On Imagining the Mystery of Christ

On Imagining the Mystery of Christ

On Imagining the Mystery of Christ
Traceymay Kalvaitis

Isaiah 60:1-6
Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you. For darkness shall cover the earth and thick darkness the peoples, but the Lord will arise upon you, and his glory will appear over you. Nations shall come to your light and kings to the brightness of your dawn. Lift up your eyes and look around; they all gather together; they come to you; your sons shall come from far away, and your daughters shall be carried in their nurses’ arms. Then you shall see and be radiant; your heart shall thrill and rejoice, because the abundance of the sea shall be brought to you; the wealth of the nations shall come to you. A multitude of camels shall cover you, the young camels of Midian and Ephah; all those from Sheba shall come. They shall bring gold and frankincense and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord.

Matthew 2:1-12
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.
Today’s sermon is titled On Imagining the Mystery of Christ.

Yesterday was the twelfth day of Christmas, otherwise known as Three Kings’ Day or Ephiphany. In one way, Epiphany marks the end of Christmastide, but in our tradition it also marks the beginning of the 7-week period between now and the beginning of Lententide when we consider what Jesus is bringing into the world. The word “epiphany” means to reveal or to show through. The topic of our study between now and the beginning of Lent on the fourteenth of February will center on this question: what does the birth and ministry of Jesus of Nazareth reveal to us about the nature of God, the nature of love, and the nature of humankind?
The nature of God, the nature of love and the nature of humankind all converge in this story we have for today, the story of the three wise ones. The scriptures tell us that the wise ones, also known as the Magi, or priests, come from “afar” following a star that guides them to Bethlehem. Scholars propose that these wise ones were Zoroastrians from Persia, what is now Iran. The Persians had an advanced culture and a strong religious influence that shaped Jewish theology and later, Islamic theology, too. The Magi are not from the Jewish community and yet they have interpreted the signs and perhaps even scriptures from other cultures that spoke of the portents of this birth. The fact that the Magi come from far away to pay homage to the newborn king of the Jews is a foreshadowing of the cross-cultural impact that Jesus’s teaching will initiate. Two thousand years later, it is not difficult to see how this has played out on the world stage where the stories of Jesus Christ have reached every country on earth and 1 of every 4 people identify as followers of Christ. The actual coming of the Magi testifies to their certainty that a great event has taken place and the returning of the Magi to their lands afar is the beginning of the spreading awareness of the great event that we celebrate each Christmas, the birth of the Christ child.
It is only in the book of Matthew that we find the story of the Magi written as we heard it today but there is another account, an account written in the first person, an account that was found in the Vatican Library, and only translated into English ten years ago. The scholar, who shaped his dissertation at Harvard around translating the text, is Brent Landau. He has since written a book titled Revelation of the Magi. If this piques your interest as it did mine, you can find an online text of an interview with Diane Rehm and the video of a newscast from ABC interviewing Brent Landau. Here is what I gleaned. The text is written on vellum which is prepared animal skin. The vellum had originally been used to record portions of the Second Testament writings in Greek, then the vellum was scrubbed and reused to record the account of the Magi in what Landau estimates to have been written around 200- 300 A.D. There are many things that I find striking about what is contained in the detailed account but there are two pieces that surprised me the most. First, the author of this ancient text describes how the light of the star coalesces into the form of an infant. Whether taken literally or figuratively, this is a startling image, is it not? And it certainly adds an air of gravitas to the words of Jesus when he says, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (John 8:12). Secondly, the author recounts that the Christ child offered the following words: “This is one of many occasions in which I have appeared to the people of the world.”
