James Ishmael Ford
6 January 2012
First Unitarian Church
Providence, Rhode Island
And when they were come into the house, they saw the young child with Mary his mother, and fell down, and worshipped him: and when they had opened their treasures, they presented unto him gifts; gold, and frankincense and myrrh.
The Gospel According to Matthew
I mentioned this last year, perhaps you recall. I was talking with Jan about how much I loved that carol “We Three Kings of Orient Are” by the mid nineteenth century Episcopal clergyman John Henry Hopkins, Jr. As I was waxing eloquent on this subject at, I mean with Jan I was surprised to see her shiver. We were indoors, and it was warm, and it’s a great song. So, not at all what I expected. I asked, what gives? Jan then explained how when she was about eleven she and her sister and brother were dragooned into a church production, a family rendition of the carol, with each kid, dressed as one of the kings, taking a solo part.
Apparently it didn’t go well. As their parts came up, she and her brother each stumbled forward, looked hard down at their shoes and mumbled the required words, perhaps audibly, at least if you were in the front row. Jan recalls choking out her part, “Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying./Sealed in the stone-cold tomb,” darkly wondering how she got saddled with those particular lines. On the other hand, for Karen, their kid sister, maybe four at the time, it was when she discovered she really liked the stage, and the lights, and, very much, the audience, stepping forward and belting her part out to the rafters. It’s interesting how early our adult personalities peek out of our childhood faces.
We paused. And, I asked Jan if she hated the carol to this day. Interestingly, she said, no. And then added, actually, other than the flashback of humiliation, that carol really is kind of wonderful. Okay, starting off acknowledging we all may have something or other that clouds the power of this carol, our lives create a lot of luggage we have to haul around, I want to also hold up how it may be worth revisiting with adult eyes.
I want to explore just a little of what “We Three Kings” might suggest to us here and today, us, we, a crowd that counts a number of liberal Christians, but also more non-Christians of many different stripes, all of us into a spiritual community profoundly marked by a heavy rational streak, perhaps equaled only by our independence within our covenant of a free and fierce quest for meaning and direction in this confusing, beautiful and terrible life.
We do have this covenant of presence. And it is within that covenant we find how we are called into lives, to use language of our Western traditions, of spirit, of that breath of life, of that intuition, sense, experience or perspective that gives our lives meaning. One question I find this carol addresses is what are the real gifts of the spirit, what are the meanings we find as we open our hearts into the mysteries of life?
An image I return to regularly is that old Gary Larsen cartoon with two cave people in bed in their cave. The one is sitting bolt upright bug eyed. His companion is looking up at him, saying, “Og (or, some such name), you only dream that you live so long then die. Go back to sleep.” And with that I think of the great Unitarian divine Forrest Church, who suggested the work of religion arises from the twin knowings: we are alive and we will die. Within this tension of life and death we find our lives.
And constantly, like Og, we are lulled by the lure of forgetting, of sleep. Constantly. I believe there are reasons for this lulling. Noticing the bigger, including our mortality, we might become obsessed, certainly our priorities shift, and our attention moves from the status quo and the maintaining of the status quo. And that usually isn’t helpful for the smooth running of things. In extremes, it can even lead to revolutions. And even if not full on revolutions, at the very least, rejection of whole swaths of the commonly assumed. And those in charge rarely like that. For sure rocking boats is never popular with those in authority. As a consequence organized religions are often coopted and the naturally conservative aspect of religion moves to the fore and the boat rocking aspects of fundamental transformation moves to the rear, often hidden in side stories, in the myths of particular saints or holy figures.
I believe, with the “We Three Kings” carol we can see this. Here we are given a hint at what the real treasures are that we find at the heart of our searching. Gold and frankincense and myrrh are really compelling images. From antiquity the gift of gold was seen as symbolizing kingship, frankincense, widely used in religious rites, symbolizing homage to God and myrrh, used in embalming, foreshadowing in the traditional telling Jesus’ death. I suggest there are other ways to consider these gifts, perhaps more useful to most of us here, and will return to that in due course.
But first a little background: The oldest version of the story of the magi, the three wise men visiting the newborn Jesus, is found in the gospel according to Matthew. It is probably worth noting that it doesn’t appear anywhere else in the Bible and what’s there is pretty sketchy. Much of what we know as the story is fill in from ensuing years. For instance, perhaps drawing upon the three gifts, which are there from the beginning, in the West pretty early on three magi are named and eventually given backstories. However, Matthew actually doesn’t give us a number, much less names. And so it doesn’t have to be that way. In the Eastern churches, for instance, there are twelve magi. I prefer keeping it simple and focused, those three, and their haunting gifts. As I said, I’ll return to those gifts before long.
But, there’s something else here, I want to be sure to hold up. This time in the Christian calendar, the twelfth day of Christmas, is called the Feast of the Epiphany, or, sometimes, the Theophany. Epiphany meaning manifestation or a striking appearance, while Theophany means a vision of the divine: startling moments that disrupt the world we thought we were living in. I’ve thought a lot about those striking moments that redirect our lives, where the caveman notices he is alive and will die, those, to use another scriptural allusion “Damascus road experiences,” where gods intervene and we’re blinded to all but the fundamental reality.
