These lectionary meditations are slightly edited versions of the texts written for, and published by, The Christian Century magazine for each of the six Sundays between 1st Sunday of Advent (2 December 2007) and Epiphany (6 January 2008).
Following the normal practice of The Christian Century the readings which underpin these meditations are those of the Revised Common Lectionary rather than the Catholic lectionary.
A puncturing fulfilment
First Sunday of Advent, year A December 2, 2007 Isaiah 2:1-5; Psalm 122; Romans 13:11-14; Matthew 24:36-44
One of the things I love about the liturgical life of the Church is the way that the Holy Spirit, quietly and gently, works on us. Through the texts and prayers set out for us each year in the lectionary the Spirit draws us ever more fully into the Presence. If we read the texts in a literalistic manner, it can sounds as though, week by week it is God who is undergoing change toward us. In fact, however, in the liturgy of the Presence it is we who are worked on through the scriptures and the prayers, we who get to be reconfigured and brought in to the life of the Changeless One.
At Advent, it begins again: the cycle by which God breaks through the clutter of our lives to announce to us that the Presence is very near, irrupting into our midst, hauling us out of our myths, our half-truths and the ways we have settled for what is “religious” rather than what is holy, alive, and real. So, lest we be tempted to think that “Advent” is merely a religious warm up for “Christmas”, let us see if we can allow ourselves to be brought near the cold-water spigot whose splashes can chasten us into reality.
Someone wants to speak to us. Someone who is not on the same level as us at all. The “oomph” behind the “isness” of everything that is wants to invite us into the fulness of a project. Can that One get through? Who are they? Will we be able to hear them? How trained are our ears? The assumption at the beginning of each liturgical year is that this is going to be difficult: that we are half asleep, our ears dulled, and the voice of One who loves us is too radiant bright to be picked up on our defensive antennae. Hence St Paul’s call for awakening, the great leitmotiv of Advent. Not a moralistic call, despite Paul’s immediate listing of examples of downward-spiralling desire. A call for us to be quickened, straightened into hearing One who is not part of the world of our entrapment by and scandal at each other, so that we who are inclined to settle for less can be summoned into the joy of more by One who loves us.
The announcement with which we begin, from Isaiah, plays to our sense of the physically portentous. It gives us a mountain which is being lifted up. It plays to our sense of religious grandeur. For the mountain is Zion, where Jerusalem is built. And it plays to any apocalyptic sense we may have, for out of this physically and religiously charged place there is to emerge a teaching, and an instruction, which will also be a judgment, a criterion for all peoples. And this criterion, this instruction, this judge, sitting with authority, will be heeded by all nations, who will then enter into the ways of peace.
Will we survive the collapse of our fantasy? How wonderful it would be to have a religion in which something as obvious as a great mountain lifted itself up. A mountain associated with the things of God, a new Sinai from which a lawgiver and a judge would hand out decrees whose wisdom everybody would recognise, and to which they would submit meekly, agreeing unanimously with the arbitrations of this judge. Or would it be so wonderful? Maybe as long as we fantasize like this, we will never be able to learn the things that make for peace. For in the reality constructed by human imagination, the reality of a thousand national identities, foundational myths, bogus perceptions of “our” innocence and “their” wickedness, who could ever be a judge whose impartiality would be recognised and whose arbitration would be accepted?
So what is the sense of the prophecy? We are used to two possibilities: on the one hand, prophecy being punctured by reality, and our settling for far, far less than our imaginations were excited into expecting; or on the other hand prophecies being fulfilled, and our being given a boost to our expectations and our sense of who we are and what we deserve.
Advent, however, gives us neither of these. Or perhaps it would be better to say that we are given both. For what we are going to get used to hearing is the still small voice of punctured fulfilment. That is to say, our receiving far more than we imagined we might get from the prophecy, but our getting it through the process of the loss of fantasy. And this is what Our Lord warns his disciples about: the coming is not going to happen according to our measure, nor is it likely to be picked up by us. Only the spirit that is trained in punctured fulfilment is likely to get it.
