Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Christmas, Part II

Christmas ended last night. Today, January 6, is Epiphany, the day we remember the wise men finally arriving at Christ's home, probably when he was two or three years old. It is Matthew who tells us their story.

The Christmas thoughts I posted in both '07 and '08 are as much Epiphany thoughts as they are Christmas thoughts, reflecting on the fact that Christ brings together as equals before Him the poorest of shepherds and the richest astrologers, then asserted His own royal power by disobeying a corrupt earthly king and fleeing to Egypt. (Oddly enough, we observed the Fest of the Holy Innocents on Dec. 28 even though it occured after today's Epiphany - figure that one out.)

Another fact of Epiphany, one that I learned of just this year from my mom, further proves Christ's power as our true king, a king who calls us to stand up to the oppression and arrogance of earthly rulers. It turns out that frakincense and myrrh weren't just embalming fluids forshadowing Christ's death. Gold was a symbol of royalty, sitting atop a king's head; frankincense was used in the temple, where only the High Priest could go; and myrrh annointed the foreheads of prophets, blessing their words. Some believed the Messiah would be a king, others a prophet, and others a priest; the gifts of the wise men declared that in Jesus of Nazareth, they had found all three.

The Magi had surely read Moses' promise of the coming Prophet (Deuteronomy 18:15), as well as David's promise of the coming Priest (Psalm 110:4), and Daniel's promise of the coming King (Daniel 9:24-27), and when they saw Him, they fell down and worshipped Him, presenting Him with the three most fitting gifts of worship which the world contained.

One thing that I don’t like about Epiphany is our penchant for embellishment. Just like at Christmas, we feel compelled to fill in the details. Matthew does not say that the Magi were kings, he does not give their names, and he does not tell us how many their were – and yet, tradition dictates that they were three kings from if not the Orient than three different continents, named Caspar, Melchior, and Balthazar. I think when we turn the simple story into a spectacular story and read things into Scripture that are not there, we take away the true power of the tale. If we needed more details, Matthew would have given us more details. What we need is the bread of life, and in the brevity of the Christmas and Epiphany stories, that is what we find.

If it weren't for all the beautiful Christmas music, Epiphany’s power could fast turn it into my favorite holy day. Here then is a medley of one song that is Epiphany’s and one that sounds like Epiphany’s:

Alleluia, alleluia indeed.


Cany said...

Sometimes, as you so rightly point out, embelishment is appropriate and sometimes not.

What made me smile, though, were your mom's observations.

Why? Because if one take the Bible in a literal fashion it can say much or little and if then embellished, it might make sweet to sour.

If one looks, on the other hand, for the meanings and importance of the times one can get a far better grasp.

I remember looking up in a book I had the various Biblical references to lamp under the bed, lampstand, etc. What I learned was rather fascinating given the times.

During the time of Christ, most people built little shelves into their walls to sit their lamps on. These were the common/poor. The wealthy and perhaps what we might term today as being the upper middleclass had actual lamp STANDS!

In various Bible translations, you will almost always see lamp stand.

So, what does that seem to suggest? That whomever wrote, transcribed, edited or whatever the section wrote to THEIR standard OR the person speaking the words was not speaking to the poor, but the upper middle/or wealthy folks.

What really gripes me in oh so many ways is when people today use a word found in the Bible by the current dictionary meaning and it happens ALL THE TIME!

Not only may that one individual word mean something completely different in the context of the time (not to mention improper translation), the entire bunch of words might mean something completely different! Think about the word foreigner, for instance.

So... since I cannot know all things,
what I have come to embrace is:

1) If anyone claims to understand ANY part of the Bible definitively (you know, the "this is what they meant" act), listen, but don't necessarily file away. The fact is they don't KNOW what "they" meant unless they were there. Everyone makes guesses, some better than others and some with far more scholastic and theological currency than others.

2. If the Disciples didn't get the stories of their times (as Christ apparently often sighed), what makes ME so special to think I would, almost 2000 years later? That is why on any Sunday, everyone has a different take on the same section... which is WAY more interesting that a dogma that insists on one particular view. Language meanings in 100 years can and does change drastically!

3. The fun part, though, is trying oneself to get to the bottom of it in a way that elucidates. That is exactly what your mom did, and I just love it!

You obviously have a great mom!

Nathan Empsall said...

Cany, thank you for this wonderful reflection! Yes, I'm rather rabid about historical context myself. The fundamentalist approach of just picking up a Bible, reading, and assuming you know what it says really bothers me. I probably picked up my ways from my mother, an EfM graduate and mentor currently discerning the permanent diaconate. Thanks to her, I've known the names "Walter Wink" and "Marcus Borg" since early middle school!