The Fullness of the Glory and Wonder of the Mystery . . .
So, Ella and Brett are married . . . In ancient lore, the newly wed couple leave the reception in a car from which hangs a sign saying ‘Just Married’, but as anyone with any experience will tell you you are never ‘Just’ Married – Marriage is far far more than a mechanical human agreement and contract – it is ‘a Mystery’ That is it is something which we can name, but the depths of we can only point towards – as if you saw the entire universe in a moment and everyone asked you – ‘What did you see . . .
In the same way as you are never ‘just’ married, and as I said a few weeks back, you never ‘just’ pray. Books on ‘how to pray’ as if it were a simple mechanical act strip Prayer of its ‘Mystery’ its depth, its very Life.
Our World would have us do this – I remember in my High School Biology class being told that if you added together everything that a human being was made of in terms of your chemical composition, you could be sold for about $2 . . . depending on the global price for minerals prevailing at the time . . . Defining things as ‘just’ this or that or the other, stripping them of their Mystery kills them. As the Romantic poet William Wordsworth noticed, ‘we murder to dissect’ . . . and I would say that The Modern World is an act of murder which would leave even Herod looking like a kindly grandfatherly figure in its reducing the World and the Human to ‘just’ this or that or the other . . .
The Ancients were very very wise to and alert to the danger of this ‘just’ness. They warned against ‘mere appearances’ that to live by mere appearances was to be enslaved. We of course live in an age imprisoned by appearances – Plato speaks of those imprisoned by gazing eternally upon images of images, appearances of appearances . . . He could have been prophesying the smart phone on which we gaze unceasingly at images of images . . .
And it is all too easy as Modern people to take The Christmas Story and package it in ways that lead to such imprisonment by the Gaoler ‘Just’ . . .
I always prefer to listen to the beginning of John’s gospel and at midnight, not only because his words take us beyond words, and it is in the dark and so we are on the edge of things seen and unseen . . . I prefer that than to listen to Luke on Christmas morning, when the sun is up and the story is comfortably familiar . . . For our imaginations I think have been captivated by endless images – endless nativities and children in tea towels, and the story is so far from this . . .
We often make the error of ‘simplifying’ things for children as if they had no sense of Wonder as if perhaps their Vision was less developed than ours . . . So the nativity is demystified to a children’s tail, or demystified by simplistic readings of the text
We would prefer to paddle in muddy shallows than take the risk of getting lost in the Wonder and Immensity – Yet even a little acquaintance with the times of Jesus quickly lead us into the rip tides of Mystery. Aslan is Good, but He is Not Safe . . .
“And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.” Any Jewish reader of these words is cast not into a world of Irish linen wrapped around children’s heads but into an Ocean.
The First Born Son – the Great High Priest of the Temple of God – the manger – or was it Jerusalem??? The word in Hebrew for manger, ‘ebus is almost the same as the old name for Jerusalem, j’ebus. Wrapped in cloths – the First born Son of God is clothed in garments of glory – ‘there was no room in the inn – ‘There was no Logos in the hidden place . . .’
The Christmas Story takes place in the ‘hidden place’ away from prying eyes. Kataluma, the word we translate inn and so have endless children saying ‘no room!’ sounds like ta’aluma, the Holy of Holies . . . in an age of terror, when to be a follower of Jesus would lead to your being ostracised and thrown out and possibly killed, the Gospel Authors carefully cover their tracks but leave enough signs for those who know. Better to have careless folk speaking about ‘Jesus being born into the arms of a cosy middle class family,’ beyond the kataluma, than the Great High Priest coming to the Holy of Holies, or the Garden of Eden indeed, in an animal feedtrough.
The Christmas Story is no call to sentimental childish play, nor a call to ‘social justice’ for there was no room for Jesus in the inn . . . no the Great High Priest of God comes forth and is clothed in garments of glory, not in the holy of holies in Jerusalem, but in a manger overlooked by Ox and Ass for as the prophet had foretold, Jerusalem does not know its ruler, but the ox knows its owner and the donkey its masters crib . . .
