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January 6 is the Feast of the Epiphany, which follows the twelve days of Christmas. Epiphany celebrates the manifestation of Jesus to the gentiles in the persons of the magi (Matthew 2). Matthew is the only evangelist who tells the story and he provides few details. I’m sure you know the story: Magi come from the east seeking the newly born king of the Jews; they don’t find him in Jerusalem; upon the advice of Jewish leaders (via Herod) they travel to Bethlehem; they find Jesus, worship him, and give him gifts; and they return home. Matthew provides some additional details, but not many, and the story raises as many questions as it answers.

Matthew says that the magi came “from the east”. Given that they are called magi and were engaged in watching the heavens for signs, it is reasonable to assume that they were from Persia, or perhaps Babylon. Neither of these places is Jewish territory so why would the magi be interested in the birth of a Jewish king? The answer may have its roots several centuries earlier when Israel and Judah were conquered by the Assyrians and Babylonians. Many Jews were taken into exile from Israel and Judah to Persia and Babylonia. The people living in the area were polytheists so when the Jews came along and spoke of the God of Israel, the people living in the area would have listened, believed in this new god, and added the god to their list of deities. They would not have accepted the view that the God of Israel was the only true God, but they would have believed in God’s existence and willingly learned about this new deity. Many Jews stayed in Persia even after they were given permission to return to Judah so the exchange of knowledge between the Jews and Persians probably continued for centuries.

Some of the magi of the land knew enough about Jewish scriptures to know that an important king was expected. These magi watched the skies for omens and when a certain “star” appeared they interpreted it as heralding the birth of the new Jewish king. They set out for Jerusalem to pay homage to this important person. When they arrived they learned that those in authority knew nothing about the birth of a new king.

King Herod (who was not a Jew) asked the chief priests and the scribes about the birthplace of the expected king. They told Herod that the messiah would be born in Bethlehem of Judah. When telling Herod this, they state, “so it has been written by the prophet.” This addendum is a formula to state that the message was accepted by the Jewish religious leaders as the word of God spoken through a prophet, and thus was certain. Upon receiving this information the magi continue their journey to Bethlehem. There they found the child, worshiped him, and gave gifts.

The magi knew enough of the scriptures to know the prophecy of the king’s birth but lacked the detailed information which would have guided them to Bethlehem. The chief priests and scribes knew to look for the king in Bethlehem but they didn’t accompany the magi or send a delegation to investigate. Why did the chief priests and scribes stay in Jerusalem after hearing the magi’s report of the star? The messiah was long awaited and was the hope of all Israel; his birth would be great news to his people.

I think the reason was hubris. The chief priests and the scribes studied the scriptures; they were the religious experts of God’s chosen people. Why would God reveal the messiah’s birth to pagan, polytheistic magi? It just wasn’t reasonable to their minds. They were the important people, the authorities among God’s chosen. They were sure that God would not send an announcement to anyone other than them. And they were wrong.

God chose to reveal the messiah’s birth to foreigners. God also revealed it to Jews who were not very important in the world’s (or the religious leaders’) eyes: Mary, Joseph, Elizabeth, Anna, and Simeon among others. There’s a lesson for us: God speaks to those to whom God wishes to speak. It is not our position in the world or church, our value in the eyes of others, or our self-evaluation which determines whether God will speak to us directly. God often, perhaps usually, speaks to us through others, and sometimes those other folks are not ones we expect to bear God’s message. Over the course of our lives, God’s words will come to us from many directions – some expected and some not. It is our task to listen and discern the word of God while being aware that it may come from a place we would never expect (and perhaps not respect). Once discerned we must accept the word of God regardless of the messenger. As Jesus said, “Wisdom is vindicated by all her children” (Luke 7:35, NRSV). We need to keep our ears open regardless of our view of the person who is speaking to us; it may be magi who bring us good news of God’s work.

sunrise-153600_1280“To put it at its most basic: the resurrection of Jesus offers itself, to the student of history or science no less than the Christian or the theologian, not as an odd event within the world as it is but as the utterly characteristic, prototypical and foundational event within the world as it has begun to be. It is not an absurd event within the old world but the symbol and starting point of the new world. The claim advanced in Christianity is of that magnitude: Jesus of Nazareth ushers in not simply a new religious possibility, not simply a new ethic or a new way of salvation, but a new creation.”
— N.T. Wright, Surprised by Hope, p.67

Recommended reading for today: Seven Stanzas at Easter by John Updike.