Jesus points it out very clearly: there is no human criterion at all that is capable of knowing how the Creator’s design to fulfil creation is going to look. Majority expectations are not safe, like those of Noah’s contemporaries. Who could tell that with Cain killing Abel in the field (one taken, the other left) judgment would begin? Or what the shape of that judgment would be? Or who could tell with the deaths of the firstborn of the Egyptian slave women working alongside their Hebrew counterparts at the grinding stone (Exodus 11,5) what sign from God was about to emerge?
And yet, as our imagination of the One who is coming undergoes its inevitable puncturing, so that we can be awakened to One whose criteria are not our criteria, the promise will be fulfilled. The One who is coming will not preside over us, but will teach us to want peace from within, and to learn the habits that make it possible. The One who loves us will come as one we despise, and crucify: The definitive puncturing of our god-fantasies, and yet the Presence of one who is powerfully determined not to let us remain wedded to our self-destruction.
A jostling fulfilment
Second Sunday of Advent, year A December 9, 2007 Isaiah 11:1-10; Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19; Romans 15:4-13; Matthew 3:1-12
How is the Presence working on us? Once again the liturgy gives us three different prods into life. And as the sound of portentous thunder diminishes, without disappearing yet, so we start to find ourselves being trained towards perceiving a somewhat different shape to the One who comes than our fantasies and our fears had constructed for us.
A hypnotist summons a temporary new conscious self into being, by getting us to concentrate on something outside ourselves while, below the level of that of which we are conscious, the set of relationships which cause us to think and perceive as we do are worked on. In liturgy, the jostling together of the different voices from Scripture while we are summoned into concentrating on One who is coming, enables us to continue our journey of re-birth. Our new self is quickened into existence as the Spirit awakens in us someone who we didn’t know we were, but who turns out to be more ourselves than we thought we knew.
So the jostling and the puncturing continue apace. With the reading from Isaiah, we are beginning to be let gently down from the portentousness of the vision of the Judge from Zion. The vision is being refocused within us. For now it is becoming clearer that the One who is to come will be human, and with a history, which means, that the One will be part of a certain fulfilment. A story which started with Jesse will be brought to fulfilment. That was a tricky story, since of all Jesse’s children, it was the most improbable one, the youngest, the pretty-boy with the beautiful eyes, who was to be anointed. Any story fulfilling the story of Jesse is likely to be as improbable as it is linear.
Isaiah then gives us two visions, not yet joined together, for the prophecy is still out of focus. In the first part we learn what the new anointed one will be like, what gifts he will have and how he will be someone run by Elsewhere. Elsewhere will make sure that he is not run by the criteria of group think, of lobbying groups; that his criteria will give voice to the meek who have no voice, and don’t know how to use it. The words he speak will become the criteria for everything, to the dismay of the wicked. And yet, even at this stage of Isaiah’s imagination, there is something harsh about the One who is to come: striking the earth and killing the wicked.
So how is that to be reconciled with the ushering in of Peace? For it is getting into even clearer focus here that that is what is promised: the One who is to come longs for peace and seeks to make it possible. The extravagance of the peace that is to come is illustrated by the wolf lying down with the lamb, the Lion eating straw like an Ox, which was what happened to Nebuchadnezzar following Daniel’s prophecy (Dan 4, 25.33) so that he could learn the sovereignty of YHWH. The One who is to come longs for us to live in peace, yet how will that peacefulness be inaugurated? Surely that One will stand as a sign, one of whom questions are asked, and the Presence of God will envelop him. But will his face be as hard as flint? What sort of sign will he be? If he is to be a vanguard of vengeance, how will he make peace? For vengeance multiplied only leads to more vengeance, never to peace.
The Pauline passage works on us another way: reminding us that really the One who came was the truth of God, and did fulfil the prophecies to the Patriarchs, and did open up the truth of all things beyond the confines of Israel. Our access to this truth, the sign that the One who is to come has come, is shown in our living out the first fruits of that: dwelling in harmony with one another. It is this beginning to be empowered to live in peace which is the first fruits of the Coming. From living in that peace comes a joyful hope in what is to come in the future, a sense of things opening out, of the promise of things being verified. The givenness of peace, and the givenness of our access to truth, come together.