The Story is not what it appears to be, and we are caught up in something much much bigger than ourselves, something illimitably glorious, and on occasion, when we are not caught up in ‘mere appearances’ if we can look up from the lifeless ‘just’ness of things, if we dare get out of the mud pools – the Power and The Glory may for a moment ‘transport’ us, not away from here, but to here – away from ‘mere appearances’, from the world of ‘just’ this or ‘just’ that to world Transfigured by The Fullness of the Wonder of the Mystery. To live as new born children of God is to be caught up in this
And so to the Epiphany – the Unveiling, the Oh My! – the breathtaking as the magi come from Arabia – bearing gifts. I must admit, that final verse of ‘We three Kings’ Always Catches me – Glorious now, Behold him Arise, King And God and Sacrifice. It is one of those moments in worship in which one becomes tuned, resonates with Transfigured Reality
Matthew brings us into this world through the story of Herod, the magi and the Star. A story Rich in more than ‘just’ – for the Ancients, nothing was ‘just’ this or that. The idea that one might speak of the stars as ‘just’ balls of gas in the sky, was as foolish to them as reducing the human to a bag of chemicals – it was to kill the world off, when in truth everything around them said the world was full of Life!! Except there is always that which seeks to destroy life to rob it of Wonder and Glory, to demystify. So the star is not just a star – it points beyond itself. Probably a triple conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn, a rare and Wonderful cosmological event – lying as seen from Jerusalem over Bethlehem, and in the tradition the Sign that many hoped for, not least because of Herod, of whom one commentator wrote ‘a man of great barbarity to all men equally and a slave to his passions’ – he pronounced that his three sons would succeed him and then had them all executed before he died – early Christian tradition associated him with Wormwood, the star that fell from heaven spreading bitterness and making bitter he waters, in the Book of Revelation. Although there is no historic evidence of the slaughter of all those under two years of age in Bethlehem, this is certainly in keeping with a man who had many of the priests of the Temple killed for their prophecies of a star and the end of his reign . . . in and around the time of the birth of Jesus
Matthew pulls us into a world in which we are not in control, Vivid, at times terrifying – a time in which the heavenly bodies were signs, portents and also announcers of Great Hope.
So the wise men come to Jerusalem, where of course they should perhaps have been looking for a manger . . . and finally to Bethlehem where they laid before him three gifts – Gold Frankincense and Myrrh – much has been made of these gifts, but again old traditions linked them to The Garden of Eden. Pre-Christian stories told of Adam pleading with the angels to take the perfumed oil from the garden that he might continue to offer worship to God. Christian texts tell of Adam being buried by Seth his son along with the Gold and the Frankincense and Myrrh, having been brought them by the three archangels, Michael, Gabriel and Raphael . . . and Coptic Christians to this day depict the three magi bearing gifts as having wings . . . so the Archangels present the gifts to the Second Adam, the one who is in Himself the New Creation, Restoring the True Dwelling place of God . . .
“When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.”
So, what is the moral of the story? What can we take away and use? . . . In a real sense nothing. If the world is ‘just this’ or ‘just that’ or ‘just the other’ then it is less than it is – we judge it by appearances and put it to our uses. it is ‘just’ resources, dead matter – as are we, something for us to make something with and of . . .
The Epiphany is The Unveiling, that the Wold is not ‘just’ anything — It is The Manifestation of the mystery hidden from the beginning of Time – in the truest sense Mystery for it is at once True and beyond our Comprehension, beyond our Grasp to use as we will.
It is not so much something to ponder . . . .and then ‘set out to live differently’, it is something to be caught up in, carried away by, transformed and transfigured by.
Here is the Centre of the Creation – its Source, its embodiment, in Wonder, in Glory – the very Mystery of Christ Himself.
Behold Him arise, King and God and Sacrifice, let us dare to be caught up with the magi angels in the Worship of Christ . . . then perhaps God Himself will Do something with us . . .