Dean Baxter: “Honoring Gifts From the East”
In light of recent violence and terrorism at home and abroad and the anxious religious and cultural temper of our times, I am moved to speak this Christmas Eve on the topic, “Honoring Gifts From the East”. Let us pray: “May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord my strength and my redeemer.” Amen.
“…after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking ‘Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star … and have come to pay him homage.’ [ King Herod had them brought to him and asked that they find the child on his behalf so he too could pay respect.] When they saw the star had stopped they were overwhelmed with joy. ….when they saw the child they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, the offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.” [excepted from Matthew 1:1-12 NRSV]
A friend of mine who likes putting a feminist touch on things says: “If there had been three wise women instead of wise men, they would have asked directions earlier, gotten there on time, helped deliver the baby and brought useful gifts.
Useful gifts? The Wise men offered the Christ Child gold. Whether the gold was in the form of coins or jewelry or little household idols called teraphims—we do not know. But what we do know, as did they, that gold is a universal symbol of wealth. They also offered frankincense, a perfumed incense used in religious rituals; and myrrh, a precious spice used in the embalming of the dead. Now I hasten to say these are not your normal baby shower gifts. However, I see in the act of offering these gifts a compassionate prayer for this little prince of peace; a prayer we must offer for every child if this world is ever to know peace and goodwill.
And what is that prayer in the wisemen’s offerings? Gold: a prayer that this child might have sufficient material resources for living. Incense: a prayer that he might have spiritual strength for fulfilling God’s purpose in his life. And finally, a precious burial spice: a prayer that the hour of his dying might be experienced and remembered with dignity. Is this not the universal prayer offered for the world, for children and their families, by people of peace and goodwill, no matter what their religion? Although most scholars believe that the wise men came from Arabia or Iran, we do not know their nationalities or language. We do not know their religion. Were they Zoroastrian priests or indigenous shamen? It is also important to remember there is no evidence that from their visit these wise men became either Jewish converts or embraced a faith in Jesus as their own Messiah. Remember, these were learned stargazers and mythologists from the east. They were looking for the prophesied Jewish King, the royal heir, whose star they came upon in the course of their normal research of the heavens and related cultural myths. In fact the participle in Matthew’s Gospel for “paying homage” was that used for royalty rather than divinity.
And what had they expected to find at the end of their long trans-continental expedition: a child in a palace attended by courtly servants or a member of a priestly caste surrounded by temple eunuchs? Whatever the magi may have expected, what they found was a vulnerable peasant family with a tender child. A child who was an object of political intrigue, an enemy of the state; a child soon to be a political refugee in a foreign country, Egypt.
But the magi clearly dismissed any disappointments they may have had and acted with adoration and compassion through their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. But perhaps their greatest gift was the fourth gift: the gift of justice by refusal to return to King Herod and collaborate with his diabolical scheme to find and kill the child. Whatever may have been their religion, they refused to be an accomplice to evil and oppression by choosing, at great risk, not to report the child to Herod as he commanded them. This reminds me of what St. James wrote in his epistle: “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows [those most in need] in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the [evil and political intrigue of the] world” (1:27). Dear Christian brothers and sisters, I believe that the integrity of religion in the new millennium (Christian or otherwise), will not be measured by doctrinal orthodoxy, but by compassion and the spiritual courage not to be complicit with injustice, bigotry or oppression, but to stand firmly and clearly for human dignity.
Therefore, on this Christmas Eve, I deeply believe the story of the wise men must mean more to us than the submission of other religions to ours. Rather, it is also a call to remember that there must be peace and mutual respect among the great religions. For, if there is anything we have learned in the years since the birth of Christ, it is that there is no world peace without peace among the religions. Christians must lead the way—nationally and in our own local communities.
Given September 11th, I think many of us now recognize that there are times in human experience when the universal does—yes, even must—transcend the particular of religious and cultural boundaries. I believe there are circumstances—great moments in our collective and personal lives—when the transcendence of God (the God who “so loves the world” ) shines so bright in the interest of peace and goodwill that the moral and spiritual integrity of men and women of peace and goodwill are drawn together beyond their own cultural traditions and religious orthodoxy. In such moments, it should never be a question where Christians stand.