Let us not fool ourselves as to how easy it was to perceive this. The gentleness of the One who is to come is being hinted at, but we still have John the Baptist, the last of the prophets, pointing to the fulfilment of his own work. And yet he too is out of focus. He knows that only a change of heart and mind will enable people to begin to perceive the shape of the One who is to come, for with our current mindsets we cannot imagine the shape of the Presence. He also knows that between his preparation of people, and the shape of the Presence to come there is an incommensurable distance. Yet even he who was of priestly family can scarcely understand that his rite of public penance and purification would also be the rite of ordination of the Great High Priest who was to come, and thereafter of all of us who are to have our access to the Holy of Holies laid open by his Sacrifice.
Why his hostility to the many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism? He knows how dangerous apparent goodness is, that is all our grasped goodness, and the sense of entitlement which comes with it. He was aware of how dangerous to such goodness was the One who is to come, but like Isaiah he seems unable to grasp that the One who is coming will turn out indeed to be the bearer of all that dangerousness, only because of the fear and resentment of those in whose midst he will be. Not because there is any violence or vengeance in himself.
We have not yet undergone the extraordinary shift in perception and imagination which comes upon us when we understand that in the One who comes, there is no violence at all, no vengeance, no desire for retribution, only a longing for us to be fully alive. And that all our fears, our desires for revenge, our stumbling blocks, which we so easily project onto God, are ours, ours alone, and able to be undone, let go, forgiven, by the One who is coming in.
A stretching fulfilment
Third Sunday of Advent, year A December 16, 2007 Isaiah 35:1-10; Psalm 146:5-10; Luke 1:47-55; James 5:7-10; Matthew 11:2-11
With each Sunday of Advent, it is as though the Spirit brings us deeper into the Presence by bringing us closer to having our feet on the ground, closer to the present, and closer to our hearts. The Divine heart surgeon carries on reconfiguring our desires so that we can inhabit both the Presence and the present. For how else can we be made alive?
And this means learning how to be stretched, how to long, how to hope, how to be vulnerable to failure. This is the route without undergoing which there is no Coming. For if we cannot be taken to the end of ourselves, stretched beyond our capacity to imagine a salvation, have our longing forged against the hard anvil of apparent impossibility, then we are still wanting something that is a continuation of our selves, and not the Other who is Coming in.
There is scarcely a more poignant communication in the New Testament than John’s message from prison: “Art Thou the One who is to come, or wait we for another?” Here is a heart stretched towards a fulfilment that is not of his making, and in the face of which he is vulnerable to a sense of shame, loss and futility. Given what he is undergoing, how can he be sure that he was even pointing in the direction of God’s breaking in? Will this One vindicate him against the enemy who holds him in a dungeon? Even he runs the risk of being scandalized by Jesus.
The presence of the One who is coming in had been vastly easier to talk about when its time was not yet at hand. And yet now, as it comes in, the presence is very unlike how John, as all the prophets before him, had imagined him. The Presence becomes much more difficult to identify as it draws closer to us in time and place. Shouldn’t the criteria be clearer? Shouldn’t it be more obvious that the One who comes in will recompense his faithful ones and wreak vengeance on evil doers?
Our Lord replies in two ways. First he replies to John. He knows it would be unfair to give John a personal guarantee – to say “I really am who you thought – trust me” for that would merely leave John agonizing over his own ability to trust another human. So Jesus points towards something objective, something that is manifest: the signs of the One coming in – the blind receiving their sight, the lame walking and so on. The whole Isaiah package. The God who hides himself – El Mishtater – does not point to himself, but allows his works to be rejoiced in (Is 45, 15). The signs being given are those of the Creator breaking in to fulfil his creation, which is what the promised redemption was all about. John’s heart, stretched beyond parchedness can rest on this knowledge – can be satisfied, for to the heart attuned to the One who is no part of the order of existing things, a prophet’s heart, a sign of the creative work of God being made manifest is already the greatest refreshment that can be given. It allows the heart to rest on the giver.
