Thoughts on epiphany

  • Sunday, January 17, 2016 1:00am
  • Neighbors

Luke gives us shepherds, the poor of the earth, to welcome the Christ Child. Matthew gives us rich men, men with access to expensive spices like myrrh and frankincense, and of course gold.

Luke gives us familiar figures in Israel, shepherds, who know their country and city well. Matthew gives us strangers, gentiles, who go to Herod for consultation.

Luke gives us unschooled laborers whose unclouded eyes are able to see choirs of angels that somehow, the rest of the world fails to notice. Matthew gives us scholars, wise men, who study the heavens and know the stars, the constellations, the comets and all the heavenly bodies. These are men who study and consult and share their knowledge.

Matthew came from a Jewish-Christian community in Antioch, in Syria. One of the major religions of that time and place was Zoroastrianism, an ancient religion that in fact influenced Christianity. According to Wikipedia, In Zoroastrianism, the purpose in life is to “be among those who renew the world…to make the world progress towards perfection”. Zoroastrian scholars studied the heavens, as did many other religions of the time. Matthew’s purpose, of course, was to demonstrate that scholars of foreign faiths recognized and honored the divine in Christ, a sign that Christ came to save the whole world, not just Jews and Christ’s own followers. In fact Christianity absorbed many principles of Zoroastrianism, Greek and Roman pagan religions, and other faiths with which it came into contact. The Christian faith has been shaped and developed by outside influences as much as we have impacted others.

Christians have traditionally believed that salvation is found only in Christ and the Church. There are Scriptural texts that support this and certainly the early church fathers and mothers taught it as well. But we know that Jesus reached out to gentile communities and people in a manner of respect and compassion. We also know that Jews, Christians and Muslims all share a core heritage as the children of Abraham. As the season of Epiphany approaches the Church would do well to recognize that Christ came to save the whole earth and that our exclusivist theologies do not promote the kingdom of peace that the prophets and Christ himself proclaimed.

Terrorism is much on our minds in this day and age. Horrible events in Paris, in San Bernardino, the memory of 9/11, and other atrocities have led us to single out Muslims as a cause of terror. The existence of ISIS, ISIL and other violent factions of Islam cannot be denied. But we also cannot deny the terrorism of Christian extremists within our own country, our historic terrorism that literally terrorized black slaves and black communities, and wiped out whole Native American communities, often in the name of God. We cannot define Islam by violence any more than we can define our own faith in the same way.

Let me share a Facebook Post by Bishop Pierre Whalon who is Bishop of the American Episcopal Churches in Europe. He speaks of a visit with Association Imam Al-Khoei Paris, a Shia mosque.

On New Year’s I was the guest of this Shia mosque, to dialogue about the love of God in Islam and Christianity, Sheikh Mohammed Hussain of Nadaj. He is a coworker with the Grand Ayatollah Sistani in that city, center of Shia Islam in the world. The Sheikh asked to visit the American Cathedral in Paris today. We had a good exchange after the service, including his condolences for the November attacks in Paris and a firm condemnation for any who perpetrate such atrocities. We spoke about the shocking execution of a senior Shia imam in Saudi Arabia yesterday. And I recognized that all the best intentions in 2003 had nevertheless brought disaster upon his country. We ended with me being invited to Najaf soon!

This is the kind of relationship building that desperately needs to continue to happen between Christians, Muslims and all the faiths of the world if we are to have peace. This is the kind of community building that needs to happen across the world if we are to have the kind of salvation where the lion will lie down with the lamb, and there will be no hurt or destruction on God’s holy mountain.

Juneau is kind of a unique community where the World Affairs Council and other groups do meet to discuss international affairs and we do dialog about our relationships with people who differ from us. We are unique for a city of our size in the variety of cultures that make up our population. However, for the most part we do not engage in full relationships with our neighbors.

Whites may have individual friendships with Tongan, Samoan, Filipino, Alaska Natives or people of other ethnicities. However, our community as whole is not one but many sub communities that divide on racial, ethnic and even linguistic lines. This is not peace. It is mutual tolerance, perhaps. But it is not the peace that Christ calls the Church to create in our world. It is not love. In many cases, it stands in the way of justice.

Matthew brings foreigners into the Jesus story as an object lesson to demonstrate that Christ will rule the whole world. We can look at it in a different way, however, and recognize in the inclusion of the three kings, or wise men, and other Gentiles who pop up regularly in the Gospels, that salvation will not come to the Church in isolation. It will not come to us in seclusion. It will not come to us as long as the Church views itself as an exclusive and superior community of the elect, above all other religions, faiths or philosophies.

As Christians we cannot afford to stand alone and expect others to shape themselves into our mold. That is an unrealistic position and one that will lead to our destruction, or at least our obsolescence. The Church needs to recognize itself as one of many incarnations of God that exists in our world.

The wise men brought gifts to the Christ Child: gold, frankincense and myrrh. Matthew does not say that Jesus’ family rejected these gifts on the grounds that they came from Gentiles, from foreigners, from people beyond the pale.

I wonder what gifts we have denied ourselves because they have been offered by people for whom Christ is not their identified Lord. I wonder what ideas they have offered that would have been salvific for us: the Native American idea of balance and respect for nature that might have prevented ecological disasters, for example.

I wonder what medical, philosophical or artistic knowledge we have rejected because it is not based on Western models.

Most of all I wonder what death and destruction might have been prevented if the Church had continuously worked to build community with those who have followed different paths over the centuries.

I wonder if the Church can see the gold, frankincense and myrrh as an offering of peace from strangers, and reciprocate it as a sign of our faith that Christ’s rule is one of gentleness and love.

• Caroline Malseed is the reverend of St. Brendan’s Episopcal Church.

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