CrossofashesThe Ash Wednesday liturgy has the very memorable line, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (BCP, p.265). This stark sentence is said while the priest imposes ashes. The liturgy makes the strong point that none of us will live forever: we all die. Often a person thinks of a life-ending situation and says, “If I were to die …”, but the correct wording is, “When I die, …”. Lent, a time of preparation for Easter, is a time to prepare for one’s death. This doesn’t mean only spiritual preparation but also preparation with regard to practical, material concerns.

There are many things which a responsible person ought to do to prepare for death. One item, necessary for all of us, is to make a will. Another is to document your wishes with regard to your funeral or memorial service. One should also have a living will and/or power of attorney in case of a serious illness or injury which doesn’t lead immediately to death. There are many other things one should deal with in preparation for death. Two web pages which provide brief but useful guides are One Day, You’re Going to Die. Here’s How to Prepare for It and You Don’t Have to Spend a Ton on a Funeral — Here’s Why. There is a lot of information on the web pertaining to planning of funerals, writing wills, preparing a power of attorney, and other end-of-life concerns. These two web pages will help you get started and you can use a search engine to find additional information on any of the action items.

Use the time of Lent to prepare for your death; dealing with these issues while you live will keep your loved ones from having to deal with them in their time of grief. It’s the responsible thing to do.

Got LentLent is upon us. It is traditional to have a Lenten discipline — to adopt a habit which assists in capturing the spirit of the season. Traditionally one gives up something for Lent: chocolate is a popular choice, as is alcohol. However, it is sometimes better to take on something as a Lenten discipline than to give up something. One may adopt a new daily prayer schedule, for example, or decide to perform a “random act of kindness each day”. Jan Risher, in a post on the Advertiser, has a good suggestion. Her idea is to write a letter of thanks to someone each day. We all have people to whom we’re indebted for an act of kindness, someone who gave us a helping hand. Ms. Risher’s idea for a Lenten discipline is to choose one of these people each day and hand write a letter of thanks. The letter is certain to be appreciated, and offering thanks to (and for) the people who have helped us in our journeys is sure to improve our spiritual outlook. This is a very good idea.

Christianity Today recently published an opinion piece entitled, “What Forgotten Christmas Tradition Should Churches Revive?” Three people, Patricia Raybon, Larry Eskridge, and Lore Ferguson, shared their candidate traditions, and one of the three struck a chord with me. Lore Ferguson writes about the tradition of the twelve days of Christmas (like in that song kids love to sing every year).

In churches which follow a liturgical calendar, December 25 is only the first day of Christmas. On the church calendar, Christmas is a season. Technically, December 25 is not called “Christmas” (that being the name of the season) but the Feast of the Nativity of Our Lord. Christmas is the period from December 25 through January 5 inclusive; those are the twelve days of Christmas. January 6, the day following the season of Christmas, is Epiphany, the feast which commemorates the visit of the magi, or wise men, to Jesus, and by extension celebrates the revelation of Jesus to the gentiles. (You can read my reflection for Epiphany here.) Ms. Ferguson’s recommendation is that we should revive the celebration of Christmas as a season — give it twelve full days. One day isn’t enough for the love expressed in the incarnation or for the joy of receptive hearts. With this I totally agree. Read the rest of this entry »

The exact date of the birth of Jesus is unknown. The Bible gives very little information about the birth, and certainly does not give a date, yet for centuries Christmas has been celebrated on 25 December. How was this date chosen? Every year we hear someone state that the date was taken from pagan holidays, particularly the Roman Saturnalia festival which occurred in late December or the winter solstice celebrations of northern Europeans. The idea is that early Christians co-opted the pagan holidays to ease the transition of the people from pagan religions to Christianity. This theory is very popular and is generally taken as historical fact by people who care about why this date was chosen. However, the theory is almost certainly incorrect. Our celebration of Christmas on 25 December is probably due to a somewhat arcane theology about the passion and death of Jesus. Andrew McGowan, President and Dean of the Berkeley Divinity School, published an article which expounds the reasoning for choosing 25 December. The article, “How December 25 Became Christmas,” originally appeared in Bible Review, December 2002. It is available on the Biblical Archaeology web site as part of the Bible History Daily series. It is an interesting article and worth reading by anyone who is curious as to why this particular date was chosen.