And Our Lord even recognises for John that at the very end of being stretched towards the Other who is coming in, there does lie the risk of scandal. There lies the risk that we will interpret the One according to our own pattern of desire, make of him a resolution of our partisan needs, and so be scandalized into not recognising the real One who comes. If however we are not scandalised, we are set free, we no longer need fear the social other which surrounds us, because we are confident of being held in the regard of that power which is coming in, and which is more solid than any form of group bonding, cultural togetherness or inter-personal prestige.
Here, at the very edge of the stretched fulfilment, it is as if Jesus knows that by asking people to let go of the very notion of vengeance, of divine retribution, he leaves them with two options – to trust in the goodness of the One coming in, or to be locked in scandal at the collapse of partisan goodness and the constant need to build it up again. This latter possibility is indeed the arrival of a new sort of wrath, but rather than being divine wrath, it is a purely human wrath, one no less powerful for that. A human wrath that is a being enclosed into a scandalised imagination in the face of a goodness far too gentle for it to behold.
Our Lord then turns to those he was teaching, and comments on John: when the crowds went out to the desert to be baptised, was it just a celebrity show, a collective display of mourning? This week we have an ascetic celebrity. Next week we will have a Hollywood starlet? Yet the crowd fascination is just the same. Was this all there was to John? No indeed! He was indeed part of the solidity of God’s self manifestation, nothing futile about him. The crowd was right to pick up that there was something of God here. Just as John was stretched, even in his imprisonment, so he had been sent to stretch hearts and imaginations towards the fulfilment so that others might find themselves closer to being able to receive the One coming in.
Yet, and here Jesus is adamant. There is a difference not only in degree, but in kind, between the imagination of John, stretched as it was, concerning the things of God, and the imagination of those who are to find themselves ushered into the Presence, one where human violence has been taken inside himself by the one undergoing the sacrifice, and where there is no violence coming out at all.
James illustrates this new stretching of the heart inside the sign of the kingdom: be patient, strengthen your hearts, do not grumble. It is easier now for us than for the stretched prophets, for, if only we would remember it, we have seen what John did not live to see: the full purpose of the Lord, how the Lord is compassionate and merciful. Not as add-on qualities but as the full purpose of the Lord. The One coming in wants to show us that there is no violence in him at all.
Did I say that makes it easier? What is it like to be stretched out in a wrathful world in expectation of the arrival of an incommensurable power who is not wrathful at all?
Fourth Sunday of Advent, year A December 23, 2007 Isaiah 7:10-16; Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19; Romans 1:1-7; Matthew 1:18-25
We are on the very brink of the Nativity. Our sense of the power of the One Coming in has been stretched, challenged, recast over the last three weeks. And now the reality of that power begins to dawn more clearly. And what is astonishing about it, is that unlike any power we know, this power is confident enough to be vulnerable. And that means confident enough in us to be vulnerable to us.
King Ahaz did not have the confidence to be vulnerable. He needed the appearance of strength to help him out in his military difficulties. Isaiah challenges him to imagine what God might be like, what it would look like for this Other who is totally other to put in an appearance – he can ask for the most outlandish sign from above or from below. Asking for a sign will reveal what sort of criterion Ahaz has for who God is. But what the Other might look like is only too likely to be disconcerting to Ahaz’ political schemes. Ahaz doesn’t really want a sign, dressing up his failure of imagination in an obedient piety.
Isaiah gives him a sign anyhow: and it is unlike anything that Ahaz has been encouraged to ask for. There is nothing outlandish about it. It doesn’t appear to come from Heaven, nor to emerge from Sheol. It is quiet, gentle, ordinary-seeming. A maiden is with child and shall bear a son and shall name him Immanuel. It would appear, at first glance to be totally natural, totally from this, human side of things, rather than emerging from something special, divine and portentous. Thus it seems not really to be a sign at all. And yet, it is in this sign of quietude, and confidence that God will reveal himself as the one who loves his people, and who will bring his kingdom to flourishing. It is the sort of sign which is not able to be perceived by those whose attention is fixed on current affairs, on power politics and on strategic calculations.
