First Congregational Church of Cheshire
© the Rev. Dr. James Campbell
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: ‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.’” Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.”
When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.
As you know, I have retreated to an Episcopal Monastery in upstate New York for many years now. At this point, that place is so familiar to me that I almost feel at home there. Almost, but not quite. That “almost” qualifier comes from the simple fact that… I am not an Episcopalian, while almost everyone else on retreat there is. And that difference in identity is never more obvious than at a particular time in the worship services in the chapel.
The very first time I ever worshipped there, I was completely lost. I couldn’t follow along in the worship book. I never knew when to stand or if I should chant along with the monks. But, over time, I learned to fake it. I became a reasonable facsimile of an Episcopalian! Until, of course, the service ends and it’s time to exit the room. That’s when the jig is up and I stick out like a Congregationalist sore thumb! --Because those Episcopalians know how to reverence an altar! They will not leave the room until they have paid homage to that sacred space. Some of them simply nod. Others take a deep bow, from the waist. And still others will kneel and cross themselves before they exit.
Now, if I wanted to, I could do that too. I’ve watched them for years now. Would it kill me, I think, to at least nod at Jesus on my way out? But I don’t - even though there have been moments when I really wanted to. But my thoughts and my tradition and my inhibitions and my self-consciousness get in the way. My brain gets in the way of my body.
I bet I’m not alone here. I suspect that more often than not, your thoughts and traditions and inhibitions and self-consciousness get in the way of a human body that longs to delight in what is delightful. Oh, we might cut loose at concerts and ballgames, but worship… well, let’s just say there’s a reason others refer to us Congregationalists as the “frozen chosen.”
And yet, the Bible is full of stories of people physically overcome by the glory of God. When God appears, really appears, we humans shake and tremble and dance and sing and fall down on our faces.
Today we celebrate Epiphany, a word with a Greek root meaning “appearance” or “manifestation.” Epiphany is all about that first manifestation of Jesus Christ to the wider Gentile world.
The Gospel of Matthew reports that some time after Jesus had been born, Wise Men from the East came seeking the one they called “the King of the Jews.” These wise ones, from Persia or modern-day Iran, were likely Zoroastrian priests, who studied the stars for the signs of the times. And they had seen a star rise that signified a royal birth, somewhere out west. And so, they set out on a journey to find this toddler King of the Jews and to pay him homage.
Now for us to call Jesus the King of the Jews is a theological statement. We understand it through centuries and layers of tradition and Christian theology. But for the Wise Men, who practiced another religion, it was simply a political statement. They likely had no idea about the ancient prophecies of the Jewish people. They just knew that a royal star had appeared.
When they finally arrived in Jerusalem, they asked where the new king was. Well, as you can imagine, this upset the old king, who wasn’t dead yet! So, King Herod had these troublesome strangers brought to the palace, where he feigned his own interest in learning the identity of the One who was to take his place. He consulted with his own holy men as to where this child might be. “In Bethlehem,” they told him, “For so it has been written by the prophets.” And so, he sent the Wise Ones on their way, making them promise to come back and tell him where this child was so that he too could pay him homage. You might remember that Herod’s idea of homage was the sharp end of a sword for hundreds of innocent baby boys.
So, the Wise Men set out to Bethlehem. And lo and behold, the same star that guided them before, guided them again, until it came to rest over a house, not a manger, where the royal child was.
And then, the most amazing thing happened before the Wise Men ever met the Christ Child. Mary opened the door. Even though Joseph seems to not be present, she opened the door. -- She could have been, perhaps, should have been cautious with strangers, dressed in strange clothes and speaking a strange language and practicing a strange religion, but instead Mary opened the door to those who were so different from her. And in doing so, the glory of God was revealed. Open doors always reveal the glory of God.
So, Mary let them in. And what happened next was really odd, once you strip away all the Christmas sentimentality. The King James Version of the Bible says that when the Wise Men saw the child, they “fell down and worshiped him.” Our more modern New Revised Standard Version tones it down a bit and says simply that they “knelt down and paid him homage.” But no matter how you translate it, you’re still left with this odd scene of respected scholars, visiting dignitaries prostrate before a peasant toddler. And you have to wonder: what caused such a reaction?
Well, we don’t know exactly. Matthew doesn’t give us any details about what they saw. We will never know what they said. We cannot know what they felt. All we can know is what they did, or perhaps what was done to them, when their bodies experienced the glory of God. It brought them down to the ground.
You know, until this year, I had never thought about that before. Instead, every year when we get to Epiphany, I get too lost in my thoughts about who these strangers were and what kind of religion they practiced and what kinds of gifts they brought to ever consider what happened to their bodies.
The physicality of wonder. When is the last time you felt that? When is the last time you were brought down to the ground by something so wonderful that your body could not stand it? What did that experience look like and feel like? How did that experience of wonder change you?
There are no right or wrong ways to experience wonder. The physicality of wonder is as individual as we are. We don’t have to prostrate ourselves like the Wise Men. We don’t have to raise our hands like the Pentecostals. We don’t have to reverence the altar like the Episcopalians. The 13th century Sufi mystic and poeet, Rumi, once said: “There are a thousand ways to kneel and touch the ground.”
Maybe for you, it’s actually kneeling to pray, with your knees grounded to Mother Earth. Or maybe it’s standing in the tide and feeling of your feet being pulled by an endless ocean. Or maybe it’s your fingertip on a flower petal or letting your eyes linger on that marvel we call a bumble bee. Maybe it’s feeling the wind caress your face or the damp mystery of your hands in the soil. Or maybe it’s walking down these aisles and letting the bread of heaven and the cup of salvation linger on your tongue.
“There are a thousand ways to kneel and touch the ground.” There are a thousand ways to experience the glory of God.