A friend of mine who likes putting 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! They offered the Christ Child gold, frankincense (a perfumed resin used in religious ritual) and myrrh (a spice used in the embalming of the dead). We do not know how many magi or wise men there were, what their nationalities may have been; only that they were from the east. Most scholars speculate they may have come from Arabia, Iran or Mesopotamia. We do not know their religion. Were they Zoroastrian priests or indigenous shamans? It is 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, they were looking for the Jewish Messiah (not theirs), whose star they came upon in the course of their normal research of the heavens and related myths.
We also do not know what they expected to find at the end of their expedition–a child in a palace attended by courtly servants or a member of a priestly caste surrounded by temple priest. Whatever the magi may have expected, what they found was a vulnerable family with a tender child who was an enemy of the state and the object of political intrigue. But the magi evidently dismissed any disappointments they may have had and acted with adoration and compassionate care. And I believe by their symbolic gifts they were also offering a prayer from whatever their religious tradition or experience may have been. A prayer that this child might have sufficient material resources for living, spiritual strength for fulfilling his destiny and, finally, that the hour of his dying might be experienced and remembered with dignity. They did their part in contributing to this prayer by offering what they had to him: sharing their gold, their frankincense (the sacred symbols of their faith) and their precious stash of myrrh (a treasure of dignity for dying). Perhaps their greatest gift was compassionate accord not to participate in Herod’s evil scheme to locate and destroy the infant. In this sense the story of the magi 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 [intrigue] of the world” (1:27). I believe that to be truly a person of faith in the new millennium, Christian or otherwise, is to be truly someone showing God’s compassion–not just for the world in general but for one another specifically.
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, what I see is a powerful moment of peace and mutual respect between religions. Therefore, I deeply believe the story of the magi must mean more to us than the submission of other religions to ours. Rather it is also a call to remember that there can be–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. Technologies and politicos will come and go, but it is the human spirit that truly shapes the destiny of humanities future.
In the new millennium we must find ways to exercise the integrity of our religion, not necessarily having agreement nor revelations or disregarding fundamental differences in our convictions and practices, while growing to respect the hope for peace and goodwill in all true religion. For as Martin Luther King, Jr., said, “Either we will learn to live together as brothers and sister, or perish together as fools.” To know this truth, we need only look at the effect of religious intolerance in this past millennium, specifically the latter half of this century. When religions do not work together out of the truest heart of the integrity of their revelation we get Nazism, fascism, communism, apartheid, Jim Crowism. But when Christian people risk to work with other people of goodwill–religious and secular–systems of oppression fall, freedom finds new expression and the resources of society benefit all its people.
I am a Christian. Jesus is my Lord! I live to invite others to see the beauty of my faith: for me the source of my salvation, the spiritual root of hope for forgiveness and life everlasting.
I also believe in the Great Commission–Matthew 28:19, 20–to go into all the world with the gospel of Jesus Christ. But it is the message of my life, revealing the spirit of Christ as loving and sharing, reaching out for reconciliation and working for justice, that will inspire the world. It is not necessarily my dogma or doctrine of Christ that will change others and contribute to peace in the world. And because it is God’s Spirit, which Christ revealed, only God determines where, how and through whom glimmers of that spirit will be revealed.
As a Christian–individually and collectively–we must see ourselves as contributors, as gift bearers, to the world “God so loved” and not simply as doctrinal dominators of the world God so loved. Speaking of God loving the world, it is important to remember that to love is to be a dreamer and God’s as lover of the world has a dream for the world. That dream is “Shalom.” The biblical meaning of Shalom is not just peace but personal well-being and completeness of community–i.e., that a way is found that everyone is included into the well-being of the community, including the poor, sick, the social outcast, the stranger and immigrant (whatever their culture, religion). Yes, I believe that in this new millennium the power of our Christian witness will not be rational persuasion but rather how we faithfully serve and offer our gifts for a peaceful society. Jesus taught (Matt. 28:31—46) that we will be judged by how we treat the least–the infant, the homeless, the stranger, the one different from ourselves. We will be judged by our commitment to justice and peace, not our dogma, ritual and rhetoric.
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 Desmond Tutu, the Dalai Lama, Mother Teresa, Elie Wiesel, Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Ghandi, Martin Luther King, Jr.? Who more portrayed or portrays the Spirit of Christ, the dream of God. Whose life more portrayed holding justice and love in a creative tension that proclaims equity and dignity for everyone?
