As gold comes from the northern mountains, so a terrible beauty streams from God. Job 37:22 (EP)
In the context of a world that finds itself surrounded by violence, and potential for violence, how do we recognise wisdom?
On the 24th of December, I was given a Christmas cake from a close friend. I have never before received such a gift. Baking Christmas cakes goes back to at least the 16th century. There are various traditions. There is the boiled cake, or Plum porridge, to be eaten at the end of Advent on Christmas Eve after fasting, in order to line the stomach for Christmas Day. In another tradition, when Epiphany was considered a major feast, dried fruit and spices were added and the cake eaten twelve days after Christmas, Twelfth Night or the Epiphany. This Twelfth cake provided refreshments after a service, blessing the home conducted on this day. In England the various traditions seem to have cohered somewhat during the 19th century with a rich fruit cake, the type my mother baked without fail every year as I grew up, being made on what came to be known as, ‘Stir Up’ Sunday, the Sunday before Advent. This Christmas Eve I felt honoured to be presented with a small square parcel wrapped in silver foil and tied with one red and one green raffia ribbon. It bespoke of things not revealed, hidden in plain, silver packaging. Solid, smelling of dried fruit and spices.
Later, at Christmas Eve dinner with friends after celebrating the Christmas Pageant at St Peter’s, a different sort of Christmas Cake was brought onto the table, this time covered in the smoothest white icing, a winter snow land, with a Victorian Father Christmas, fat and red, cherried cheeks, wavy white beard, timeless framed face embedded with immortal sparkling eyes. He carried a large green sack lightly, as if his shoulders and back were made only for this. Peeping out of the sack were Christmas gifts, some wrapped in paper with coloured ribbon, some the toys themselves: a china doll with a small pale pink smile, a steam engine train, shiny green and red and black. Beside the floating Santa, on a white wall of icing in perfect cursive script, were the words: Merry Christmas. When the cake was cut the icing was an inch thick, no layer of marzipan, and inside was a dry, sawdust yellow mixture dotted with raisins and currants.
I was as much drawn toward the simplicity and plainness of my friend’s Christmas cake which, when opened the next day I discovered was covered in almonds and contained rich depths of dark fruit, as I felt repelled by the other outwardly glossy, beguiling Victorian perfection: a Christmas Cake in the sky.
The story of the birth of Jesus is told in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. The magi appear only in Matthew. The Greek word ‘magoi’ is our root for ‘magic.’ But, the magi most likely would have been practitioners of alchemy and astrology, perhaps originally followers of Zoroastrianism from Persia but not monarchs. These holy men or scholars have come to be known as ‘wise men’. And here, in Matthew’s Gospel, the birth of Jesus and the visit by the magi are told in the context of a violent world. In their journey following the star to the birth place, Herod asks the magi to tell him when they have found the baby so he too can worship. But having been forewarned in a dream about Herod’s intention to kill the child, they don’t. The slaughter of every child two years and under, in and around Bethlehem, then happens. The birth of Jesus happens in a politically violent world. It is clear from the Gospel story that without the discernment of others, ‘wisdom in the inward parts’ Job 38:36, Jesus would have been slaughtered.
The gifts the magi brought to Jesus were not home baked or shop purchased Christmas cakes, of course. The three gifts at the St Peter’s Christmas pageant are the same ones brought out year after year. At once held and played with so lightly in the hands of our under-8 year olds, and then cradled so preciously during the play; gaudy, paint chipped imitations of those precious originals listed in Matthew. Gold, frankincense and myrrh: symbolic tokens of kingship, recognition of priestly status, and oil primarily used for embalming, pre-figuring death. Luckily there were not only three men, otherwise one gift would have to be left out. Or perhaps one would have carried two gifts, which would not have the same pleasing aesthetic symmetry. But were there actually three wise men, or five or seven? We don’t really know. Maybe some of them were women. As in all sacred texts we can ask questions, but mostly must sit in a place of expectant waiting. Sacred writing represents life; it is not life itself. Jesus was the incarnate Word of God, but the Gospels are symbolic representations of his life. There are questions we could ask about the meaning of the stable where Jesus was born. In Eugene Peterson’s translation of the Gospels (EP), there is no mention in Matthew of a ‘stable’, the translation being ‘house’ or ‘hostel’. The dwelling is certainly understood to be modest. He does translate the Greek word as ‘manger,’ that place baby Jesus laid down to sleep. This is the trough the animals eat from. The setting was probably in an annexe beside the house, or the downstairs area. The dwelling was clean, morally upright, but low on the social scale. Being laid in a manger prefigures the Last Supper. Already, the Word of God is shown as food for life.
In TS Eliot’s poem 'Journey of the Magi', the poet-magi found ‘the place…. (you might say) satisfactory.’ On a school report generally A means Excellent. B means Very Good. C is Good. D is Satisfactory. D is one grade up from E which is Fail. So, were the magi led to a place that rates D? In a modern travel guide this place probably wouldn’t even make an entry. But as generations of Christians have been taught (alongside varying degrees of psychological manipulation with regards to comparisons to our own status) this is the very point of the story: our King was born in a dwelling that was ‘satisfactory.’ The magi were called to worship this child, born in this substandard place. Not called to a large marbled residence in Templestowe or a mansion in Toorak, but a granny flat adjunct to an un-renovated 1940s house in Sunshine. A safe and clean, quiet shelter. Satisfactory. And gloriously streaming God’s beauty.
