Maintaining a sense of awe

Maintaining a sense of awe and wonder

Maintaining a sense of awe and wonder

Epiphany 2013

Matthew 2:1-12

 

Marian Free

 

Holy God, open our hearts to the wonder that surrounds us – especially that which reveals your presence. Amen.

I don’t know what your experience was, but I clearly remember the day on which I became aware that science had destroyed my innocence – the day I knew things which changed forever the way in which I looked at the world.  I guess that I was about nine years old. I was lying on my back under a frangipani tree. As I looked up at the clouds I saw – not fluffy, cotton wool creations on which angels might sit, but instead floating masses of water which would not hold even the smallest of celestial beings. In that moment I knew, all the magic of clouds had gone. My new-found knowledge meant that my view of the world had changed forever. It was no longer possible to see the world as I had once seen it.

While I obviously remember that moment with absolute clarity, I can assure you that it did not destroy my joy and wonder in creation, nor did it produce an antipathy for science which, as often as not, points me in the direction of awe and wonder not only in God’s creation, but in those good things made by our hands.

That said, I do feel a sense of regret that the church, which at first protected its members from the Enlightenment, eventually allowed itself to be caught up in a need to be both rational and scientific. Over the years much astronomical work has gone into trying to find an explanation for the star that the Magi followed. Could it the triple conjunction of planets, a combination of just two planets, a Nova or even a comet? Unlike other miracles, astronomical events can be traced with some accuracy. If we knew the exact date of Jesus’ birth or could read back into Matthew’s story the precise time at which the Magi saw the star, we could scientifically work out whether there was an actual astronomical event which caught the attention of our Magi.

Determining the nature of the “star”, finding scientific evidence for the biblical miracles, is to miss the point of the story-telling. It is clear if we read all four gospels, that none of the writers were intent on writing an historically accurate account of Jesus’ birth. If they were all four accounts would be exactly the same. By the time the evangelists were writing, there were no eyewitnesses to Jesus’ life and besides, they had a more important goal in mind. As they saw it, their task was to bring people to faith in Jesus not to write history and certainly not to write history as you and I think of history.

In the setting of the first Christian communities, the stories of Jesus played a number of roles, one of which was that of forming the identity of the emerging community, of reinforcing the idea of who they were. The stories that were repeated were the stories of faith. They recalled Jesus as people had known him, they developed an understanding of Jesus’ place in history and provided tales that were vital for the ongoing life of the church. The writers and their communities were not cross-checking references to make sure they got it right. What they were doing was trying to make sense of, not to record history. (It is only in relatively recent times that there has been a concern with the historicity and reliability of biblical stories. Prior generations accepted them as sacred stories of faith and were not overly concerned with whether or not they corresponded with actual fact.[1])

Which brings us back to the Magi, those mysterious figures who come from who knows where to offer gifts to a child whom they believe – despite his unpromising beginnings – will one day become a king. Their place in Matthew’s gospel and in the future direction of the church is vital for they represent the Gentiles – all the nations other than that of Israel, who by virtue of this birth, will through faith rather than physical descent be able to gain a place in the people of God.

In this way scripture was fulfilled. Throughout the OT there are signs that the God of the Jews could and did use others to fulfill God’s purpose, just as there are indications and even promises that no one would be excluded from God’s embrace. Abraham was promised that he would be the forebear of many nations, significant characters of the OT testament did not belong to the nation of Israel – Ruth was a Moabite, Rahab a Canaanite and Cyrus a Persian. Jonah saved the Gentile people of Nineveh. A queen from Sheba came to visit Solomon and so on. Add to this the references in the Psalms and elsewhere that the Gentiles will stream to Jerusalem. In other words it is easy to defend the notion that the OT expectation was that Judaism would not remain an exclusive group.

The reality of the early Christian community was that the Gentiles were flocking to Jesus while the Jewish people were, by and large holding back. All the gospel writers struggle to come to terms with this situation. Matthew solves the puzzle at the start by having rank outsiders become the first to identify and to worship Jesus.

It would be wonderful if both the shepherds and the magi were historically true, but what is more important is what the stories have to tell us. The shepherds place Jesus among the poor and the outcast. The account of the Magis expands Jesus’ sphere of influence beyond the confines of Israel. In that sense both accounts are true because they both reveal an essential truth about Jesus.

In our search for truth let us not abandon our sense of wonder and expectation. There are times when we may suspend out intellect and allow ourselves to be drawn into a story which in the final analysis is beyond our grasp and certainly beyond our comprehension.


[1] Johnston, Engaging the Word, 7.

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