Emerging from today’s Gospel story, a first great question for us all is ‘what do we desire to learn?’ For an openness to learning is at the heart of the witness of the Magi. They, by definition, are people of great wisdom in their own cultures and traditions. Yet, according to the story, they seek deeper love and truth, and take immense steps and risks in doing so. Now, of course, it can be argued that this is because seekers will never be satisfied until they find, and rest in, Christ. That is also a partly helpful reading of the story. After a life-giving powerful experience of God in Christ Jesus, it is also certainly to be hoped that we travel onwards, in thought and deed, ‘by another road’. Yet I think the Magi’s openness to learning encourages us to more than this. Indeed the story becomes destructive if it leads us to compare Christ with different cultures, or to mere quietist satisfaction.
A first great encouragement of today’s Gospel story is therefore to share the Magi’s desire to travel ever more deeply into love and truth, wherever we may find it, and at whatever cost of change it may call us into. The Magi also display wonderful adaptability as they learn more of life and truth, and as they negotiate the hurdles of their own times. In doing so, they are models for us of how to live intentionally into love and grace in our own day. Our dreams may have different warning characteristics. Our Herods may have different names. Yet, if we are open and reflective like the Magi, we too may now chose different steps and different roads. So, what do we desire to learn? What wisdom is it that we seek, in our times and circumstances, which asks us to travel another road?
Emerging from today’s Gospel story, a second great question for us all is then ‘what practices will we adopt to help us travel in more loving directions?’ Note well, at this point we should observe that the Magi’s journey plans are always centered on traveling to the heart of things, not least into the depth of their own hearts. In other words, this is about deep loving. Too many new year’s resolutions fall over, I fear, when they are superficial or external changes, and not about the deep longings of our hearts. In contrast, the Magi journey on as they never satisfied with superficiality. They seek ever-deepening spirituality, in whatever name, form, or place, it may be found. They are pilgrim people, like so many other great biblical and other spiritual models for us. As such they do not burden themselves with unnecessary religious, cultural, or other, demands. Yet, like the alertness of cats, they cultivate vital ways of listening, and of moving, as required.
It is striking to me that our text tells us that, in going ‘by another road’, the Magi did so both in order ‘to return to their own country’, and that they were also doing so in response to their dreaming. This, for me, speaks of deep loving: of opening up, and trusting, the deepest parts of our selves. The Magi’s experience of Christ, like our own, is not therefore about leaving, or casting out, our old self – in the manner in which simplistic religion, or simplistic secular new year resolutions, suggest we do. No. Our journeying onward is about being drawn ever more closely into the love of God at the very heart of our own life’s landscapes, interior and exterior. This is about owning more fully our own dreaming: that is, all of the Spirit’s promptings in our hearts and lives, including the unconscious and as yet unformed. Our callings, like those of the Magi, are therefore to fresh steps of other kinds. So, what practices will we adopt to help us travel in more loving directions? What is our heart saying? What is love in the centre of our being calling out in our dreaming?
Emerging from today’s Gospel story, a third great question for us all also then follows: ‘what gifts can we offer to others? In other words, how will we help to light up our lives and world? Lighting up ourselves and our world - doesn’t this bring us to the heart of Love itself? For, as John O’Donohue used to say, too much of modern religion – ‘traditional’ and ‘new age’ - is about ‘individual salvation and self-improvement’ projects. Today, we have many secularised forms of this in the plethora of ‘wellness’ and ‘personal health’ initiatives which have sprung up. Some of these have some value, but often reflect our hyper-individualised society. How very limited and ultimately terribly sad! Our Gospel, and the Bible more generally, encourages us on very different paths. It reminds us that we only truly find ourselves when we ‘lose’ ourselves - in love. The Magi did not travel therefore for their own self-development, but for their own growth in love, and to express their love. Their particular gifts are indeed highly symbolic – subjects for many other reflections. Above all however, they are, together, expressions of love: love which is found in the depths of the self, but which constantly calls us beyond the self, and, in doing so, transfigures our selves.
My spiritual director, also as it happens an expert on dreams, puts it this way: instead, he (Patrick Oliver) says, of continually asking the modern existential question ‘who am I?, a more helpful question is ‘to whom do I belong?’ Our particular identities are very valuable, like the particular cultures and traditions from which the Magi came. That is part of the Gospel – valuing all that we are. However, we are always called on beyond what we have been to what we may also become. We continue to evolve our identities as we belong more fully to the love which gives us birth, sustains us, and transforms us anew. In this journey, we are therefore drawn away from the Herods in ourselves, as well as in our wider world. We are encouraged to lighten up, to light up, and to be a light for others. So, what gifts can we offer to others? How will we share in God’s continuing Epiphany – the revelation of light in our lives and world?
Learning, loving, lighting - by what other roads will we travel this year? Peter Millar - my dear friend, former Warden of Iona Abbey, and great writer of spiritual encouragement – wrote this (from an icy, Covid-19 plagued, and Brexit-burdened Scotland), in his end of 2020 reflection. Entitled ‘Kindling that light in our hearts I will conclude with it, as it expresses so well the Magi’s gift of encouragement to us to learn, love and light up afresh:
Each one of us is being asked to be a person of light in our own situation in 2021. To be that person is not an easy task, but it is the task in hand, for we are all embedded in the human condition and we share a common heart-beat with all our sisters and brothers on this beautiful, wounded earth… Last week a UK journalist wrote that the virus has pushed all of us off the feather beds of our civilization. But whatever the virus has done to us as a world community, it has not destroyed that gift which is within us all – the ‘gift of the resurrected spirit’. It may be that being immersed in powerful uncertainties, as in these times, is enabling us to enter our depths with fresh awareness. And if we are on that journey, the year ahead, whatever it brings, will actually be embedded in lasting hope for our turbulent world. On that journey we may have to say farewell to many familiar markers, but we shall have found, as Jesus reminded us long ago, the ‘pearl of great price’. This Celtic prayer says it all: I am in trust, that in its proper time, the great and gracious God will not put out for me the light of hope.
With the Magi and Christ who embodies that light, Amen.
by Josephine Inkpin, for Epiphany Sunday, 3 January 2020
photo: Journey of the Magi by James Tossit c.1894 (Minneapolis Institute of Art)