Were they kings, the men who followed the star from the East to honour the child with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh? Or were they merely a rabble of starry-eyed astrologers? The Gospel of Matthew marks them down as ‘magi’ or ‘wise men’; obscure, yes, but with status or exotic qualities enough to win them temporary fame in all Jerusalem and an audience with the king.
This Gospel story comes to us from the synagogue period of Christian history when followers of ‘the Way’ of Jesus were, in the provinces of Palestine at least, primarily Jews. These Jewish Christians, still members of their local non-Christian congregations, began to see the scriptures with new eyes, discerning in them a presumed meta-narrative, one that transcended the multiple authors, genres, and eras of the various manuscripts, a plot line which tied the canon of scripture together as one. Hidden in the texts they found hints and fleeting glimpses of a figure whom they recognized as having been personified in Jesus of Nazareth.
In the story of the Magi they heard echoes of the prophecies of Isaiah: “Nations shall come to your light and kings to the brightness of your dawn…the wealth of the nations shall come to you…They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord” (60.1-6). Solomon too had predicted, “The kings of Sheba and Seba shall bring gifts; all kings shall fall down before him , all nations shall do him service. For he shall deliver the poor that cry out, the needy and those who have no helper. He shall have pity on the weak and the poor” (Psalm 72.10-13).
The meta-narrative, the over arching story that bound together their heritage and their new-found faith in Christ continued its development in the later writings of the new testament, most especially in the visions of Paul and John and, as they understood it, went something like this: From one man, Adam, God created a family of diverse peoples among whom a Chosen People – a nation primus inter pares – whose history and society was meant to reveal the character and purposes of God; now – in a new age – through one man, Jesus Christ, God was gathering the complex identities of humanity together into a new society, a community of peoples whose diversity was fitted together like a multi-faceted jewel, the individual shape and angle of each facet adding to the brilliance of the whole. On offer was an attractive alternative, an opposing vision to the Pax Romana, the world as they knew it, united by the blunt instruments of military conquest and unrelenting suppression.
And so, the Twelve Days of Christmas find their conclusion at the Feast of the Epiphany when the Church remembers the journey of the Three Kings and celebrates the manifestation, in baby Jesus, of the Christ, the long-awaited saviour for a world rent by division and lost in despair. In the Christ child we look for the fulfillment of the ancient oracles. We may quibble about whether the accounts of Jesus’ birth and early life are historically accurate or rather, on the other hand, the Gospels contain not only the parables of Jesus but also parables about him, but either way his central role in the story remains.
St Paul writes to the churches: “In former generations this mystery was not made known to humankind, as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit: that is, the non-Jewish peoples (Gentiles) have become fellow-heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise…so that through the Church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known…” (Ephesians 3.9-10). And in the very last pages of our scriptures we find St. John’s vision of the heavenly city, of which he says, “The nations (lit. ‘ethnicities’) will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their splendour into it…The glory and honour of the nations will be brought into it.” (Revelation 21.24,26).
So here we are, two thousand years removed from the proclamation of the new age of Christ. Our forebears, those who have gone before us in the faith, have not always succeeded in making this glorious vision a reality. The Way of Jesus became Christianity and soon enough Christendom; what began as a counter-cultural movement of inclusion quickly morphed into the mainstream and gathered to itself both the selectivity and accoutrements of political power. Converts, if one can call them that, came at times by the threat of the sword, entire peoples subjugated or colonized under the banner of Christian dominion, forced to give up the gifts their people had to bring to our new community, cultures lost forever on account of the false supposition that “to make disciples” meant to form them in our own image, not necessarily that of Christ.
Maria Pascua, an aboriginal of the Makah people who inhabit the furthest reaches of the northwestern United States writes: “I am a Christian; I am not sorry the missionaries came. But I wish they had known how to let their news change peoples’ lives from the inside, without imposing their culture over our ways. We have lost so much.” (Ozette: A Makah Village in 1491; National Geographic Magazine, October 1991).
Not in all places, but in many, we find that the vision was lost of a Church composed of the beautiful diversity of humanity.
Which brings us to Anno Domini 2016; to Brexit, Trump and the year gone by.
Much has been made of the “protest vote” aspect of these surprising poll results. Whether we can rightly attribute them to protest or not, the result is that many of the liberalizing policies of the last few decennia have suddenly and broadly been called to a halt. Roger Cohen, in a recent opinion piece in the New York Times concludes: “It is time to listen to the people who voted for change, be humble and think again. That, of course, does not mean succumbing to the hatemongers and racists among them: They must be fought every inch of the way. Nor does it mean succumbing to a post-truth society: Facts are the linchpins of progress. But so brutal a comeuppance [as delivered by Brexit and the US elections] cannot be met by more of the same.”
Thankfully the path of Christ allows for great liberty in the way we order our lives, both individually and in society; a genuine Christian faith can be lived at most points across the political spectrum. What it does not allow is for us to abandon humility, compassion and sacrificial love for our neighbours, no matter what the colour of their skin or the language they speak at home. To be proud of our own people, to seek to protect our livelihoods and cultural heritage, insofar as these things bring honour to God, is good and right; the uniqueness of our people too is a blessing from God’s hand. But to raise our own interests so high as to exclude those of others, to make love of nation the sole guiding light for our actions, ignoring the yet purer light of the Gospel – which is to love God first and to love our neighbours as ourselves – this is not the Way of Christ.
We, and all peoples, are equally invited to bring our gifts – the glory and honour of all nations – and bow our knee in worship before the Christ.