Recently a major Christian denomination sought to expel some of its clergy for participating in the interfaith service held on September 23rd in Yankee Stadium, New York City. In a ten page petition, church leaders accused them of participating in idolatry by “participating with non-Christians…” The document went on to call their participation “an egregious offence against the love of Christ” which diminished the priority of the Christian faith by giving the impression that was one among many which people can pray to God. The Pastors said that they saw the event as a “blessing, an opportunity to join other religious and civic leaders in offering comfort to a nation raw from the recent terrorist attacks.” [Washington Post, December 2, 2001]
Well, I will let you decide which behavior most truly represents the love of Christ. But personally, I believe that as never before we are mindful that we live in a global village. Therefore, we must find ways to witness to the integrity of our Christian Faith; accepting that until Christ Jesus returns, there will not be agreement on religious revelations, doctrines or practices. But, Christian integrity also means we must grow to recognize and respect that the Divine light of peace and goodwill—which we know as the light of Christ—that light can be found in people of other faiths as well. My brothers and sisters, we must do this! For as Martin Luther King, Jr., said, “Either we will learn to live together as brothers and sisters, or perish together as fools.”
To know this truth, we need only look at the effect of religious intolerance in this past century, specifically the latter half. When religions do not work together out of the truest courage and compassion of their spiritualities, we get Nazism, fascism, anti-Semitism, communism, apartheid, slavery, Jim Crowism and the tragedies of September 11th. But when Christian people risk to work with other people of peace and goodwill—religious and secular—systems of oppression fall, freedom and human dignity find new expression, and the joyous hope for peace and goodwill is again alive in the world. Just think of Poland, Eastern Germany, South Africa as examples.
Now, I am a Christian. I believe Jesus is the Son of God, the only begotten of God. Jesus is my Lord! I live to invite others to see the beauty of God through my faith. Through his death and resurrection, I have found salvation and hope for life everlasting. Intellectually, I see and hear most clearly in Jesus, God’s universal call to justice and human liberation; and through Jesus, have we come to know God as intimate and personal—as Abba, “Our Father, who art in heaven…” I also believe in the Great Commission—Matthew 28:19, 20—“go into all the world and proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ, baptizing in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.”
But if there is really compelling power in the Gospel of Jesus Christ, it is the message of my life: my life revealing the spirit of Christ’s love and compassion, his respect for the human dignity of others, his courage to stand for justice and truth. These are the witnesses that will inspire the world. These are the compelling aspects of Jesus’ earthly life which made disciples; and these must be the compelling aspects of my own life and message. The same spirit of God which was in Christ Jesus must be seen in me and you. It is not our dogma or doctrine or arguments of Christ that will change others or contribute to peace in the world. It is the Spirit of Christ in all we do.
And remember, it is God’s Spirit to which Jesus came to testify, therefore only God determines where, how and through whom glimmers of that Divine Spirit of hope and peace will be revealed. As Jesus said to Nicodemus, “The Spirit of God, like the wind, blows where it chooses….” The light of Christ shines where God wishes it to shine, bringing hope and truth. The light of God’s love and justice is most pure and radiant in Christ, but it is also present wherever we see efforts for peace and goodwill among people.
Recently, I was in Saint Paul’s Cathedral, London, one of the greatest monuments to Christianity in the world. The north transept of that enormous Cathedral is dominated by an early 20th century painting called The Light of the World by William Holman Hunt. It is the familiar depiction you have seen many times on Church bulletins and fans and other Christian literature of Christ knocking at a darkened door holding a lantern of light, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock…” (Rev. 3:20). As depicted by Hunt’s famous painting, the light from the lantern shines through the shapes in the lantern’s design, shapes which are not only Christian crosses but Muslim crescents as well. Historian Ann Saunders interprets this peculiarity, that the message of God is “for all the world, not only for those already nominally Christian.” [page 167].
