Rev. Jim Ryan, M.Div.,Ph.D. firstname.lastname@example.org
Mary of Magdala, Apostle to the Apostles Community
Today I plan to slide right on by the question of historical fact and “Did this really happen?” as we celebrate this Feast of Epiphany. We will not dwell on the stargazing puzzle of whether the Star in the East was possibly the conjunction of the planets Jupiter and Saturn – even though they currently find themselves in the southwestern sky. I have no interest in just who the 3 visitors to the newborn Christ might be: magi, astrologers, or travelers.
Today I’m inviting us on a headlong trajectory toward myth – because this story is clearly that, a myth full of meaning. Besides, the Gospel of Matthew, written to the Jews who may or may not have been interested in following the Way of Jesus, is more concerned with making the comparison of Jesus with Moses as one who came out of Egypt leading the journey to freedom (see Chapter 2 of Matthew’s Gospel). Also, Matthew’s is the only Gospel that tells this story about 3 visitors from another land who pay respects to the newborn child.
Also, besides, Matthew not only intended to make this Jesus-Moses comparison he took on the broader mission to establish that Jesus’ New Covenant aligned with the Old Covenant and fulfilled all the latter’s promise. Which is why, I believe, we have this story of the 3 visitors. More of this later.
I conclude that this story of 3 visitors has to be a myth, admittedly, a myth with meaning full of truth; so, therefore, a story not to be dismissed. In order to appreciate this myth I invite you to consider the Rule of 3, the practice in writing that holds to the recognition that when humans are presented with cluster of 3 things then humans are better able to learn and better able to retain what they learn.
Back in my seminary days at Catholic Theological Union (CTU), Chicago, one of the professors of the History of the Church and of Theology was Larry Nemer, a member of the Society of the Divine Word (SVD). Larry’s teaching style was well known among the students, or quickly learned if you were a first-timer in his class. For every topic and/or historical event of Church History Larry gave us 3 points. As long as you took notes on those 3 points you were a capable student in Larry’s eyes. (I know, you are muttering shockingly to yourself, “how ahistorical.”) When you took Larry’s exams and responded with 3 points to each question – well, you had that grade made in the shade.
Literature, especially writing for children and adolescents, confirms this truth. For example, there’s Goldilocks and the Three Bears, the Three Little Pigs pursued by a wolf who threatens to 1) huff, 2) puff, and 3) blow the house down (see what I mean). There’s the Three Musketeers, and on, and on, and on.
Political rallying cries abound under the Rule of 3. How about, “Life, Liberty, the pursuit of Happiness.” The French have, “Liberte, Fraternite, Egalite.” Well, you get the idea. Sorry, but I can’t help myself – how about “Make 1) America, 2) Great, 3) Again” or “1)Build, 2) Back, 3) Better.”
Today’s Feast of Epiphany is so much more than a story, so much more than one event in time. To get to its depth we apply the Rule of 3 to the following 3 truths. The first truth is about showing: the Magi are shown the child whose showing in turn is totally meant for the entire world and universe. The second truth establishes the connection between Abraham and Sarah’s 3 visitors, who promise them a child, with the Christ Child’s 3 visitors. And the third truth is that the Holy Trinity itself is an eternal showing of Godself. This connection with the 3 Trinities makes it clear that how the stories are told is not what matters for our faith. As far as I see it, the 3 visitors to the Christ child could have been the Queen of Sheba and two ladies in waiting.
Here are three things that matter about our claiming faith and our learning truth as faithful people. First is that we must grow always more deeply in this ancient relationship – one that is always about revelation. The second thing we must learn is that the invitation of inclusion in this Trinity is perpetual, absolutely welcoming, and never-ending. And the third thing is to actively participate in the lifestream of these truths; a lifestream that others refer to as a divine dance (Richard Rohr).
Take a look at that icon in the middle on the front page of today’s Order of Service. If you don’t have it then google: Andrei Rublev Trinity. Rublev’s icon is a 600 yr. old depiction of Abraham and Sarah’s 3 visitors – the recipients of the old couple’s hospitality. In all these years since the Russian Orthodox monk painted this trio interpreters regard the open look into the huddling of the three as an invitation to join them – even to the point of dancing around the table, aka Rohr’s Divine Dance.
However, from the vantage point of the literary capacity of the Rule of 3 it becomes pretty obvious that Rublev’s icon, the 3 Magi, and the Holy Trinity do not need historical fact or verification of an event to prove their truth. The truth is way beyond single events. Myth equips us with meaning and truth for our lives.
So, what is the meaning of this Feast of Epiphany, this celebration of Myth, this dance with steps and maneuvers choreographed by the Rule of 3? Its meaning is as it always has been, first, manifestation, and second, hospitality.
The universal manifestation of Christ is not bound by a story told only once in all 4 Gospels. It reaches to us and through us. It reflects the living light that sustains all creation. It invites us into the life of the Holy Trinity.
For purposes of appreciating the connecting of Magi with earlier visitors and with divine dances, hospitality is one of those things one learns by doing. And if you don’t believe me take a closer look at that story about Abraham and Sarah’s visitors. Somehow, those three visitors ended up speaking with one voice. The story ends with Yahweh delivering the promise of the child who is to come. So, apparently, if you dance long enough you just may find yourself talking with God.
A Prayer (JR)
Today, Glorious, Global, and Universal One, the manifestation of your presence is love, peace, mercy, justice, and kindness. We are capable of doing all these things in your Name. We celebrate the newness of your coming, the newness of a calendar year, and the newness of the hospitality that marks our future. Renew us, guide us, love us, Holy Messiah now on earth appearing. Amen.