Thursday, January 06, 2022

Unwitting Magi

A sermon preached at All Souls Church, Wheaton, IL (audio here, video here)

Most people in this congregation know the secret to avoiding the after-Christmas doldrums, namely, extending the day into the season it properly is. It may be a challenge in Advent to restrain while the rest of the world rejoices, but that is made up for while we celebrate Christmastide as the rest of the world is swallowed by the post-yuletide undertow.

And after those twelve days of Christmas, just when we need it most, as the winter without Christmas threatens to descend upon us, there is Epiphany, and the season of Ephiphanytide that follows it. This season is not just about seeking the distant star but reveling in its pure bright winter light. To steal a phrase, Epiphany is the most wonderful time of year. It represents Christ for everyone, even pagan astrologers. Not merely national, sill less nationalist, but global Christianity for this nation, yes, and every other nation too. If, in the last few decades, it was the task of Christians in this wider town of Wheaton to recover Advent and the Christmas season; it may be our task in the next few decades to recover the season of Epiphany, which stretches all the way through to the Feast of the Encounter of Mary and Simeon on February 2. The fact that there’s little risk of this season being commercialized makes the recovery all the easier.

But there’s a problem, as I see it, with Epiphany, something that keeps us from being able to wholeheartedly embrace it. And that problem is this: As we celebrate the magi, journeying from the East to worship Christ, many Christians, or post-Christians in some cases, are themselves journey to the East. Burned by Christianity's very public failures, some think the light of Buddhism or Hinduism is brighter. The private pursuit of mindfulness, some gamble, offers what a Christian congregation like ours cannot.

We sure can sure learn a lot from the religions of the East – there are Buddhist and Hindu temples not far from here on Route 59 that I’ve visited, nd I’ve enjoyed my visits. But really what should Christians do about this reverse magi journey? Well, as a way of highlighting the second chapter of Matthew, let me offer the journey of a few contemporary magi that might surprise you. These magi journeyed far more deeply into the East than anyone I know of, and something happened to them – they found Christ there. Or rather, he found them.

Our first unwitting modern magi is a psychologist who, in the mid-twentieth century, sponsored some of the first big translations of Far Eastern texts that are still used today. But he was also convinced he had to go to India himself. And so he did. And while he was there, he had a dream, and if this psychologist listened to anything he listened to his dreams. In the dream he found himself not in India, but in the Grail castle off the southwest coast of England; that is, his unconscious smuggled Christianity back in to his psyche. That’s not my assessment, it is his:

It was as through the dream were asking me, ‘What are you doing in India? Rather seek for yourself and your fellows the healing vessel, the servator mundi which you urgently need. For your state is perilous; you are in imminent danger of destroying all that centuries have built up.
So that’s our magi #1: The psychologist, son of a pastor, the disciple of Freud, Carl Jung, found himself, just like the original magi, journeying from the East to Christ. Whether or not he fully got there is another topic entirely. 

Our magi #2 is another psychologist, who knew Carl Jung personally. Robert Johnson built his own career by giving talks about the Holy Grail, that symbol of the Eucharist, to churches. But he too felt something was missing, he felt the call of India. But one particular trip didn’t go well. In Calcutta, the city of the destructive goddess Kali, he encountered human suffering such as he had never thought possible. I’ll let him tell this extraordinary story himself:

I was one thousand miles from anyone I knew and felt myself falling into an abyss. It was worse than a panic attack; it was as if I had wandered into some corner of hell…. Then I remembered there was something to do. I had once been told by a friend that in India you have the right to approach a stranger and ask that person to be the incarnation of God. It is a starling custom … This person may refuse the request, but generally it is considered a sacred duty to accept the role if he or she possibly can. I walked several blocks until I reached a tiny park. Then I began desperately looking for someone I could approach and ask to be my incarnation of God. I spotted a middle-aged man; he was dressed in Indian fashion and was barefoot, but he had an air of dignity and calmness. I am amazed now at my boldness, but I was driven by desperation. I approached him. “Sir, do you speak English?” “Yes.” “Would you be the incarnation of God for me?” “Yes,” he replied. He pointed me to a bench, and for the next twenty minutes I poured out my woes. He said not  a word but listened patiently to me.” [I so grateful for this ministry, that I then asked the man.] “Please tell me something about yourself - who are you? what is your work? “I am a Roman Catholic priest,” he replied, plainly and directly.
In a city of well over ten million, less than one percent of whom are Christian, Johnson encountered someone who testified not that he was the incarnation, but who testified to the Christmas mystery instead. This psychologist, the disciple of Carl Jung, found himself, just like the original magi, journeying from the East to Christ.

Magi #3 is Huston Smith, the child of missionaries to China who became an authority on world religions, but who never gave up the Christian faith himself. The following story might be part of the reason why: 

It was 1964 and I was using a semester’s leave to continue my research in India. At the moment to be described, I was conversing with one of a number of gurus whose reputations had taken me to the foothills of the Himalayas, when suddenly there appeared in the doorway of the bungalow I was in a figure so striking that for a moment I thought I might be seeing an apparition. Tall, dressed in a white gown, and with a full beard, it was a man I came to know as Father Lazarus, a missionary of the Eastern Orthodox Church who had spent the last twenty years in India. Ten minutes after I was introduced to him I had forgotten my gurus completely—he was much more interesting than they were—and for a solid week we tramped the Himalayan foothills talking nonstop.

This scholar, a world authority on all faiths, just like the original magi, found himself journeying from the East to Christ. 

Modern magi #4 is William Johnston, a Jesuit priest from Ireland who spent 50 years in Japan. He is the one who translated Shusako Endo’s famous book Silence into English. Fully immersed in Zen Buddhism, Johnston noticed something. It was the kind of things you notice when you live in a place instead of just traveling to it. He noticed that those who attempted to fuse Christianity and Buddhism, that is, to have both, were never respected by the Zen Buddhists themselves, who wanted Christian interlocutors who knew the Christian mystical tradition. Johnson’s conclusion: “Much as I love the Buddha and the patriarchs, I cannot make to them the commitment I make to Jesus…." The difference, Johnston found, between Buddhist and Christian meditation, and he was well versed in both, was love. For a Buddhist, love is a potentially distracting attachment. But God found himself attached to a cross because of his love for us. Johnston the Jesuit, just like the original magi, found himself journeying from the East back to Christ.

What we learn from the magi, whether the ones in Matthew or the ones I just mentioned, is that Jesus is not a tribal god. Our faith is not regional. Or rather, it is regional, but it is for all regions. Within centuries of the original magi’s journey, Christianity overwhelmed the area where the magi came from. This branch of the faith is known as the Assyrian Church of the East. The heartland of Christianity for them was not the Midwest, but Mesopotamia, and it went Eastward from there. “His dominion shall be also from one sea to the other, and from the river unto the world’s end," our text this evening reads. Many of you will know that this form of Christianity has undergone great suffering, but their new patriarch, Mar Awa III, born in Chicago, consecrated patriarchy in Iraq, just visited our area this last month to minister to his flock: another journey from the East to make the point to us about the universal Christ.

As Vince Bantu puts it, Christianity is not becoming global, it always has been global. And the magi are why. They incarnate the message of Ephesians “the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body.” “All those from Sheba [that is, from Africa] shall come.” So yes, we need Epiphanytide. But it’s not just about the magi. Because impressive as their journey was, theirs was not the longest journey.  Let me read from the Welsh poet R.S. Thomas:

And God held in his hand
A small globe.  Look he said.
The son looked.  Far off,
As through water, he saw
A scorched land of fierce

Let me go there, he said.

That’s the journey that prompted the magi’s journey, then or now.  The real arrival in this story is not theirs, but his. He traveled farther. Not by the stars but through them. And he, Jesus, made the journey for one singular reason, to which he is irrevocably committed. He made the journey for you.