Matthew has seen this in his Gospel. He has seen that Isaiah’s promise of a sign relating to a kingdom flows into the much fuller sign which is happening now, quietly, and offstage. The fulness of the power pointed to by Isaiah was revealing itself in a gentleness made available under the most delicate of circumstances. For the maiden chosen to bear the son was not living in any well-protected enclave. On the contrary, the first thing which the power dared to do was to make itself visible as a provocation, inviting the maiden who was found to be with child to share the opprobrium of being a single mother in a society where such things might easily lead to death. She was to depend for her reputation, and maybe for her life, on the good will of an untested male who knew that he was not the father of the child.
What sort of power is it that allows itself to be so vulnerable? It is prepared to trust itself to one of the most notoriously unreliable features of human existence. Not merely the pain and riskiness of human gestation and childbirth. But also the whole of human skittishness around male honour, and the potential for violence which goes with female dependency. Beyond even this, as Matthew makes clear, this power is prepared to allow itself to be vulnerable to that most dangerous of constructs: the Law. For Joseph was a righteous man, and as such would know well what Deuteronomy 22 prescribed for cases like this: death by stoning. That Joseph’s righteousness already consisted in his being inclined to interpret that law in the most gentle way possible, seeking to obey it by “putting her away quietly” was not something automatic.
Joseph decides to apply the law in this way, already a fragile act of interpretation, and one which it might not be at all easy to carry out in practice, since “secrets will out”. This decision was made just prior to the Lord inviting Joseph to consider another possible interpretation: that Mary’s pregnancy was not in any way something which fell foul of the Law, coming instead from the Holy Spirit. Joseph is given a dream, and in the light of that he is invited to make an interpretation with enormous practical consequences. Again: quite how extraordinary is the power that is gentle and confident enough to be able to enter into the practical consequences of a human act of interpretation? For there is no sign that is not also a human act of interpretation. And there can be no riskier way than this to enter into the realm of signs. This pregnant woman is either an adulteress or a virgin blessed by God. What power is it that is prepared to trust that a human will choose the latter, infinitely less plausible interpretation, and then be so gracious as to cover over the vulnerability of his bride to be and allow the sign to flourish?
It is little wonder that Paul in Galatians emphasizes that Jesus was born under the Law, for Jesus’ vulnerability to the Law is the sign of the power of the one who was to fulfil the whole purpose of the Law. This is all about power, as is made magnificently clear in the Introduction to Romans. The fulfilment of all God’s promises would come through someone who was of the now failed and insignificant line of David. This one would be declared, or ordained the High Priest of God, God’s Son, YHWH himself, bearing the Name by his passing through death in the spirit of holiness. Vulnerability to mere flesh; vulnerability to the Law; vulnerability to death: these will be the signs of the power of the One coming in, of his confidence in us, in what we can become, and in what he can make of us.
Fulfilment as history
First Sunday after Christmas December 30, 2007 Isaiah 63:7-9; Psalm 148; Hebrews 2:10-18; Matthew 2:13-23
All that pruning of our imagination, all that background work on our expectation which has been the labour of the Spirit during Advent came to fruition on Christmas Day. We were brought into the Presence. The Virgin who for nine months had been weaving the veil of the Temple out of the material of her own body sat in stupefied and exhausted silence. We too, following the line of her gaze towards the manger “veiled in flesh, the Godhead see”. The Angels sing the first Gloria, for where there is Presence, there too is Praise. The two are inseparable. We too, allow our ears to be drawn, and then our voices, and then our hearts to follow, into that proclamation of the new mode of presence among us of the Creator. We are going to be inducted into lifelong Praise.
