will befall Eli’s family.
Some background on Eli.** While Eli had once had the potential to be a strong leader, he had let his power, privilege, and position distract him from listening to God. Two of Eli’s sons served as priests in the temple, and their behavior was appalling. These scoundrels took the best portion of the sacrifices for themselves, while also mistreating and assaulting women who served outside the temple. Eli was aware of their behavior, yet he did nothing. He let abuse after abuse take place. While God had warned Eli to stop his sons, Eli’s love of power and privilege prevented him from taking God’s voice seriously. This is why throughout the first few chapters of 1 Samuel, Eli is described as having dimmed senses - both literally and metaphorically.
Samuel must have felt quite uneasy with the information God had given him. After all, Samuel had essentially grown up under Eli. The next morning, Eli insisted Samuel tell him everything God had said. While a bit reluctant, Samuel spoke the truth in love to Eli - soon his family would lose everything. Eli, in a way that is quite admirable, essentially responds by saying - May it be so. Samuel goes on to become a trustworthy prophet of God, whose ministry is focused on putting an end to corruption.
While Eli is a complicated and broken leader, there is good in him. Julian of Norwich once wrote, “...God is everything that is good, and the goodness that is in everything is God.”*** Eli’s family was corrupt, beyond repair. Yet even as Eli’s leadership was diminishing, the goodness within him accepted his fate, and selflessly helped this young boy hear and respond to God’s call. He helped Samuel listen. Eli did not manipulate Samuel, or misuse the information, or make it about him in any way.
Instead, he helped Samuel listen and accepted his own fate.
Given Samuel grew up in the unscrupulous environment cultivated by Eli’s sons, it turns out Samuel is uniquely poised to become a prophet who addresses corruption. Our experiences in life, particularly the hard ones, shape and form us. Again and again, God makes a way out of no way. The challenges and hardships we face, somehow become opportunities to serve God and one another.
Eli was imperfect, but he did this one good thing. While he was slow to realize it, once he suspected the voice belonged to God, he equipped Samuel with how to respond. He sharpened his listening, and guided Samuel on how to proceed.
Over the course of our lives we are blessed by the listening presence, wisdom, support, and companionship of family, friends, mentors, teachers, elders and little ones who teach us how to listen for the voice of God. These folks walk with us as we discern, and encourage us along the journey. They selflessly point us towards God, and the best versions of ourselves. These relationships are gems we can treasure our entire lives, because these relationships shape, form, and nurture us long after our relationship may endure, as people move away, change paths, or die.
Recently, one of my first mentors, Jane, died after a long illness. Mid-career, Jane left a successful law practice to serve as the Diocese of Maine’s Youth Missioner. For over 20 years, she helped teens and young adults discover, grow, and deepen their faith. As I look back, it really amazes me how many of the youth from that community discerned calls to ministry, particularly into helping professions. Some of us discerned calls to ordained ministry; others to music ministry. Some felt the tug of God to go engage in mission work. I’ll never forget sitting at a table with some young adults from this community, while one shared that they had just finished selling all of their worldly possessions as part of their preparation to go and live as a missionary in Asia. Many more discerned calls to be social workers, teachers, and work in non-profits or government agencies that are working for justice and mercy. Still more serve in leadership roles in their local churches as lay leaders.
Through regular youth events and gatherings, Jane cultivated a community where it was safe to be ourselves; where we could be painfully honest about what we thought of God and the Church; where we could be our messy, authentic selves. And Jane couldn’t have done that on her own. She had a knack for finding adults to volunteer at these events who enjoyed listening to teens and encouraging them in positive and healthy ways. Some were parents and grandparents, others youth group leaders, still others deacons and priests. We were empowered to lead liturgy, proclaim the gospel, offer sermons, administer the cup, sing boldly, and be leaders in the Church.
What started as a group of teenagers in Maine has grown into a diaspora of Episcopalians who are now adults serving in a variety of fashions across the globe. All because Jane, and the adults that worked alongside her, loved God deeply, and knew how to listen. They nurtured and supported us, as we navigated finding the words. They taught us to say, Here I am. Speak for your servant is listening.
As we continue to sit with the calling of Samuel this week, I would invite us to do some reflecting. Who has blessed our lives with their listening presence? With their wisdom, support, and companionship? What did we learn from them about ourselves? About God and God’s world? Who in our lives needs us to be a listening presence right now? To walk beside and encourage along the way? Might we engage in this holy listening together?
* Scripture reference from 1 Samuel 3:1-20
** Scripture references from this paragraph are drawn from 1 Samuel 1-2
*** Julian of Norwich in Revelations of Divine Love, ST 5, pg 9.
By Rev. Heather J. Blais, Rector
Today we celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany. This feast takes place each year on January 6, and marks the arrival of the magi, who followed a star from a distant land to find the Christ-child. Like Christmas, Epiphany is more than a day.
Rather, it is an entire liturgical season of revelation that lasts until Lent. During this season, our scripture readings recall the many ways Jesus was revealed to people-- from his baptism, to the calling of the disciples, to the transfiguration. Every element of this season is meant to emphasize Jesus’ mission to bring God’s dream to the whole of creation.
