by Ellen Sims
text: Matthew 2: 1-12
This week over 50,000 books, films, and songs aged out of their copyright restrictions and entered the public domain. Eager to sample that free treasure trove, I revisited a book that I had first checked out of the library when I was about 14: Ben-Hur by Lew Wallace. Although I’ve never seen the entire cinematic version starring Charlton Heston, most famous for a chariot race scene, I’ve never forgotten the opening chapters of the book that are merely a mystical prelude to the vigorous plot that follows. Something about the story of the Magi seeking a deeper experience of God created cognitive dissonance for me which, I’ve only recently realized, may have later contributed to my theological explorations as an adult.
Ben-Hur begins as three sages from different lands are mysteriously led to a distant desert where they and their stories converge. As the novel imagines it, each of the Magi, years before they sought the Christ Child, each had an unsettling spiritual experience that disrupted prior suppositions and provoked unanswerable questions and prepared them for the ultimate epiphanic encounter with the Christ Child.
Gaspar is the first of these seekers to share with his new companions why he had journeyed to the place where a star had led each of them. A Greek, proud of his culture’s art and philosophy, he nevertheless longed for something the Athenian scholars and schools lacked, so he became a hermit. He tells the other two: “I believed it possible so to yearn for [God] with all my soul that he would take compassion and give me answer. . . . One night I sat by the door of my cave trying to get nearer the mysteries of my existence; suddenly, on the sea below me, or rather in the darkness that covered its face, I saw a star begin to burn; slowly it arose and drew nigh, and stood over the hill and above my door, so that its light shone full upon me. I fell down, and slept, and in my dream I heard a voice say: ‘O Gaspar! Thy faith hath conquered! Blessed art thou! With two others, come from the uttermost parts of the earth, thou shalt see Him that is promised. . .In the morning arise, and go meet them, and keep trust in the Spirit that shall guide thee.’”
Melchior the Hindu next explains his disenchantment with the unjust caste system that ostracized and stigmatized those for whom he felt compassion, so he left his beautiful land and likewise sought solitude. In solidarity with the poor and despised, he fasted and prayed until one night he “walked by the shores of the lake, and spoke to the listening silence: ‘When will God come and claim his own?’. . . Suddenly a light began to glow tremulously out on the water; soon a star arose, and moved towards [him], and stood overhead.” He reports, “’While I lay upon the ground, I heard a voice of infinite sweetness say, ‘Thy love hath conquered. Blessed art thou, O son of India! . . . With two others, from far quarters of the earth, thou shalt . . . be a witness that he hath come. In the morning arise, and go meet them; and put all thy trust in the Spirit which shall guide thee.’”
The Egyptian, Balthazar, is the last to offer his story. Although proud that recorded history began with his people, he, too, had yearned for something more: a deeper experience of God’s goodness. So he set out to a place “where man had not been, where only God was.” He tells his two companions how one night, walking along a shore, he spoke into the darkness: “’The world is dying. When wilt thou come?’ . . . Soon the glassy water was sparkling with stars. One of them seemed to leave its place, and rise to the surface, where it became a brilliancy burning to the eyes . . . and a voice, not of the earth, said, ‘Thy good works have conquered. Blessed art thou! With two others, from the remotenesses of the world, thou shalt see the Saviour. . . . In the morning arise, and go meet them. And when ye have all come to the holy city of Jerusalem, ask of the people, ‘Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the East and are sent to worship him. Put all thy trust in the Spirit which will guide thee.’” And the seekers set off.
As an adult I understand the novelist was drawing on tradition, not the Bible, when he set the number of Magi at three. (The story in Matthew simply names three gifts brought by the wise men. If you heard today’s gospel text and visualized three men, you did what we do so often: layer onto the Gospel details that just aren’t there.) As an adult I now recognize the differing world views these sages symbolized. As an adult I appreciate themes of Eastern mysticism.
