In the run-up to the real date of Epiphany, not the “pastoral” alternative on the “nearest Sunday,” I am writing a multi-part essay on ruminations that have started to occupy my mind since the end of last year. Today, I will start with something that arose from reflecting upon the first of the three events that are marked traditionally at Epiphany, the visit of the wise men.
“We have seen his star rising in the East and have come to worship him.”
Being drawn by the glory of something or someone, basking in reflected glory, is a temptation to which some of us succumb. I can admit feeling some guilt about this the past year, especially with respect to someone whom I cannot name for certain sundry reasons. The line between respectful admiration and something else gets thin at times, and that is what worries me.
I do admit that being aware of the signs that this is becoming a problem is what a friend would call “over-thinking,” but I feel it is a necessary corrective. Sometimes what I say or do tends to contradict what I believe–say, that I should put all my loyalties relative to God, for example–and a bit of an examination is what is needed. The temptation here is, as was recently brought to mind in a conversation with an acquaintance, to feel a great deal of guilt. And it matters. Sometimes, we do get it wrong.
The wise men knew that the temptation to linger in the corridors of power, to flatter power with the right answers, may bear worse consequences that they needed to know. I would suppose that what they told Herod was perfectly innocent, but not without a tinge of irony. They knew, as we know, that he was not really in power, but only so because of Rome, of an Empire who had the final say on what he said and did. So to suggest that there was someone who was out to challenge Herod’s ultimately non-existent authority was indeed stunning. Herod, it is discovered, did not have the right Davidic credentials to become ruler of Israel. And sometimes the stars we follow turn out not to point the right way.
Maybe this is where the trouble starts. Whenever we exaggerate our connections, bask in reflected glory, do all these things to gain fame and notoriety, is it possible to ask whether we thus make ourselves more than who we really may be, and when the time comes, will we be exposed for it? Perhaps this is the way the world works, and perhaps there is wisdom in being as cunning as “the world” is, and there is, I suppose, a kind of pragmatism in operating that way.
Perhaps the wise men were bloody idealists who wandered around believing strange things and not knowing how to behave around power. We mask this unfortunate judgment by calling them “kings” and (incidentally) reducing what I suspect was a much larger band of brothers to “three.” (There were three kinds of gifts, not necessarily three givers; the story is not specific on the numbers.) If they were rulers themselves, surely they would know about power and protocol and going “through channels.” But no! They came forward and merely said that there was a “newborn king of the Jews” and didn’t they hear the damn herald announce who Herod is?
Bloody idealists they may have been, but they had the right idea. Herod was there to prop up a system that stood in the way of “his people” getting what they truly deserved: a chance to be truly what God called them to be–a nation whose God, whose Lord, was the Holy One, and whose only ruler was God alone. And by merely saying there was someone who just might get the trick right, because the right signs were there, was not comfortable hearing.
And so it is uncomfortable hearing for us too. If we are to see any real change in the world, perhaps it should start with the way we make relative our allegiances, our priorities, and more importantly the way we seek power, influence, and so forth. To make relative the desire for glory is meant to remind ourselves that, as the old Roman slave assigned to do so used to say to a conquering hero, holding the wreath above him:
“sic transit gloria mundi”
And after that, we are warned to go another way. More lives, and indeed more reputations, may be lost in the process. What was revealed to the nations was a new way of proceeding, of thinking about our relation with God, the world, and each other. It is no longer the way of the world, pragmatic and necessary that way sometimes may be. It is the world’s way, receiving a course correction from the same star that rose in the East.