Arise, Shine, For Your Light has Come

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   Our first reading from Isaiah this morning is the foretelling of the arrival of the Messiah into the world.  The prophet Isaiah would not have known how long the people would wait for this momentous time, but he understood that the time would come for the people to one day welcome the Presence of the Holy once again.  We read in Matthew’s Gospel the story of the Magi visiting the Child.  We mark the date of January 6th as the Feast of the Epiphany in the Christian tradition, twelve days after Christmas.  This story holds a special place in the imagination of so many of us, perhaps because it feels magical and dramatic, perhaps because it is among the very few we have of the early days of Jesus.  In many traditions, the giving of gifts occurs on this day as we remember the gifts that the Wise Ones brought to celebrate the birth of the child whom they recognized as a King.  We are often told that they were astrologers who had followed a bright star, not knowing exactly what they would find.  Perhaps our own lives tell of a similar quest.  What stars have guided you along your own journeys?  What has brought you light in the darkest times? 

Let us Pray, O God of light and joy, be with us this day as we continue to remember the arrival of your Son in this world.  Help it be a day when we are inspired once again to seek you along this journey of our life, to see your star of hope even on the darkest nights, and to feel comforted that you chose to be with us always.  Amen.

I wonder if any of you were fans of the old Monty Python movies, the witty, often irreverent, but often laugh out loud films that were made by this group of comedians from England.  In their famous film, the Life of Brian, there is a scene when the 3 Astrologers show up with gifts in the middle of the night after following the Star. In the scene from the film, they appear in the doorway of a pretty run down dwelling and aren’t not too warmly welcomed by the woman they meet.  Of course, it’s 2 in the morning and so she shoos them out, chastising them for coming in the dark of night, until she hears they have gifts for her child when she has a change of heart and calls them back in.  They kneel at the cradle and begin to worship him… and she asks them what his astrological sign will be.  They then take their leave but quickly return and snatch back the gifts and as we see them heading out into the night, we realize that they are heading to their true destination as the star shines brightly over the home of the child Jesus.  They were at the wrong house!

When these magi arrive, we realize we realize that so eager is the Christchild to be found, and by everybody, that they eventually find their way to Bethlehem and ultimately to the real home of the long awaited one. The film by the Monty Python gang is not to everyone’s liking, it is certainly irreverent but the idea that the magi show up at the wrong house might help us see that there’s some humor hidden inside this story.  And, I think there’s some hidden messages even in their film depiction.  How many of us have looked in the wrong place for what we are seeking in spiritual terms?  How many of us have perhaps missed the star that God has sent to light our way and find that we have gotten off our path? 

We have very few stories about the early days of Jesus but what we do know is that his earliest visitors included the shepherds working in the fields guarding their sheep and these magi who journey from afar in a quest to discover what amazing thing has taken place as they follow the bright shining star.  To this day, we know that Jesus welcomed and still welcomes everyone to discover him, to embrace his message, and to draw near to the light he brings to our world.

As I was doing some research for today, I came across an interesting but rather obscure article by the Rev. Dr. George A. Leylegian about the connection between the Magi and the country of Armenia.  He references the passage we heard today from the second chapter of Matthew… as we read today as he points out that, “The Gospel account contains many beautiful details but does not provide certain crucial information. We do not really know how many Magi there were, but we have always supposed that with the three gifts that there must have been three men but we do not know for certain. Nor do we know the exact location of their ancestral homeland “in the East.” Because the word “magus” may be interpreted as “astronomer” or “astrologer” (from the root “M-G” meaning “star”), many suppose that they originated in either Babylon or Persia, which were famous centers of astronomy and astrology, and the Gospel does not provide the names of the Magi. Later traditions assigned to them the names of Gaspar, Melchior, and Balthasar, and further traditions claimed that Gaspar was the eldest in age and Balthasar the youngest.

Rev. Leyligian writes that while pursuing other research, he came upon a rare book that included a history of the Armenian Monastery of Saint John the Baptist outside the ancient city of Moush which contained a special letter asking for donations for repairs needed for a dilapidated sanctuary outside of one of the nearby villages. While it was not dated, the text, written in Classical Armenian, provided an interesting story about the legend of these Magi.

As Matthew 2:12 says, the Magi decided to return to their homeland by a different way. According to the text he uncovered, the Magi struck northward from Bethlehem and arrived on a plain outside the ancient city of Moush in what we know now as Armenia.There they set up camp to rest from their weary travels. In the middle of the night, Gaspar, who was apparently the eldest of the Magi, passed away peacefully. Melchior and Balthasar were naturally grieved by the passing of their older friend and set upon the solemn task of arranging his proper burial.

Local people were commissioned, and Gaspar was buried at the top of a hill overlooking the plain where they had encamped. The local people then constructed a sepulcher over the burial place. After a respectful period of mourning, Melchior and Balthasar resumed their journey home. According to the text he uncovered, for 300 years, the local people continued to maintain the sepulcher, and passed on the oral tradition that a wise man had seen a great star, traveled to Bethlehem, witnessed the birth of a great king, and had passed away on his return journey.

The tradition of the Magi in Armenia may also have been known to King Abgar (Apkar) of Edessa (Urfa) who, according to church history, wanted to know more about Christianity, and wrote a letter to Jesus Christ, inviting Him to come to Edessa to heal the king and remain in that city (see Eusebius, History of the Church). After the Resurrection, the Apostle Thaddeus journeyed to Edessa, preached about Christianity, healed Abgar, and baptized him, making Abgar the first known Christian king of Armenia.  Later, a monastery was constructed at the site and the local people told of an important person who had been buried there.

Every year, on Theophany, when the Christmas Star appeared in the night sky, the priests, monks, and pilgrims would gather share Communion on the altar-table that was constructed over the sepulcher of Gaspar the Wiseman.

In the Western tradition, many believe the relics of the Magi were discovered in the fourth century in Milan, Italy, and were later transferred to Cologne/Koln, Germany. To this day, visitors to Cologne may see the beautiful golden shrine inside the cathedral that, according to Western tradition, preserves the remains of the Magi. For centuries, pilgrims from all over the world have flocked to Cologne at both Christmas and Epiphany to venerate these relics.”  (https://armenianweekly.com/2012/01/06/a-story-about-the-magi-in-armenia/)

In our own lives, the story of the Wise Men, the Magi continues to remain alive as we retell the Christmas story each year. What Christmas pageant is complete without their presence?  What nativity set does not include these figures?  But we ask ourselves why Matthew felt it was so important to share their story.  What is the message that lives on for us as we remember this story once again?  The beautiful writer Jan Richardson shares a lovely blessing which I will close with today…

Blessing of the Magi

There is no reversing this road.

The path that bore you here

goes in one direction only,

every step drawing you

down a way

by which you will not

return.

You thought arrival

was everything,

that your entire journey

ended with kneeling

in the place

you had spent all

to find.

When you laid down

your gift,

release came with such ease,

your treasure tumbling

from your hands

in awe and

benediction.

Now the knowledge

of your leaving

comes like a stone laid

over your heart,

the familiar path closed

and not even the solace

of a star

to guide your way.

You will set out in fear.

You will set out in dream.

But you will set out

by that other road

that lies in shadow

and in dark.

We cannot show you

the route that will

take you home;

that way is yours

and will be found

in the walking.

But we tell you,

you will wonder

at how the light you thought

you had left behind

goes with you,

spilling from

your empty hands,

shimmering beneath

your homeward feet,

illuminating the road

with every step

you take.

—Jan Richardson

[2016 update: This blessing appears in Jan’s new book, Circle of Grace: A Book of Blessings for the Seasons.]