Catholic Contextual urban Theology, Mimetic Theory, Contemplative Prayer. And other random ramblings.

Sunday, 4 February 2018

Sermon at Parish Mass Epiphany 2018

Isaiah 60:1-6
Ephesians 3:2-3a, 5-6
Matthew 2:1-12

Who are they, these strangers from the East? We often see them dressed as kings, or at least as medieval people imagined foreign kings might look. But that is only because of the text from Isaiah this morning, about kings coming to the brightness of Israel’s dawn, and nations bringing gold and frankincense, a text that suggests a connection with the visit of the Magi.
In art, it is common to see one of them depicted as African, one Asian and one European, representing the three continents known at the time of Christ. But we are told only that they come from “the East”, or more poetically “the land of the sunrise” – which could be anywhere far away.
Look again at Matthew’s account. He doesn’t say that they were kings, or indeed that there were three of them. Our translation renders “Magi” as “wise men”, though even that is open to question – a plural word like this in Greek could mean a mixed group of men and women. 
The Magi are mysterious characters. Legend and art have built up a great deal of stuff that might be true, but all we know of them for sure is what we read in today’s Gospel reading. 
“Magi” is a term hardly used in the Bible, and when it occurs it refers to gentile practitioners of occult arts, like Simon Magus in the Acts of the Apostles or Balaam, he of the talking donkey, in the Book of Numbers. And indeed it was Balaam, ages before, who had prophesied the star that the Magi of Matthew followed: “I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not near - a star shall come out of Jacob, and a sceptre shall rise out of Israel” . 
The Magi were gentiles, people from outside Israel’s story, strangers to the Law, the Covenant and the Prophets. And yet Israel’s story needs them for its completion. Called from outside, they become the first of the gentiles to find the fullness of life and truth that was promised, through Israel, for all the world. 
And they were learned people. They were both astronomers and astrologers, scientists who studied the heavens, and philosophers who sought the meaning of what they saw. In pre-modern times learning was not fragmented into separate branches the way it is today. They studied the universe as a whole, seeking meaning and purpose. 
These people who sought the meaning of creation were led by their studies to the Word made flesh, the Word through whom all things were made. These people who sought truth in their studies found him who is in person the way, the truth and the life.
But their journey required faith. They had to set out believing that there was more truth to be found by journeying, than by staying at home. Faith was needed to leave behind the culture in which their knowledge was the pinnacle of human achievement. Their assumptions took them to Herod’s court in Jerusalem – where else would a king be found? But faith was needed to move on from there, to leave behind the glittering palaces and strong towers, to turn their backs on the centre of power and seek an ordinary humble dwelling. Faith was needed to bow down in worship before a baby.
Yet this is what they did. Their science and their faith worked together, and brought them to Jesus. 
For them, as for us, there is only one source of truth, and that is God. All truth is from God, whether it comes to us through divine revelation embodied in the scriptures, or through science, philosophy, art, or everyday lived human experience. And because all truth is from God, it is nowhere contrary. And all leads back to him. The science of the Magi led them to Jesus, not away from him. 
Like the Magi, we need to be open to the truth, and not afraid to follow wherever it leads. When religion seeks to turn its back on truths that seem unexpected or unwelcome, it is making a fundamental mistake. All truth is from God. The chief priests and the scribes in Jerusalem knew the prophesy of the Messiah’s birth at Bethlehem. But they didn’t go there. The truth of Scripture should have converged with the truth uttered by these mysterious foreign visitors to lead them to Jesus. Instead they stayed where they were. Perhaps they were afraid, like Herod and the rest of Jerusalem, that a new king would threaten their place of power and privilege. 
This goes on, of course. When Darwin published his theory of evolution some Christians were very perturbed by what they saw as a contradiction with the doctrine of creation. And indeed some still are. But the best theologians accepted at once that the doctrine and the science were both true, testifying in different ways to the Word through whom all things were made.
Fundamentalism is a disorder that afflicts all religions. Its error is not so much that it is wrong, as that it isn’t right enough; it refuses to follow the path to the fullness of truth, because it thinks it has it already. Yesterday I saw a street preacher haranguing passers-by outside a shopping centre. His message seemed mainly to be rejection of anything that conflicted with his reading of the Bible.
But if we believe that all truth is from God, then that demands of us a deep and faithful engagement with all truth, whether it is familiar to us, or comes to us in the guise of a stranger from afar. Whether it is scriptural, or comes from science or lived experience, or the insights of other cultures.
At the start of the new year we are summoned by a star to embark on the quest for truth, which is the journey of faith. Truth brings us to Jesus, to fall down before him and worship. Of course truth does this, for worship, according to St Paul in Romans 12, is “logical”, worship in accordance with the Logos, the Word . All truth converges on Jesus, however strange or unexpected the path to him may seem.
But this is also a journey of transformation. Paul goes on to say, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds”. It’s no good knowing what the Bible says, or having any other accomplishment of knowledge, if we stay in Herod’s court, prisoners of our fear. The first journey of faith in the Bible was that of Abraham, and he was told “‘Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you” . He wasn’t given a map or a timetable, and his journey had many unexpected turns and testing times. 
We do not know what lies ahead of us this year. The path we follow may take unexpected turns. We may be tested in ways we cannot foresee. But our call is to follow in faith, to follow the star of the truth’s unfolding, which will bring us in faith and worship to the fullness of truth made known in Jesus Christ our Lord. 

[1] Numbers 24.17
[2] λογικὴν λατρείαν – Romans 12.1
[3] Genesis 12.1

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