For it is the Creator about whom we are talking: “not a messenger or an angel but his Presence” as the reading from Isaiah tells us. Not one who approaches us with anger, or even with fear or suspicion “surely they are my people, children who will not deal falsely”. The Presence who manifests as vulnerable to us, trusting us against all the evidence. With a belief in us which we do not easily share. What we call “the incarnation” might also be described as the way in which The Presence has come among us, entrusting himself to us so that we dare to make of our history something which shares God’s life.
Psalm 148 is a praise of Creation. It follows the movement of Creation found in Genesis and in the Temple. For Temple worshippers God dwelt “outside” creation in the Holy of Holies, and the movement of Creation began from the veil which symbolized the beginning of material existence and flowed outwards towards symbols of the “days” of Creation. The Psalm starts with the praises of the Lord alone, outside all created matter, before anything was. And then little by little, each element of Creation joins in: the heavens and the heights, the angels and the hosts. These were the non-material parts of creation, prior to the first day, when matter began to appear. Thereafter it is the created matter of each “day” which comes bursting into existence shouting its praise, until finally after the animals, it is the turn of the humans, kings and commoners. Amongst these, last of all is the horn raised up for God’s people, and he is become the Praise, and the Presence, and the Name. It is the birth of this Horn that we are celebrating.
For us, it is difficult to cross the gap between “creation”, understood as something which happened “at the beginning”, and “history” understood as the sort of things which humans do thereafter. One is to do with facts, we think, and the other is to do with interpretation. No wonder we find it difficult to celebrate the Incarnation! For the incarnation is predicated on an understanding of Creation permanently contemporary, always pulsating just beneath all matter, and delating the presence of the Creator to those with open eyes. Incarnation is the Creator beginning to fulfil all the possibilities of history, which we live in a way which constantly grinds down in disappointment. This he does by opening up the possibility that what we humans make of the flux of matter can be turned into something which delights in and is a praise of God.
In Matthew’s infancy narrative, no sooner has the Presence come into the world than it begins to collect to itself all the possibilities of God’s making of history a thing of praise. Immediately the Presence is embarked upon collecting to itself the journey of the people of Israel to Egypt. Immediately the banal local monarch, Herod, is the portentous Pharoah of lore, killing all the first born of the Hebrew children, and Jesus is reliving the story of Moses’ childhood, protected by providence in order to lead his people to an even greater promise. This is a sense of “history” which is far distant from our sympathies, since here history is the Creator making Narrative a bearer of abundance. In order for us to grasp this we are shown how events of the present repeat structures from the past, either falling away from what they offered, or, as in Matthew, building on them towards something new and not yet told. Imagine a succession of interlinked volcanoes viewed as similarly shaped yet chronologically different symptoms of but one eruption that is both always underway and yet to be achieved.
For those attentive to the One who has come in, what is beginning to be revealed to us is the extraordinary mixture of the strength of the protagonist and the weakness of the Presence. Contrast the serenity with which the Epistle to the Hebrews describes the way that the Creator enters into History as a Priest. For that is the least inappropriate analogy by which we tell the story of the One who made of our history something which shares in the life of God. Jesus’ historical living out and his manner of going to death achieved in fact what the ancient sacrifice of atonement had always been prefiguring.
And that historical living out was, from before birth, a living forth into a narrative which was beset by danger, by risk. No less so after his birth, when flight, conspiracy, treachery and violent rage were the constant background to the One who was coming into the world.
While we are wrapped in praise this Christmas tide, we might perhaps ponder on the contrast between this sense of perpetual danger, and the extraordinary innocence and confidence of God speaking in Isaiah “Surely they are my people, children who will not deal falsely”. What manner of heart is it who looks at our Herod-like history and sees in it, and offers us the possibility of making of it, a journey to a promise?
Epiphany of the Lord January 6, 2008 Isaiah 60:1-6; Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14; Ephesians 3:1-12; Matthew 2:1-12
We are used to the imagery of God communicating by God’s word, and so think of our responses to God as aural: listening, and obedience (from ob-audiens – intense hearing). Yet how much of the religion of Ancient Israel was a priestly religion of Presence! We forget that one of the central images of God’s communication in the Scriptures is that of the Shining face. From the Priestly Blessing of Numbers 6 to the continuous references in the Psalms, it is expected that worshippers will see the radiance of God’s face, and in its light, they too will shine.