It all begins with today’s gospel lesson from Matthew. While Luke’s gospel tells us of Mary’s child being born in a manger, and shepherds coming to pay their respects, it is only in Matthew’s gospel that we learn about the magi. The word ‘magi’ is Greek, and translates in English to ‘wise men’. The magi were a class of Zoroastrian priests and were renowned astrologers with a gift for interpreting dreams.* With time, the tradition of the magi evolved.They eventually became known as ‘kings’ and were each given names and histories.** While the gospel does not quantify the number of magi, the Eastern traditions have generally settled on twelve; while in the West we have landed on three.** This is likely because they brought three gifts - gold, frankincense, and myrrh.**
I would suggest that the magi also have much to offer us. Their very presence in Bethlehem is a gift, as it boldly proclaims that the Christ-child is for everyone, no exceptions. They help us begin to appreciate the breadth of God’s radical welcome and inclusivity. These religious leaders are referred to as Gentiles, a name for those who do not practice Judaism.
When they saw the rising of a star in the East, they experienced a call to come and bear witness. The magi turn their lives upside down, traveling from Persia, in what is now modern day Iran, all the way to Bethlehem. This journey would have taken several months, possibly even years. Bringing with them gifts that were meant more for a coronation, than for a new mother and child.
Yet the gifts represent the magi’s reverence for the Christ-child. The newly born King of the Jewish people would usher in a new kind of reign that would look like none other, before or since. A reign of Divine Love meant for the whole of creation.
And, something quite radical is worth noting. While every pilgrim is changed by their journey, these magi came to Bethlehem as Zorastian priests, and they went home as Zorastian priests. In other words, religious conversion was not required of the magi. Conversion to Judaism, or to the not-yet-even-an-idea religion of Christianity. The gift of the Christ-child is bigger than any one religion or way of life. Rather it is a gift of Divine Love for all.
The magi also offer us insight by contrasting the distinctly different reigns of Herod and Christ. In our story, the magi are unknowingly drawn into the self-interested web of destruction woven by Herod the Great. While Herod’s title was ‘King of Judea’, in reality, he was a political appointee. He served under, and at the pleasure of, Roman Emperor Augustus. Scholars have noted that he was only partially Jewish, and often would respond savagely to potential rivals, particularly Jewish rivals.*
Herod is a leader who seeks power and wants to hold onto it at all costs. He immediately perceives the Christ-child as a threat. It ignites his fear, which spreads a wildfire of fear, uncertainty, and anxiety amongst the people of Jerusalem.
Herod does not care about the ripple effect of his beliefs, decisions, and actions. The suffering that ensues is of no concern to him. Herod misuses the resources of his position to learn where the Christ-child was thought to be born. He then attempts to manipulate the magi, hoping to trick them into telling him the location of the child, so he might ‘pay his respects’. Yet that kind of selfishness leaves its mark, and when we pay attention, our intuition will raise the alarm and guide us away.
The magi do go on to find the Christ-child in Bethlehem and are ‘overwhelmed with joy’. Yet having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they go home by another way. When Herod realizes the magi caught on to his despair and trickery, avoiding him altogether, it sends him even further into madness. In the verses that follow today’s, Herod retaliates by sending soldiers to kill all the children under two years of age in and around Bethlehem. The untold suffering that resulted from this one man’s selfishness and fear is incomprehensible. Thankfully, like the magi, Joseph had been warned in a dream, and had led the holy family into Egypt where they lived as refugees until Herod’s death.
Herod’s self-interested and fear-driven model of leadership is uncomfortably familiar. We have seen it throughout all forms of government, and across the political spectrum. Self-interest and fear drives too many leaders, and those ‘served’ are the ones who suffer most.
The magi’s pilgrimage points us toward an entirely different kind of leadership. They guide us to a mother and her young child. A child born from an all powerful Creator, who willingly set it all aside, to embody Divine Love as the ultimate gift for the whole of creation. Lifting up a vision for this world like one we’ve yet to truly comprehend. God’s dream is a vision that upholds the whole of the human family and all of creation. A vision of a world ruled by divine justice; where the riches of creation are cared for and made available to all; that Love is the rule that guides our beliefs, decisions, and actions.
Finally, the magi also offer us an opportunity for self-reflection. Reflection that is imperative if we want to help bring about God’s dream for this world.
The magi witness the ripple effect of Herod’s fear, just as we watch fear play out in the news on a daily basis. The misinformation that spreads, the misunderstandings that ensues, the misuse of power and resources, and the senseless suffering of innocents. Witnessing such destruction invites us to take a holy pause and examine our own inner landscape.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama write about fear in The Book of Joy.
“For fear, it can help to face the fear directly. You can think of the worst thing that could happen if your fear comes true. Now, could you or your loved one survive what might happen? Could it actually be beneficial for you or your loved ones? What could you or they learn if this were to happen? How might this allow you or them to grow and deepen as a person? For example, perhaps you are worried about your child who is struggling in school and you are afraid some bad outcome will come to pass. Ask yourself, ‘Is it true that this outcome will definitely happen? How do I know for sure? Does my worry help the situation? Is there a better way of thinking about it or approaching the situation? What might my child learn from that experience? How might they grow and develop as a person?’ When we turn and embrace what we fear, it loses its power to frighten us. We no longer need to fight it, but can instead work with it.” ***
What would it look like to try this exercise? In any case, as we head back out into the world today, I hope we might accept the magi’s invitation to examine our own inner landscape. To consider:
*NRSV, p.1749; JANT, p.13;
*** The Book of Joy by Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu with Douglas Abrams, p. 317-318.
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