How came the magi to trust the sign of the star so much that they were prepared to follow it anywhere? What if it had led them to a child of Herod’s? We see the story backwards in time - how might they have felt living it? They were described as wise before they arrived, but what sense did it make for them? Did they pass places in Bethlehem they would much have preferred to honour their new born King in? They could foresee that he may have a tragic ending, but couldn’t he at the very least have a glorious place of birth? Wasn’t it a bit humiliating? They were canny enough not to tell Herod. But did they feel betrayed in their ideals when they arrived at this unexpected dwelling? What was there to be so wise about any of this? Despite the outward gestures of reverence surely this unexpected destination would have cast a pall over their hearts.
The magi must have understood at the outset that they were undertaking a risk. In Eliot’s poem, we are told that despite the ‘cold coming’ the poet-magi would ‘do it again.’ They were a part of a story that from its very beginning turned everything upside down. Their old way of life and understanding of it was changing. Later, says Eliot, the magi was no longer at ‘ease…in the old dispensation.’ Caspar, Melchior, Balthasar journeyed not in order to worship someone who would support empires or a hetero-normative middle class stability. Their gifts were not just material, but the believed-in essence of some new beginning. They were prepared to hang their credibility on this and divest themselves of their power. What capacity, or alternatively lack of worldly wisdom on earth possessed them?
Job litters his devastated life with unending questions. The brutal violence that has visited impels him to seek wisdom. All his possessions and family gone, fellow counsellors can’t reach that black pit of desolation inside himself. Finally, in attempting to look point blank at this suffering he asks:
So where does Wisdom come from?
And where does Insight live? Job 28:20 (EP)
Where shall wisdom be found?
And where is the place of understanding? Job 28:20 (NRSV)
The magi would not have looked at the nativity with rose tinted glasses. They were instinctively drawn to pay homage to the opened up glory of vulnerable Love. They didn’t tell Herod because they recognised that where there is such vulnerability, there too is the seductive desire to destroy it in the name of having more power. Scholarship and knowledge of the stars may have led them to the birthplace of Jesus, but an inner faith asked them to trust something else. This Love, with its capability of being wounded, also had the capacity to heal. As such, their faith didn’t rest on a doctrine of a church - what they saw was too alive to be contained in that ‘old dispensation.’ That had become an idol.
For faith to be real it involves trusting an instinct, trusting present relationship, and most importantly trusting something happening in the invisible, perhaps the not at all right way up. The magi knew there was a One who called them. And no matter where the call took them, if they kept attention and stayed attuned, believed enough in themselves then not only would they be drawn together but shown that each possessed a gift that held meaning in this place of healing. The magi essentially knew nothing but they were wise because they trusted in the process itself, and they protected that which was vulnerable and open. What they discovered in the Child, they recognised in themselves. And they saw that they were a part of His story.
In the Old, or the First Testament, God calls people and speaks out of chaos. The Lord speaks to Job ‘out of the whirlwind’ or the ‘eye of a violent storm.’ So often the nativity is set up as a neat and fixed scene. No whirlwinds please. Children, do not touch! At St Peter’s the magi figurines are moved slowly across the sanctuary during this Christmas period. There is an unacknowledged sense of journey alongside the still scene of the nativity. The ‘cold coming’ of the journey, to borrow from Eliot, is the fear each of us experiences during that difficult journey to find the place of the Christ Child. The finding too can be bitter-sweet. It subverts and threatens ‘old dispensations.’
The journey in and with God, essentially can only be made alone. That’s scary. Not just because it threatens the individual fixed worldly identity we have of ourselves. Not just because it threatens the political order or economics of the day which charm us into organised collective. The journey also calls us to honour qualities of vulnerability and openness. If we witness violence, gratuitously or for real on a daily basis or live with its raw scarred implications in a personal way, then being vulnerable risks exposure to the very real threat of being smashed to pieces.
That’s what is so special about these three magi. They recognised that the journey in God is fraught. If we dig deep enough into our psyche we see that destroying is a capacity we all have. The more power or influence we have, the greater and wider the impact of breakage on others will be. They foresaw the potential in a King who was prepared to maintain his throne of power at any cost, to want to destroy this.
When looked at straight (and not backwards and fixed as we do from the 21st century), everything about the meaning of the Nativity seems to hang fragile. Outwardly it may look serene, but there’s real inner whirlwind and potential for chaos here. No one person alone could have seen the bigger picture. Except God. And then it was God who chose for the Word, upon birth, to be laid in an animal trough.
Wisdom asks for divestment. The beginning of Wisdom asks for divestment even of wisdom itself. The three magi, in terms of worship, didn’t think in worldly terms. Though essentially alone on the craziest of path, in their letting go they found fellow companions also seeking a new wisdom. Together they were drawn to Christ who didn’t think in worldly terms either. Christ mixed with D grade people as much as A grade. Because he didn’t think in terms of academic standards. He mixed with people from places of accommodation that had one star rating as much as five star, or even no star. He didn’t think in terms of wealth. He didn’t think in terms of difference, in terms of race, class, culture or religion. Or the qualities of different types of Christmas Cake. He didn’t come to bring about an easeful existence. He thought in terms of relationship and personhood. In terms of getting it wrong and stuffing up, and saying sorry. Healing and a capacity to be at one in and with our environment is what mattered to him.
At the end of Job, that great book of rage and rumour, Job says to God: ‘You told me: Listen and let me do the talking; Let me ask the questions, You give the answers.’ At this point Job is at his most open. Before talk, listen. Before wisdom, listen. Questions must be put into this listening space. Answers can only come from here. Listening precedes wisdom. Or wisdom risks losing itself in rumour and make believe. The story of Jesus becomes one that is shaped by a relational compassion and forgiveness, because here is the capacity to be wounded but also to know that something much deeper is holding you. The birth of Jesus, as witnessed by the magi, demands that we look and listen without illusion, that we protect and honour all that is vulnerable. And we see here a way of life that will be set down not on ‘crusts of heresay, crumbs of rumour’ but on God’s terms; a living and loving God.