Foggy Thoughts on the Wise Guys

Matthew 2:1-12 – Epiphany of the Lord – for Sunday, January 3, 2016

“Because they were warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they went back to their own country by another route.” (Matthew 2:12)

On some foggy days, it's hard to tell the difference between morning or afternoon . . .
On some foggy days, it’s hard to tell the difference between morning or afternoon . . .

It’s the foggy season here in California’s Central Valley.

Storms lumber across the Pacific, nod at Hawaii, slink into San Francisco and then pour into the 400-mile long Central Valley soup bowl between the Coast Range and the Sierra Nevada. Some of our wintry weather departs Alaska, heading south with a cold, snippy attitude. On good years, rain moistens the flatlands while snow piles in the mountains.

The rain bringing fog to this immense valley is like Bella of the Twilight novels getting a paper cut and all of the local vampires appear. It’s like buying a pickup truck and suddenly lots of “best friends” want your help to move something. One thing leads to another.

In the Central Valley, there are “fog days” for schools that mean delayed starts. Air traffic clogs because planes can’t land or take-off. The roads, since you can’t see ‘em, become dangerous. Continue reading →

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Magi Me, Magi You

Matthew 2:1-12 – First Sunday of Epiphany – for January 4, 2015

“After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in the territory of Judea during the rule of King Herod, magi came from the east to Jerusalem.” (Matthew 2:1)

Stars to follow, gifts to share . . .
Stars to follow, gifts to share . . .

How many magi were there? Certainly the Gospel of Matthew never mentioned the names or numbers of those travelers from afar. Three is the traditional count, but modern magi math is based on the gifts offered to the child.

Did any unnamed and unnumbered sojourners really give those now-familiar treasures to Jesus and his family? Every first year seminary student knows they were symbolic gifts, somber references to impending greatness and inevitable death. And I can’t help wondering if Matthew’s author would’ve reconsidered those metaphoric presents if warned about a future of Black Fridays with its 40% discounts on the newest phones or fashions?

Many of us, myself included, put the bewildered shepherds and road-weary magi near each other on the mantel. The ceramic (or plastic or glass) figurines blankly gaze at the Christ child, where the infant is situated between old Joseph and young Mary. A host of heavenly angels—in my case, it’s a solitary angel—hovers nearby. But every regular attendee of ye olde Sunday school classes could identify the annual mantel miscues. Luke’s sheepish herders and Matthew’s wise guys were from different stories and appeared at different times.

First century Herod was grim and devious. He, like the twentieth century’s lying loser Richard Nixon or the vicious Joseph Stalin, had hidden agendas within hidden agendas. Can the one who has the power ever be trusted? We, the reader of Matthew, are glad for the dreams that warn the magi about Herod’s manipulations. It’s always better to take the long way home and still have your head properly attached to the neck. Continue reading →

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No Answers

Matthew 2:1-12 – The Epiphany of the Lord – for January 6, 2013

“…wise men from the east came to Jerusalem…” (Matthew 2:1)

Seven years ago, I wondered if the priest burned frankincense or myrrh for the incense.

I didn’t wonder why I was there watching that priest. There being a place I did not want to be. There being a time of grief with unfathomable sorrow. There being an infant’s memorial service, occurring only two days after Christmas.

A parent experiencing the death of a child is as unfair as it gets and few can stand with them and say, “I understand what you are going through.”

The memorial service was held in the Catholic Church where the child’s parents were members. I was not there to help lead the service, but to support the grieving family with my presence. The grandparents were my friends and I couldn’t not be with them.

And so I watched, and so I also felt disoriented.

Now, 500 and more years after Martin Luther’s reformation, and the separation between the Catholic and the protesting—or Protestant—church, clear differences remain in how the two branches of Christianity worship.

The use of incense is one small difference.

At a key point in the mass, the priest lighted a censer (the metal container where the incense is burned) to ritualistically disperse the scent.

How strange for this Protestant nose to be filled with the distinctive, room-filling odor. The smell stays with you. And that, I assume, is part of its purpose, part of its sensual, inexplicable power.

In all of our inadequate ways to discern where the Holy One fits in the human times of tremendous hope or terrible sorrow, using the sense of smell has its role.

We humans are sensual creatures. We respond to what we see, hear, feel and smell. Yes, we Protestants may shake our heads in amusement about the Catholics’ peculiar use of “bells and smells” in their worship, but those ancient rituals can connect to some of our needs. Continue reading →

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