The older I get, the more I love art museums. A few years ago a clergy group I was taking part in did a get-to-know-you exercise. We were asked to complete the sentence, “I never saw a blank I didn’t like.” I had to go first, so I said, “museum.” As we went around the room, everyone else said something really pious like “church” or “icon” or “sacrament” or “book of the Bible.” It didn’t take long to figure out who was the secular humanist in the room.
One of the delights of living in Washington is its museums. When I have a day off, you can usually find me at one of them. And one of my very favorite paintings hangs in the National Gallery of Art here in Washington. When you walk down the hallways of the first floor there, you can’t help but see it. It’s a huge circular painting, called in Italian a tondo, and it rests inside an ornate gold-painted frame: Fra Angelico’s and Fra Filippo Lippi’s 15th century depiction of The Adoration of the Magi. It pictures the event we celebrate today, the feast of the Epiphany. On this day, we hear the story, told in Matthew’s Gospel, that tells us how wise men came from the east bearing symbolic gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh to the cradle of the infant Jesus.
When you go to the National Gallery, I hope you will stop and look at this remarkable painting. What arrests me most about The Adoration of the Magi is the startling profusion of human beings who come to adore the infant Jesus. They seem to be streaming in from all over the place. But standing atop a wall apart from the crowds is a line of five pale men wearing loincloths. These men are emaciated and gaunt. Yet they raise their hands in a gesture of astonishment and praise. That they are nearly naked suggests that they are probably beggars. That their skin is so whitishly pale suggests that they are lepers. Whoever they are, they are cut off from the rest of the people, therefore excluded from society. Yet as lonely and miserable as they must be, they cannot help but be caught up in the joy of the moment. As do the Magi and the crowd around them, these leprous paupers look toward the infant Jesus with expectation and respond to him with praise.
One of the ways to understand the Epiphany is to listen to what the writer of the letter to the Ephesians tells us this morning. He suggests that, in Jesus, something previously hidden is now being revealed. As he says,
In former generations this mystery was not made known to humankind, as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit: that is, the Gentiles have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel. [Ephesians 3: 5-6]
In other words: there are no longer any insiders or outsiders. Even Gentiles can become Christians! In the life and ministry and death and resurrection of Jesus, a divine mystery is being worked out. The categories “Jew” and “Gentile” no longer make any sense. The human family and its divisions are being healed. We are, all of us, on a path from our separate places into a new way of being.
The Magi’s pilgrimage reminds us how important journeys are in the life of faith. In the earliest days of the Jesus movement, the group simply called itself hodos, the Way. (See Acts 9.2) In Greek, hodos means “way” in the sense of a travelled way, a road. But like all words, hodos soon took on metaphorical connotations. Just as today we talk of the “spiritual path or journey,” so then “The Way” meant a faith process, a course of conduct, a manner of thinking or feeling or acting or deciding. In the very earliest days Christians got it right: they thought of themselves not as a religious system but as a group of people on a shared journey, a path with ethical and spiritual and behavioral implications.
So here we have the confluence of a couple of ideas. One of them is represented in the Fra Angelico/Fra Lippo Lippi painting: the whole human community—from oriental potentates to leprous beggars and everybody in between—joins in praise of the one born in the stable. The second involves our talk of ways and roads and paths and journeys. The whole world is drawn to this human manifestation of what God is up to. And they respond not with a doctrine but with a pilgrimage. Taken together, they lead me to say—and this may sound strange at first—that Christianity is not a religion. It is a Way; it is a mode of being toward the world, toward others, toward God.
“Christianity is not a religion?” says the preacher. If Christianity (and Islam and Buddhism and Judaism) are not religions, what are they?
Well, what do we mean by the word, “religion”? I think what we mean these days by “religion” is a set of propositions about the universe to which its adherents assent. That’s the way we use the term, but it is a very recent notion. In a Fresh Air interview a few years ago, Terry Gross asked the writer Karen Armstrong, “what do you think religion is for?” Here is how Armstrong answered:
Religion is about helping us to deal with the sorrow that we see in life, helping us to find meaning in life, and helping us to live in relation to … transcendence. … Religious people are ambitious. They want to feel enhanced. They want to feel at peace within themselves. They want to live generous lives. They want to live beyond selfishness, beyond ego.
For Karen Armstrong, who lived a good part of her life in a monastic community, the life of faith is about living in a new way—a way that involves not only self-awareness but making common cause with others. Here’s how she concludes:
All the world religions say that the way to find what we call God or Brahman, Nirvana, or Tao is to get beyond the prism of egotism, of selfishness which holds us in a little deadlock and limits our vision. That if we can get beyond that, especially in the practice of compassion, when we dethrone ourselves from the center of our world and put another there, we live much more richly and intensely. [Fresh Air 9/21/09]
As I think about The Adoration of the Magi in the National Gallery and what it represents, as I think about the Letter to the Ephesians and its declaration that we’re in the middle of a great mystery working itself out, as I think about those Magi making their way to Bethlehem from the east surrounded at the stable by the fullness of the human community, I believe something big and hopeful and universal and deep is going on here. God is bringing together categories of people you normally wouldn’t mention in the same breath. And in bringing people together beyond category, God is destroying the idea of all human categories, forever. To say that we are all one in Christ is neither aspirationally sentimental nor triumphalistically arrogant. To say that we are all one in Christ transcends all ideas of race or ethnicity or sexual orientation or gender or class. To say that we are all one in Christ transcends even the idea of religion. It’s not just us Christians who are all one. It is everybody.
Following Jesus is not about getting it right. Being in relationship with God is not about others being damned so that I can be saved. Living the life of faith is not about one exclusivistic way to be holy. All of us—the Magi, the lepers, the Gentiles, the Jews, those who have followed Jesus from the earliest days, those who don’t know Jesus at all yet—are on a journey. So are the countless women and children and men from other cultures who follow different teachers. As followers of Jesus, the crucial issues for us are the same issues that people everywhere in the world have to confront. In Karen Armstrong’s words, “Religion is about helping us to deal with the sorrow that we see in life, helping us to find meaning in life, and helping us to live in relation to … transcendence.” It’s about dethroning ourselves from the center of our worlds and engaging in practices of generosity and compassion as the cosmic mystery unfolds.
Today is the Epiphany. On this day when we proclaim and enjoy the manifestation of God’s glory in Jesus, let us, like the Magi, commit ourselves to being his companions. The Way that Jesus walked is the way of hope and blessing and peace. If you are anxious or nervous or depressed or grieving or sick; if you are enraged about the persistence of violence and suffering in the world; if you are eager for a life of abundance and peace: join the Magi and the disciples and your brother and sister Christians and make common cause with your fellow Buddhists and Hindus and Muslims and Jews to take on practices of generosity and compassion. We don’t think our way into holiness. We take up holy practices and discover that the big mystery works itself out in us over time.
The Wise Men and lepers and crowds who make their way to Bethlehem remind us that Christianity is not a religion and that salvation is not about who wins and who loses. Like all great faith traditions, Christianity is a way. It is my way. It is our way. It is a call into prayer and action. But there are other ways, too, and our job is to walk with others in the shared direction of God’s future. God is up to something big, something bigger even than religion itself. The Magi pursued it and so can you. As we walk that road with the Magi and with Jesus, you and I can become wise people, too. Amen.