Matthew 2:1-12

this is how the light gets in

January 6, 2013 Epiphany of the Lord

I have a GPS in my car. I depend on it in ways that often drive my family crazy. It will take me on routes that seem obviously crazy out-0f-the way, yet I follow the advice. Of the many things we can say about the strange Magi coming from the East, it’s most certain they didn’t have a GPS to guide them. If one were in a jolly mood, you could say they had the ultimate GPS guiding them: The Creator of the Stars at Night. They fixed their eyes upon the shining Light and were on their way with utter confidence and conviction. The Magi – whom most scholars believe were the first non-Jews to honor the Christ child – came from Persia, Babylon or Arabia; what we know now as Iran, Iraq and Saudi Arabia.  To this day, for Christians in the East the day of Epiphany is much more significant that our Christmas day.

We don’t know much about these gift-bearing visitors and they have something of a cameo appearance in Matthew’s gospel, but art, literature and music have grown around them over the generations – from the opera Amahl and Night Visitors to the O. Henry’s short story The Gift of the Magi to TS Eliot’s long poem, “Journey of the Magi”. Even Garrison Keillor opines about the Magi suggesting in his wonderful way that they must have been early Lutherans, “They may been Lutherans because they brought myrrh, which everyone knows is a sort of casserole made from hamburger and macaroni.” Before they departed on their long journey, says Keillor, the wife of one of the Magi probably said: “Here, take this myrrh. They’ll be hungry. And make sure you bring back the dish.” (Christian Century, December 26,  2012)

I trust you realize by now that I am taking this story precisely as a story whose historical details are fuzzy and not the main point, either for me or for Matthew. Which is not to say that the story isn’t true; it’s true in the way that poems, and novels and short stories render the truth that can be rendered in no other way. The purpose of the gospel writers is to help us know the significance of what has occurred in the coming of God in the flesh. We have to keep this always in mind: the season of Epiphany is about the Light that has come into the world for all people. Who is this Light who threatens the rulers of this world? How do we live in response to him? For Matthew that means right here at the beginning we see the fulfillment of the promise of what was foretold by the prophet Micah about the little town of Bethlehem, from which shall come the Prince of Peace.
It’s not insignificant that the Magi come from the East bearing gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh; it’s not the gifts they bring as much as what they represent in the wide reach of the Good News. From the beginning this child shall shatters the barriers that exclude, opening wide the doors to all people, even those outside the bounds of established religion. We should take note of this boundary-breaking child whom outsiders adore on bended knee when we consider how we proclaim the message of Christ to our neighbors. One never quite knows who will hear that message and follow the light to the table of the Lord.

We don’t know the significance of the gifts each brings although legend has its opinions. What we can say is that the gifts each brings cannot match the gift of God, who after all has given us the child in whom the whole world finds life eternal. Who can match that gift?  One might end the story there, with the knowledge that you can never match what God alone gives, so why bother? Yet, the wise men teach us that there is actually something we can do in response to what God has done. They followed the Light that led them to the Light.

I think this is what we can learn from the response of the Magi. As we enter now into a new year – always filled with resolve to take a new step, do a new thing, take the next right step and so on. This is an opportunity to respond, in some way, to the Light that has come into the world.

Over the holidays I heard a review of a new biography of the singer song writer Leonard Cohen. In one of his more famous songs – Anthem – he said:

“ring the bells that still can ring

forget your perfect offering

there is a crack in everything

that’s how the light gets in.”

This is not a summons to perfection – your perfect offering can never match the offering of God’s own self – it’s an invitation to let that go of perfection and the guilt that accompanies it. Perfection is the rock upon which all resolutions are smashed. This is an invitation to a more simple honest life that acknowledges there is a crack in everything. These cracks our lives need not be only the occasion for cover up, guilt and shame. What if the quest for perfection – to fix the cracks – is the very thing that keeps you from perceiving the light of Christ, and in turn, allowing that very light to shine through your ordinary self whom God loves?

The only offering we have is our lives as we are: flawed and fallen, cracked and imperfect – yet, to us, flawed and fallen humanity, God in astonishing love came as a Child. This is the Light that guides our way.

Is this the year you open yourself to be a very ordinary cracked vessel through whom the Light shines? The story of the wise men teaches us to follow the Light that has shined upon us – to share the gifts we have been given – and let the light shine through us.

Forget your perfect offering

There is a crack in everything

That’s how the light gets in