But 14-year-old me understood this: the wise men represented religious traditions far different from mine and from one another, yet they were all called and commended by God. The God of Jesus spoke to and called out and honored these men from different religions. It was the first time I’d considered God being bigger than my Christian religion or the Jewish faith from which my religion was born. Did the story of the Wise Men suggest God saves nonChristians? I wondered naively. Through the novel’s opening depictions of the sages’ figurative and literal searchings, I journeyed a little farther from my Southern Baptist boundaries; I opened myself to a bigger God. As the star of wonder had illuminated Gaspar’s, Balthazar’s, and Melchior’s path to the Christ Child, so a novel shined new light for me on the expansive nature of that which we call God. Maybe that’s why in later years I would reach out for a God beyond gender. . . God beyond religion. . . God of many metaphors. . . God beyond naming. . . God as more verb than noun. . . God of paradox. . . God existing always just beyond our reach yet always surrounding us and dwelling within us. . . God luring us into the ongoing journey.
But long before I had theological language for my journey, I’d ask uncomfortable questions in Sunday school. And a bit later I’d notice that college courses in science, history, and religion exposed certain contradictions in church teachings. Many of these questions and contradictions lived just below the level of my own awareness most of the time. But gradually I realized I couldn’t go very far in my pilgrimage if I didn’t cross some boundaries.
Having this week returned to Matthew’s story of the Magi by way of a detour through Lew Wallace’s version, I am stirred again by the spiritual metaphor of searching and seeking and traveling. The new year offers us the ideal time to gaze out at the beckoning horizon together. Inspired by the Magi, let me suggest five ways spiritual explorers like us might adventure boldly into the newness of 2019:
1. Don’t travel alone. When you find others who have caught a vision of God’s faithfulness and compassion and goodness, join them.
2. Do seek diverse traveling companions. The Gospel of Matthew says that the wise ones came from the East, where gods and customs differed from those in Bethlehem. But tradition imagines the gift givers themselves as different from one another, which emphasizes the way differences enrich any journey. In classic journey stories, like Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, characters with divergent backgrounds and perspectives (the knight, the parson, the Wife of Bath, for instance) add flavor to the narrative soup. In Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy, representatives of all the Free Peoples form the fellowship that travels to save Middle-earth on a quest worthy of one’s life.
We at Open Table are eager to include others with different perspectives and experiences of this world. We do not require theological conformity; however, we consistently present a progressive and inclusive Gospel that is rare in most churches in Mobile. You’ll hear from me, for instance, gender-inclusive names for God. You don’t have to change your prayer life to name God as female, but I’m going to model inclusive language for our diverse fellow travelers and to hold open a generous theology.
3. Don’t be afraid to make course corrections during the journey. This takes courage, especially when your adventures are theological. I know some of you have experienced Open Table’s sermons and classes and conversations as disorienting at times. Please take this journey at your own pace. Talk with your tour guide or fellow travelers when you have questions. But know that many of us have found it healthy to emerge from the (in my case, conservative/Evangelical) bubble into which we were born. Sometimes it will feel you are walking in the dark by a faint light in the far distance. Remember that today’s Gospel reading concludes with the Magi, “having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, . . . [leaving] for their own country by another road.” The unknown ahead can be daunting, but sometimes a different road is the healthiest path. Sometimes it’s time to journey down a different road.
4. Walk in wonder. Be astounded. See and hear and taste and smell and hold beauty. Have you ever traveled to a foreign country with someone who refuses to appreciate that culture and keeps remarking how their home culture has better food and does things the right way? Such people have no capacity to hold the new in awe. Of course, we don’t want to despise the familiar or think novelty an end in itself. Each new answer is itself only partial and temporary. Marvel even at that! Yearn for that which stirs your heart and imagination. Notice acts of tenderness and courage. Honor ordinary miracles: like starlight that originated thousands of years ago reaching the retinas of our eyes just now. Bless the starlight and bless each night’s rest. Bless each person who shares bread with you and receive the most basic morsel as if you’ve crossed a desert to find it.
5. Kneel before what is worthy and offer what you have. Give your version of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And add your love. Kneel especially to the God who comes as a child: who brings together all earth’s diverse people, who shows us the spiritual imperative of courageous vulnerability, who evokes wonder, and who deserves our humble worship.
I considered closing with Tennyson’s rousing poem “Ulysses,” a tribute to the seeker who “cannot rest from travel” but is “always roaming with a hungry heart.” Ulysses could stir us to be intrepid travelers. But instead I’ll close more gently, with a verse from a song our church in Nashville sang regularly:
We are travelers on a journey, fellow pilgrims on the road.
We are here to help each other walk the mile and bear the load.
I will hold the Christlight for you in the nighttime of your fear.
I will hold my hand out to you. Speak the peace you long to hear.