The greek word for this Radiance, this shining, of the face is επιφάνεια – epiphany – and it was by no means only a benign thing. Promises of the Day of the Lord warn that its coming will be exceedingly dreadful, or awe-ful – the word is επιφανης. All this visual imagery is at the centre of today’s great feast.
The Magi, long known as Kings since they were fulfilling Psalm 72, had been looking at a star, the very Star of David that had been prophesied by another foreign magus, Balaam in Numbers 24. This radiance had led them from the East to the land of Judah. The announcement to King Herod and all Jerusalem of the proximity of the radiance produces a reaction of fear. Herod thereafter has to talk to the Kings secretly. When the Kings arrive at the place where the child is, the star stops, and they are filled with exceeding joy. Thus the radiance has its double effect – fear and darkness come upon those who oppose it, and blessing on those who seek His face.
So it is at Epiphany, the feast of the Shining, that we come to the end of the journey which began with the portentous announcement of the coming of the Lord, the streaming of the nations towards Zion, and the invitation to walk in the light of the Lord. Six weeks later we find ourselves with an array of Kings – Herod, David, the Magi, and a plethora of portents. Yet all this is directed to a simple dwelling with a newborn child. Our attention has become accustomed to understanding that the One Coming in will do so quietly, in vulnerability, in the midst of violence, prepared for suffering. So it is easy to forget something. How easy it is to read todays’ Gospel and not notice that the whole point of all those kings is that they are left in the shade by the radiance of the King of Kings. For the Magi have come to worship a King.
For me, at the centre of this feast is a mystery of looking. Who looks at who? We tend to focus, as adults, on the regards of adults. Matthew’s narrative, with its picturesque details encourages our eyes. He trains our gaze by means of the strangeness of the Kings, the determination and persistence of their journey, their exotic dress, their laden beasts, and their rich and symbolic gifts. What might this one be who is the desire of the nations? We are taught by the desire of the Magi to value the one who lies in the manger. He acquires worth, and splendour through their eyes. And that is part of what the Feast gives us: models for our desire, for our adoration. With each gift we are being offered a way of shifting the weight of our heart in an unaccustomed direction. When the magi offer him Gold, which indicates a King, our eyes are invited to lessen the tribute we offer to the power structures to which we belong and on which we depend; when they offer him Frankincense, which indicates a Priest, we are invited to tiptoe out from under the delusions of our sacred canopies, to be drawn into the jagged-edged sacrifice of Presence this Priest will carry out; and when they offer him Myrrh, which indicates a Prophet’s death, the Magi invite our hearts to lighten as death loses its hold over our drives and desires.
These however, are not the only eyes which are looking. For the Magi have come into the presence of the face, which is the radiance of the Lord. And the face, that of an infant, looks also. When it is not too tired. And when the face is not screwed up with tears. In truth it is learning how to look. The radiance is in the face which is learning to receive the adult clues which will enable it to recognise, remember, identify body parts. It is undergoing the precocious working through of images and sensations which over time will socialize it, make it viable, responsive, subtle. Who could ever have imagined that “May He make his face to shine upon you” would one day be realised in an infant struggling with focus?
Our paintings capture a moment, so the face of the baby is backed up by an aura, a halo. But will the Magi have seen a halo? Will anyone have noticed anything slightly shining about their faces, upon which the Radiance has shone? Myself, as a modern, I doubt it. I imagine the reality of the halo as a radiance which dawned over time in the life of the Magi as in the life of all those who allow themselves to be looked at. As their gifts signify, the Presence who has come in will learn his way into being a project towards us. His whole living out of that project will become the radiant face which shines. He will learn to look at us with the eyes of a king, and he will learn to look at us with the eyes of a priest, and he will learn to look at us with the eyes of a prophet. And our world will be relativized by those eyes. And we will sit in his regard and become radiant as he guides us into the way of peace.
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