Few religious leaders of the great faiths deny that no one has shown us the way to God’s dream for humanity more brilliantly than Jesus. But I also believe that wherever we see or experience people pointing the way to this dream we must acknowledge and honor that they, too, are working in the same Spirit we discover in Christ. The spirit of Christ is present where God wills it to be–any person with an open heart to God and a true commitment to goodwill for all.
In this regard I am always moved by those poignant questions in the Baptismal Covenant on page 305 of the Book of Common Prayer. “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 the new millennium. We must expand the sense of who is in God’s family beyond our own religious identities. And remember that those “from the east” also can bear gifts that can 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 know this is a difficult challenge for us as Christians, whatever our tradition or denomination. This is especially true given the fact that many Christian traditions doubt the spiritual integrity of other Christian traditions. I think of the story in which a Pentecostal evangelist and an Episcopal priest were debating about whose way of worshiping was truest to the plan of God. The Episcopalian finally said, “Well, the important thing is that we are each worshiping God.” The Evangelist replied, “Yes, you in your way and I in God’s way.” Yes, loving and respecting one another is hard work.
I have been saying “loving and respecting because” in Greek there are many terms for love. But the biblical Greek references to “God’s love,” the love to which God calls us, can be best translated in English as respect. If there is to be hope for world peace, if we are to address the problems of violence, poverty, bigotry in our communities, there must be respect for the gifts we all offer. For the lack of respect is never the basis for cooperation but rather certainly the root of hate and conflict. St. John wrote in his first epistle (4:20): “Those who say, ‘I love God,’ and hate their brother or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen…. Those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.”
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 Islamic Jehad, Arab terrorist, radical orthodox Jews, Indian Hindus who kill Christian Missionaries?” But if these are the measure of other faiths, then we must apply the same standard to Christian radicals who bomb abortion clinics, Christian conservatives who preach that homosexuals should be put to death, or radical Christian who practice genocide in Croatia, or America’s white supremacist Christian movements. None of these is the true measure of Christianity any more than hateful radicals are not the measure of others great faiths.
But only together can we stand against the abuses of religion. Only together can we find a global ethic against poverty, illiteracy and depletion of the earth. Only together will we find a spiritual basis and network that can contribute to the ever so fragile task of peace. Yes, we must honor our religious differences but not allow them to get in the way of God’s dream for the world. This is hard work but essential work–perhaps the most essential work of religion in the new millennium.
In this new millennium we must all bring our gifts to the infant of peace. Gifts offered by all people of goodwill, committed to a just and peaceful society and world. Jesus said, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” And indeed, those who work for the vision of peace they shall be called “children of God” whether they name God Adonai, Allah, Great Spirit, Abba Father, Jehovah. Remember, peace as the welfare of the entire community comes not simply by religious piety but by putting our faith into action to bring justice, truth and reconciliation. We cannot eradicate bigotry, poverty, illiteracy, lack of adequate health care, homelessness by piety alone. We can not eradicate HIV/AIDS and the social pain that accompanies it with our piety alone. It will take sharing our treasures–our talents, time, money and socio-political influence upon public policy and the inspiration of our faith–to realize God’s shalom.
Over twenty years ago, John T. Walker, Episcopal bishop of Washington and dean of this Cathedral, 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 and (where possible) respect religious differences; and to build and sustain community cooperation. Every year they host a great concert offering performing religious arts from each tradition. Bishop Walker chose a young Presbyterian minister, Dr. Clark Lobenstine, as its director, and he continues today to lead its greatly expanded ministry.
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 Christian Cathedral I heard a Muslim Imam chant the call to worship, watched Hindi dancers, Jewish cantors, Sheik instrumentalists and hymn singers, a Vietnamese Roman Catholic choir sing and dance, and a black Baptist choir with drums, and gospel music, Buddhist chant, Krishna dancers. I must admit it was all very strange to me. How could I, a Christian, accept this?
At the end of the concert they all came together as one choir. More than 200 voices: turbans of many colors, saffron robes, Kinte cloth robes, beards, painted faces. And in a great harmonious chorus they sang:
Joyful, joyful, we adore thee,
God of glory, Lord of Love;
hearts unfold like flowers before thee
praising thee their sun above.
I was filled with tears, overwhelmed with a peace I had not known before. Like the magi they were all offering their gift to the vision of peace. They continued singing:
Thou art giving and forgiving,
ever blessing ever blest.
Well-spring of the joy of living,
ocean depth of happy rest.
Thou our Father, Christ our Brother;
All who live in love are thine:
Teach us how to love each other,
lift us to the joy divine.
It was then I heard the voice of God say to me, “Nathan, whatever your view of heaven may be, this is my dream.” Amen.