Photo credit: Inbal Malca
Readings: Isaiah 60:1-6, Matthew 2:1-13, Secrets of Heaven #9293 (see below)
Sorry, my friends, we are not going to escape Herod this week either. Today we explore our first glimpse of Herod in the gospel of Matthew: his interaction with the Magi. Although the gospel narrative makes it seem like the Magi showed up right away, it is more likely that several months have passed, at the very least, since Jesus’ birth. It would take a fairly long time for a caravan of travelers to make their way from the far east. Mary and Joseph and the baby would have settled into a routine, and a quiet life. But, it was not to remain so.
We explored last week how Herod is representative of the evil that exists in our world today. The type of spirit that would do anything to preserve power, the type of spirit that is afraid of necessary change, the type of spirit that can only see the primacy of the self. And this type of spirit can be found in actions both overt and covert, conscious and unconscious; it can find its way into social systems and structures that we depend upon and value. The resulting slaughter of the innocents that sprang forth from Herod’s paranoia and selfishness calls us to examine our own responsibility for the ways in which the vulnerable suffer in our world.
The Magi, though, represent to us a wholly different kind of spirit. The Magi were from a different nation and a different religion from Jesus. They were mostly likely devotees of Zoroastrianism. Yet they practiced an openness to learning new things, a willingness to move themselves from one place to another, a readiness to bow down to something greater than themselves. They could worship in a way that Herod never could. We can also see this spirit in the world if we look for it: movements and institutions that look toward the greater good, that delight in learning from those who are different and that understand our futures are bound up in each other’s well-being.
But of course, this wouldn’t be a Swedenborgian sermon if I didn’t also point out that Herod and the Magi additionally represent impulses and desires within each human heart. They are not just out there (in the world) but in here (within our hearts). They represent the ever-present potential of our freedom, the spectrum of choices that are available to human beings in their everyday. And as we stand here in the baby-days of a new year and a new decade…it is a great time to consider what kind of spirit we wish to cultivate.
Because, the conflict between Herod and the Magi goes beyond just being a nice story. It tells us the truth about what kind of responses there are to divine love being born in the world. Epiphany used to be one of the three main Christian holy days, before Christmas rose in popularity, and it was a celebration of the revelation of the incarnation. Not just the *fact* of the birth of Jesus but the *truth* of what that birth communicates. The truth that Divine Love reached out to a beloved world and a beloved people, but that this reaching out is going to change us and by extension, change the world we live in.
What is our reaction to this truth? Do we evade, conspire, defend, rage, and destroy, like Herod? Or do we rise up, do we commit to a journey, no matter how long or dangerous, do we seek with curiosity and humility, do we bow down and worship? Do we bow down and worship Divine Love and Wisdom in the whole of our life, in every relationship and interaction that we will ever have? Wow, that is a lot to ask. There isn’t a corner of our life the won’t need to journey further than we have ever journeyed, that won’t be asked to bow lower than we thought was possible. In a sense, Christmas is passive; we focus on the gift that is given to us. Epiphany is active and focuses on the journey we will make and the gifts we will give to God and others.
Our Swedenborg reading today talked about what the gifts of the Magi mean:
“For gifts which were offered to Jehovah meant the kinds of things that are offered to the Lord by a person from the heart…for deeds are nothing other than witness-bearers to such things as compose the will.”
The different gifts from the Magi represent different ways to give and receive love, different kinds of action we can take, different ways that each of us bear witness to the truth of the incarnation and bow down before the Lord. What were these gifts exactly and what do they mean?(1)
First, myrrh is a kind of resin from a tree that was used as an ingredient in perfume and medicines and also in embalming. In the Swedenborgian worldview, myrrh represents natural or earthly goodness, from both natural actions and natural motivations. Now, earthly or natural doesn’t necessarily mean bad. Natural needs are very very important. Basic dignity, basic comfort, basic safety, basic emotional support/community/resources are all integral to human well-being, and each person’s ability about to live up to their potential. So, giving a myrrh-kind-of-gift might mean giving money, giving food, giving clothing, giving shelter, providing community or resources. And a myrrh-kind of motivation would doing something because we have been taught that it is the right thing to do.
Now, frankincense is a similar kind of resin to myrrh, with similar applications, and was most especially used for incense. It represents what Swedenborg called spiritual goodness, from both spiritual actions and spiritual motivations. By spiritual he didn’t mean actions that somehow come from a different realm, but rather, actions and motivations that have an internal aspect to them, more than one level. These kinds of actions that are led by the thinking mind, they work to figure out a problem and fix it, to provide for natural needs but more widely, more sustainably, with more efficacy. These actions take into account psychology, sociology, systems thinking and context. The frankincense-kind-of-giving might ask “how can I help?” and then really listen to the answer. And a frankincense-kind-of-motivation would be doing something because it makes sense, and our mind tells us it is the right thing to do.