For someone like myself, someone who is incensed that so much harm has come from disagreements about religion, incensed that wars have been fought, that blood has been shed in copious amounts over the millenia, incensed that violence over religious differences continues to this day…for someone like me, the message recorded in this ancient text is profound for it implies multiplicity. Not just one event but one of many. Not just one appearance of God but one of many. Not just one manifestation, perhaps, but one of many. It is nearly impossible to fight over a claim worded like this. Here is a question: would it diminish, in any way, the validity of our teacher, Jesus of Nazareth, if he were to say to us, “This is one of many occasions in which I have appeared to the people of the world?” I think not. For me, at least, such a statement only magnifies the wonder of God; as Socrates wrote, “Wonder is the beginning of wisdom.”
During Advent this year, a recurring message began to take shape and it was not something I intended. You may or may not have picked up on it. It is only in hindsight that I can see it clearly. I have been challenging myself and challenging our community to wonder more about the nature of God, to imagine the nature of God…imagine something beyond what you think you know about God. How far can we go with our imaginations? Can we imagine God not as a being, and certainly not as a bearded man sitting in the realms of heaven above the clouds? Can we imagine God, instead, as a way of being, perhaps? Can we imagine the entire earth, or the entire universe as the body of God? Can we imagine God as a force within us and within the world that leads us towards truth, wholeness, health, and unity? Can we imagine God as much more than we have been led to believe? I certainly hope so, because our inherited ideas about God make God out to be more like Santa Claus, if we are honest about it.
We have inherited notions about God that tell us if we are good then we will be protected and if we behave badly we will be punished. We have inherited notions about God that tell us God spares some and leaves others to perish. What a small and petty god that sounds like; that is not the nature of the God I worship and it is not the nature of God described in the scriptures, either. Paul writes eloquently of the universal nature of Christ. In Colossians, chapter 1, we read, “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For by Him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible…he is before all things, and in him all things hold together.” It is written in the first chapter of John, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through Him all things were made.” Three times in the book of Revelation Christ is referred to as the alpha and the omega, the beginning and the end. I tell you, Friends, once we start expanding our imaginations, we find support in the scriptures everywhere. Consider the words we heard this morning from the prophet Isaiah, “Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you…his glory will appear over you…you shall see and be radiant; your heart shall thrill and rejoice.” Those are words that inspire our imagination, Friends. I expect that no matter how far we can extend our imaginations to encompass the mystery of Christ and the nature of God, we will not be able to go far enough. I do believe, though, that it will be our gift in death to once again realize the full depth and width and breadth of the force we call God.
In closing, on this Sunday, the day after Epiphany, I invite us all to engage our imaginations as we consider the nature of God expressed in Christ and what it means for us in our lives and in our world in the year 2024. As our days grow longer and more full of light, we will once again be turning our attention in the coming weeks to the life and teachings of Jesus. “I am the light of the world,” he says. May we grow in wisdom and understanding, that we may see all things and all people through the light of Christ. So be it. Amen.

Pastoral Prayer
God of all, we are in need your grace. At any age, true security and peace are difficult for us to find. As a culture we strive to do more and more, and find we have less and less. Remind us to search for and hold fast to what holds the most meaning for us in our lives. Help us to trust in our wisdom and to take a stand for what we know we need. God of all, we need your grace. Help us to find the place within us where you reside. From this place, we are stronger and we see more clearly, because your strength and vision become ours. From this centered place within, we can live in gratitude, even as we are struggling; as the chaos rages around us, we can be a source of peace. Thank you, God, for the calm waters of our lives, and for the stormy seas, as well. Thank you for being our anchor when we need to be held, and our buoy when we need to rest. Turn our minds to prayer in all that we face, Lord, and remind us, please, that we are never alone. With all that I am, I pray this in Christ’s name. Amen.

I leave you now with an Epiphany Blessing written by a Christian Community Priest named Adam Bittleston:

May the revelation of Christ shine out to the world,
Granting to the mind understanding as clear gold.
May the love of Christ stream forth to souls, kindling in the heart
Prayer as rising incense.
May the deeds of Christ be known by men’s spirits, teaching in the hands
Devotion as healing myrrh.