Today we give that term “epiphany” to all sorts of shifts of consciousness, from the slightest notion that things were not the way we thought, such as “I just had an epiphany! Expensive chocolates are not always better than inexpensive chocolates!” Good to know, I’m sure. But, should that word epiphany mean that and to speak of the moment when I discovered I loved Jan, deeply, unspeakably so, and wanted to spend the rest of my life with her? Or, for that moment when the mess of the world falls into place, as when the Buddha saw the morning star and knew from the bottom of his feet to the top of his head, and declared, “Oh, beautiful! I see the world and I awake together.”
Actually, for me, the answer is yes. Well, sort of. I like that epiphany can stand for both the smallest and the greatest shifts in our lives. For one thing, in the heat of the moment of those realizations, we don’t actually know if they’re transformative or not. Still, while being open to all shifts, for me for an epiphany to be of the spiritual sort, the sort that breathes new life, the sort that really matters, it has to actually shift the world we live in.
Now, I want to assert how these epiphanies, these insights, are ours naturally as human beings. For me this is the secret heart of the Universalist impulse, that sense of reconciliation, that intuition of wholeness which manifests as the belief that while we may be broken, and I actually find that brokenness a truth impossible to ignore in any sustained way, we are at the very same time and in the very same place, blessed, blessed from before the creation of the stars in heaven.
We look around and find hints and pointers everywhere, but often best in spiritual stories, if oblique, if sometimes hidden. As I said organized religions have a really problematic relationship with these insights that threaten established authority. Which brings us back to that story of the magi, the wise ones, the three kings and their gifts. In some ways, they belong to that authority-establishing thing. They are just an attempt by the author of Matthew, as that author does over and over again in that particular text, to establish how Jesus is the foretold king, the messiah of prophecy within the Jewish tradition.
But, also we can get gold for the preciousness of life, frankincense for the prayers of the longing heart, and anointing myrrh for the possibility of victory even over death. And, if that’s what we get in our noticing of things, that would be good. Still, there are even deeper possibilities, astonishing realizations, revolutionary insights into who we are and what we might become pointed at by these gifts. I suggest these three gifts are in fact the great gifts, which when we notice them, become treasures of unimaginable wealth.
I find it wonderful that two of these most radical of insights, that when we notice them as true about us, you and me, like having taken a sip of water and knowing for ourselves whether it is cool or warm, and can find our lives disrupted and something new revealed, whole revolutions, are in fact enshrined in our own contemporary Unitarian Universalist principals and purposes. But, there is a third, as well, one we don’t usually get to in Unitarian Universalism, or, for that matter, within western religions.
Now, the first key to understanding these things in spiritual texts, the three gifts, is to realize they’re about us, about you and me, and what comes with the birth of our deepest insight. To underscore, these stories, this story, these gifts are not found within our generality as human beings, but in our own actual messy real life particularity as specific human beings: You. Me. That singular thing. And, so, we are invited to notice the first gift is gold. That’s you. That’s me. Pure gold. Even in our temporariness, in our woundedness, in our brokenness, we’re gold, gold through and through.
Who knows how we come to this insight. It’s a gift. An epiphany. When we notice our lives and how precious and beautiful they can be, we are opening a new world. Horns toot. Angels sing. And we are. I am.
Of course with any really true thing, it is powerful and dangerous. If we were to stop there, if this was our only insight, we become cramped and twisted. Narcissism, sociopathy are words that come to mind.
So, another gift, another insight to be experienced for ourselves, presenting itself like another angel, like frankincense filling a sanctuary, joining everything in its holy cloud: the mystery of interconnectedness, of how we are woven out of each other. Our precious individuality birthed into the world by the world. We see our family in each other, and if we’re particularly blessed in the vision, in seeing the rocks and the trees and the mountains the oceans. All one family. The great family of things. It is a great liberation.
Of course with any really true thing, it is powerful and dangerous. If we were to stop there, if this was our only insight, we become unbalanced and disconnected from our own lives. Loving humanity but hating people, and blind collectivisms stamping out the individual light comes to mind.
With both insights, however, with both angels singing their presence to us, we come to something pretty healthy, a binocular vision of the world, and with that having depth perception, and, I suggest, a radical and revolutionary vision of the world.
These are the insights of liberal religion. Something wonderful.
But, there’s one more insight, one more epiphany, a terrible and compelling thing, a dark angel calling us out of even the idea of the individual and the deep connections. Myrrh, the embalming spice, calling us to step beyond all boundaries, where we lose our idea of this or that, where all the conventions of language collapse, where we discover everything composed of parts, comes apart: including you. Including me. Here we discover boundlessness, what one of my friends, Michael Fieleke so lovingly calls the edgeless world.
Of course with any really true thing, it is powerful and dangerous. If we were to stop there, if this was our only insight, we turn our backs on the world and even on our own lives. Despair and nihilism come to mind.
But, taken together, as the three legs of a stool, as insights we have found for ourselves, the way of the wise heart emerges, of the religion behind all religions, of the call to the fully human.
Three angels come to us. Three gifts ours by right.
A secret message proclaimed before the world. Don’t you love the irony? A hint found in an old Christmas carol, and possibly, in any given moment. We are, after all, talking about our lives, not some one else’s. Your epiphany. Mine. Like Og, we start by waking to what is.
We just need to open our hearts to the moment where this all takes place. This moment. Not another. This one. Join in the song, the heavenly chorus, the ancient hallelujah. Do this, and even if we’re flustered and embarrassed and look down at our shoes and can only mutter the words haltingly and maybe off tune.
It will turn out to be enough.
It is our song. It is our life. Hidden. And. Revealed.