And finally, we all know what gold is: a precious and beautiful metal, characterized by both its rarity and its malleability. Gold represents celestial goodness, which is characterized by actions led by the heart in wisdom. Swedenborg talks about the nature of the highest angels and calls them celestial. The quality of their natures are such that the wisdom of love is so written on their hearts that their actions are spontaneous and do not require an intellectual justification. They just do it. When someone is suffering, they give presence and care. When someone suffers an indignity, they provide justice. When someone had a need, they fulfill it. Why? Because each human being is an image of God, and to exist fully in the reality of this notion is to exist fully within the practice of mutual love. The gold-kind-of-motivation is doing something because our heart tells us it is the right thing to do.
Many of the gifts that can be given will look the same on all three levels. This is not a hierarchy of giving, saying that gold is better than frankincense and frankincense is better than myrrh. Rather, it is an acknowledgment that human beings exist on multiple levels: earthly, emotional, intellectual, spiritual, and so giving always exists on all of those levels as well. But which is it, we may ask. Do the gifts of the Magi represent things we do or how we do them? The gift itself or the approach to giving? It is, of course, both, because the giving itself is a journey. The giving itself is a process, affecting both giver and receiver, and moving them forward in their own spiritual transformations.
And this is why we can’t forget the other gift in the story: the star.
The star is knowledge learned from heaven and God(2), knowledge learned from something beyond us, knowledge that draws us forward, knowledge that guides us up and out of our own self-obsession, our own sense of rightness and privilege. It is important to remember that the Magi journeyed. Far. They rose up out of their own context and traveled to another, not knowing exactly what they would find, led by a star, led only by their belief that this star would teach them something. Herod, of course, could not see the star. The Herod-spirit refuses to look to anything but the primacy of the self. Such a spirit will never take the risk of journeying, of not knowing the answer, and of putting aside outward strength and perceived rightness.
And so, as we consider what Epiphany calls us to, as we consider how we want to live our lives and how we wish bow down before the Lord and give of our own resources, spirit and love, we must remember to be guided by the star. The Magi did not give because it served them. The baby Jesus was not going to remember what they gave and why. We all know that babies prefer the boxes the gifts came in to the gifts themselves. They gave because that is what journeying to find the Lord requires; the journey was the gift, the gold frankincense and myrrh were the natural culmination of the journeying.
Neither did the Magi give out of their own comfort. The Magi didn’t send gifts, they brought them, they journeyed out of their own self-conception to see what Divine Love had wrought, and then they bowed down to what they found, not to their own idea of what it would be.
We all, at different times, will be led in different ways, just like the Magi. Sometimes the myrrh-star will lead us in an earthly way, and we will take care of someones’s natural needs…that’s good, keep on going. Sometimes the frankincense-star will lead our minds in an intellectual way, and bring us around to a new perspective of some kind, a new insight might give us a new way to serve….that’s good, keep on going. Sometimes the gold-star will lead our hearts, and we will be touched and moved by love, dignity and solidarity…that’s good, keep on going! Keep on journeying, Magi-friends!
In the simplest of ways, when we give to another, we give to the Lord. And we get to choose to enact our nativity scene each day, even after it comes down from the mantle after Christmas. But rather than a static scene, it is truly a dynamic one. Perhaps this time, in my own home, I will keep the Magi out all year long and have them journey around my living spaces, as a reminder that the birth of divine love bids us move, and that the journey itself is the gift.
Arise, shine, your light has come, and the glory of the Lord rises upon you.
(1) Emmanuel Swedenborg, Secrets of Heaven #4262 and Apocalypse Revealed #277
(2) Emmanuel Swedenborg, True Christianity #205
1 “Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the LORD rises upon you. 2 See, darkness covers the earth and thick darkness is over the peoples, but the LORD rises upon you and his glory appears over you. 3 Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn. 4 “Lift up your eyes and look about you: All assemble and come to you; your sons come from afar, and your daughters are carried on the hip. 5 Then you will look and be radiant, your heart will throb and swell with joy; the wealth on the seas will be brought to you, to you the riches of the nations will come. 6 Herds of camels will cover your land, young camels of Midian and Ephah. And all from Sheba will come, bearing gold and incense and proclaiming the praise of the LORD.
1 After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem 2 and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” 3 When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. 4 When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born. 5 “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written: 6 “ ‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you will come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.’ ” 7 Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. 8 He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.” 9 After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. 11 On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. 12 And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.
Secrets of Heaven #9293
…For gifts which were offered to Jehovah meant the kinds of things that are offered to the Lord by a person from the heart and are accepted by the Lord. The situation with those gifts is as it is with all a person's deeds. A person's deeds are merely acts performed by the body, and when regarded in isolation from their will are no more than variously regulated, so to speak articulated movements, not unlike the movements of a machine, and so are lifeless. But deeds regarded together with the will are not like those movements. Rather they are outward expressions of the will displayed before the eyes, for deeds are nothing other than witness-bearers to such things as compose the will. They also derive their soul or life from the will…. So it is that by 'gifts' offered to Jehovah, that is, to the Lord, such things as are present in the will or the heart are meant, 'the heart' being what the Word calls a person's will…