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Saturday, 2 January 2016

The logic of Matthew's Magi

(January 3rd) 2016

Isaiah 60:1-6
Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14
Ephesians 3:1-12
Matthew 2:1-12

In “The Journey of the Magi,” the famous poem of T.S. Eliot, the young anglo-catholic poet deliberately fuses the stories of Christmas and Easter, as one of the wise men recalls a journey he made long before. The journey was made with two companions, but the details are now slipping into a fog of dementia: “were we led all that way for Birth or Death?” the old man muses. In his dementia he radiates wisdom: there was a birth and a death, and Eliot and the gospel-writer Matthew alike want us to know they are inseparable in meaning.

The human brain cannot fathom God unaided, but nor are those who seek truth expected to place otherwise intelligent brains in neutral. Human intellect by itself won’t lead a punter to Jesus, but as C.S. Lewis or more recently Terry Eagleton have reminded us, if an intelligent human genuinely seeks to know the God of Jesus Christ they may well find what they are looking for.

Matthew wants to create a symbolic story, placing the birth of Jesus at the collision point of human need and political corruption. He tells his tale to remind proclaimers of God that intelligence and wisdom, that of the wise sages, are servants of meaning. The wise, he suggests, still seek Jesus.

For Matthew Jesus’ birthplace and related happenings take on symbolic and theological meaning. We still engage in this kind of enriched story-telling: famous Gallipoli stories of Simpson’s donkey in Australia or Henderson’s in New Zealand generate an inspirational awareness of bravery far more important than the details of the events. Stories about the Chappells’ under-arm bowl in 1981, or Bob Deans’ non-try of 1905, or more significantly of Tārore’s martyrdom in the 1830s, stories from vastly different contexts, generate meaning and bonding for the tellers and listeners. Matthew knew this trade well: Jesus may or may not have been born in Bethlehem, wise men may or may not have journeyed to adore him, a star may or may not have shone to guide them, but Matthew and his successors knew well that these are useful descriptions of the remarkable implications of the birth of the Saviour.

These stories are not nonsense: they tell of Jesus’ unique place in the purposes (and even being) of God. That belief was supported by the experiences worshippers had of the presence of Jesus in their midst, conquering injustice and fear and doubt, making, as Annie Lennox put it, “the bad things go away.” Armed with that knowledge believers could face anything life or the Roman Empire threw at them.

What was nonsense was to dismiss the deep truth embedded in the stories, to sneer at them, to stand over them in judgement so that those who wanted to encounter the life- and death-transforming Christ were unable to take that life-transforming leap to encounter his healing, saving goodness. Seekers for meaning, the genuinely wise, do not “diss” narratives that convey truth. Matthew knew that. He knew that his wise men stood as representation of every human being who has set out to discover meaning to life, every wise person who has sought to proclaim justice amidst injustice, hope amidst hopelessness, God in the midst of a terrifyingly and logically empty universe.

Matthew had little time for human logic: Herod, in his sneering schemes, becomes the symbol of the kind of logic that dismantles human hope, that mocks simple faith, that attempts, as Paul put it, to tear down rather than build up the vulnerable and vulnerable-in-faith. Matthew’s listeners did not necessarily need to believe in strange eastern sages, but they did believe that in the simple things of Jesus they had discovered wisdom greater than the corruption and evil and injustice or the Roman Empire and of compromised religion, greater even than the precariousness of life in the first century. In Jesus they had found life – and life greater even than death.

So-called “progressive” Christians will often cringe at the bigoted pronouncements made in the name of the Jesus of Americanised Christianity, and rightly so. I suspect we have little difficulty in finding more wisdom in the toenails of Malala Yousafzai or Aung San Suu Kyi than in proponents of religious bigotry who claim to be followers of Christ, more bravery in the struggles of an Anousheh Ansari or her protégé Sepideh Hooshyar than the conceit of a Creflo Dollar or a Benny Hinn. Nevertheless we need to critique aspects of our own faith and practice, too.  Do we allow a place for those who hear God speaking to them, to those who have visions, to those whose understanding of the scriptures is uninformed by so-called “higher criticism”? Do we scorn those whose worship is so full of the emotional joy of knowing Jesus that without inhibition they raise their hands or dance or clap at his presence? Do we look askance at the oddballs in our society, the eccentric and befuddled, the damaged and bewildered who might equally be bearers of gold and incense and myrrh to the feet of Jesus?

Herod felt that he was smarter than the gauche travellers from the East. He sought to outwit them, and failed. Matthew will go on to tell a story of the infant whose appointment by God thwarts the machinations of the smart and the mighty, who sidesteps the tyrannies of the Roman Empire and the bigotries of oppressive religion. Herod represents in Matthew’s hands a cynical merger of Roman oppression and religious compromise. We want to be on the side of a story that sidesteps Herod, but in order to be so we need to look for all that is Herodian in us.

Where do we belong in this story? We need to make sure that we still have a child’s heart that can look on the baby Jesus with awe and delight, and place gifts at his feet. We must ensure that we can still dance with angels, mesmerized by the mystery of the Creator of the universe lying in a manger. We need to hear, too, the cry of baby Jesus, and know that this is, as Matthew will go on to tell us and Justin Welby has reminded us, the cry of every child who will be thrown out in the lottery of world politics and in the refugee’s search for safety from oppression and war.

Can we still weep tears of consternation and joy with Mary, as she finds the vulnerability and holiness and righteousness of the Way of Jesus bewildering, frightening, yet unavoidable? Can we muddle birth and death in our minds so that the whole of Jesus’ birth and teachings and death and resurrection and future coming become a wonderful fertile ground of laughter and joy and strength in times of weakness? Can we so throw away propriety (for Herod was a very proper man) that we instinctively welcome and embrace all who would cautiously or gauchely slip a toe in the door in the search for truth?

The story becomes muddled, like that of Eliot’s old traveller: the wise men enter Jesus’ stable. Yet at the same time Jesus enters the mysterious and searching, welcoming and embracing stable of their hearts and minds. Perhaps this was what Phillips Brooks was saying when he cried out to the infant Jesus “cast out our sin, and enter in, be born in us today.”


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