Think for a moment of those who have so powerfully shown us the way to God’s vision of Shalom. Think of those whose lives have and continue to speak so powerfully to the spirit of humanity across generations, across lines of culture, language, politics, race and religion. Think of those who make us all see so vividly what the Kingdom of God’s love and justice and God’s peace is really about. Can we honestly distinguish between the Christian Desmond Tutu, the Buddhist Dalai Lama; the Christian Mother Teresa and the Hindu, Sister Dodi; the religiously eclectic Nelson Mandela or the El Salvadorean Martyr Catholic Archbishop Oscar Romero; the Hindu Mahatma Ghandhi or the Baptist Martin Luther King, Jr.? Who, I ask you, who more portrayed or portrays the light of peace, the dream of God for human dignity?
In this regard I am always moved by those poignant questions in the Baptismal Covenant on page 305 of the Book of Common Prayer. The Church asks: “Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?” “Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?” We must say “yes” more boldly and more effectively in this new millennium. Yes, dear Christians, we must expand the sense of who is in God’s family beyond our own religious identities. And we must remember that those “from the east” —Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Muslims and other peoples of faith, non-Christians—also can bear gifts that glorify God. We must grow beyond any bigotry or arrogance that keeps us from loving and respecting others as God would have us to do.
Now I am sure there are some who say, “This wise man thing is all nice, but where does anyone find the spirit of Christ in Muslims who preach Jihads and terrorism around the world, or Hindus in India who kill priests, missionaries and rape nuns? But if these are the measure of other faiths, then we must apply the same standard to Christian radicals who bomb abortion clinics, Christian who preach that homosexuals should be put to death, or America’s white supremacist Christian movements. Recently, some prominent Christian leaders have spoken publicly of other religions as “evil.” None of these is the true measure of Christianity any more than the evil of hateful radicals are the measure of others great faiths.
So, only together can we stand against the evil uses of religion. Only together can we find a global ethic against poverty, illiteracy and disease. Only together will we find a spiritual and moral basis for the ever so crucial tasks of caring for this fragile earth, our Island home. Only together can we address poverty, the sickness of children, and create a world where they can grow in safety and “study war no more.” Only together can we learn and share what is uniquely the gift God has given each community of faith for the Glory of God. Yes, we must honor our religious distinctions but we must never allow them to get in the way of God’s dream for the world.
I know this is hard work but I believe it is the most essential work that we must do in these times. For whatever the writer of the Gospel of Matthew might have intended by preserving this scene of the magi, with two devoutly Jewish parents (Mary and Joseph) and the infant Lord of Christendom, and these strangers “from the East,” what I see is a powerful moment of peace and mutual respect between religions.
Yes, the story of the Magi reminds us that in this new millennium we must all bring our gifts to the fragile infant of peace and goodwill. Jesus said, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” And indeed, those who work for the vision of peace— for understanding, for reconciliation, human dignity and justice—the peacemakers, they shall be called “children of God” whether they name for God is Adonai, Atman, Allah, Great Spirit, Jehovah, or “Our Father, who art in heaven”.
Over twenty years ago, John T. Walker, Episcopal bishop of Washington and dean of this National House of Prayer for All People, founded the Interfaith Conference of Greater Washington. It is an organization of many of leaders of the great faiths around the metropolitan area. They continue in their twenty-first year to gather monthly in task forces, lobby groups and discussion groups to address problems of our communities; to understand, share their faith experiences and beliefs; and (where possible) learn to respect religious differences. Every year this interfaith organization hosts a great concert offering performing religious arts from each tradition.
I shall never forget that in my first year as dean the concert was held in this Cathedral with almost 3,000 people in attendance. In this great Christian Cathedral I heard a Muslim Imam chant the call to worship, I watched painted Hindi dancers and listened to Jewish cantors. Then there was Sikh instrumentalist and hymn singers. As the concert continued, a Vietnamese Roman Catholic youth choir dance