These Three Kings

Christmas is a story that speaks to us through many storylines. Mary learns from an angel named Gabriel that she will give birth to a child whose life will be the unsettling of the world order. Joseph, who learns that he will be a father to the child, is unsettled by the news, then (through the persuasive intervention of an angel who speaks to him in a dream) decides to embrace the child as his own. And then there are the Magi, or the wise men, or the mysterious visitors from the East. The biblical record of their role in the drama of Jesus’ birth does not tell us their names, their precise land of origin, or their number. Yet traditions over time have told us that there were three–and that their names were Caspar, Melchior, and Balthazar. Henry Van Dyke, the pastor of the Brick Presbyterian Church in New York City during the nineteenth century, added to the story by writing a book called The Fourth Wise Man.

In my imagination I see the Magi (however many there may have been) traveling slowly by camel over a vast expanse to worship the Christ child and give him their gifts. In the following poem I have tried to ponder not so much the details of the external journey, but the interior journey that brought them to their destination. Perhaps it will prompt you to create your own imaginative engagement with this story as a way of deepening your encounter with the child whose name was called Jesus, and who is alive and at large in the world today with his fierce love and persistent compassion.

“These Three Kings”

They did not know one another
Any better than they knew the road
That stretched before them.

These three kings were unrehearsed
In the rigors of long journeys and  
Unaccustomed to travel over great distances.

Yet the star would not take no for an answer    
The inevitable had become unavoidable:
They turned their camels toward the light.

At night they warmed themselves by the fire,
Stepped out of its illumination
To confirm the star’s onward leading.

Their gifts rattled in the rough packs,
Their teeth rattled from the plodding beasts.           
They hid their shaking hands

From the king who demanded obedience:
Opened their hearts to the infant king
Who welcomed their love.

They went home by another way,
Warned in a dream that saved their skins
And kept the child a holy secret:

The child whose light is now the star,
That calls us from our homelands
To the horizon of all that love makes possible.

Out of the Depths

In a filing cabinet in my office I keep several files that I have carried with me for over thirty years and through my service to three different churches. There is a file in this collection for each of the Christian seasons (Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, and Pentecost). I have files for some of the other days of special importance on the Christian calendar (such as Ash Wednesday, Maundy Thursday, and Good Friday), and for those days where our religious belonging comes into conversation with national identity and global concern (the Fourth of July, Memorial Day, and World Communion Sunday).

In most cases the file folders are tattered and bursting with their contents. They are chock full of notes, clippings, artwork, newspaper articles, notes from parishioners, recipes, and reflections. With each new season I dive once again into the depths of these spiritual libraries, and rummage around for wisdom from the past to clarify the call of faith for the present and the future.

If I were to set all these files side by side it would be easy to see that the one I have developed for Advent is the largest. I suppose that reflects my special fondness for this season, and the traditions that accompany it, like the weekly lighting of Advent candles and the annual Christmas Pageant. And of all the treasures in my Advent collection, the ones that mean the most to me are some photocopied prayers by Samuel Miller. He was minister of the Old Cambridge Baptist Church in Cambridge, Massachusetts, from 1934 to 1959, and then became Dean of Harvard Divinity School in that same year. His prayers for the season of Advent were collected after his death in 1968, and even though I have read them many times over the years, I feel that whenever I do so a door opens within me, allowing a little more room for wonder and the possibilities for love and peace that God would bring into the world through us.

In this blog I share with you two of Samuel Miller’s prayers that have been particular favorites of mine. May his words, and the meditations of our hearts, prepare the space not only for Christmas, but for the coming of Christ himself.

God and Father of us all, in whom our joy finds perfect peace, enter, we beseech thee, into the crowded inn of our life, quiet the tumult and the disorder, and let thy strength impel us to make an ample place for the advent of thy Son, our Lord, Jesus Christ. Move us by such joy as we have had in Jesus Christ and in thee to praise thy holy will and wisdom. Make us glad, after the way of thy spirit, through Jesus Christ. Amen.

O God, in the fog and fury of this dark age, keep the inner world of heart and mind in us clear and strong, that we may not be buffeted from our course by the wild winds of chaos and seas of bitterness. Help us onward through all kinds of whether to follow patiently the north star of thy eternal purpose and, if darkness and chaos hide it, hold us firm by every remembrance and hope to do thy will through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Pass the Peace and Exercise Faith

“Would you please pass the bread?” Seated with friends and family at the dinner table, we suddenly notice that a basket of fresh bread has landed near our place at the table. We comply with the request to keep it moving by passing it along to the person next to us, who in turn sends it along to the next person. This simple action is repeated by all at the table until everyone has been served.

There is a powerful lesson in this simple ritual of table fellowship.  A meal in which all are nourished depends on the rhythm of giving and receiving. Should one person hoard the bread, or eat more than their share, the harmony of the meal will be destroyed. Receive and pass along, receive and pass along: when this pattern is in place the meal does more than feed the body. It feeds the soul.

There is a ritual that is sometimes used in Christian churches to help us get into our muscles the importance of being good receivers and good givers. We call it the Passing of the Peace, and when it occurs in the midst of worship it provides an opportunity for each person in the sanctuary to reach out to others nearby with a handshake and the words, “may the peace of Christ be with you.” Through this action and these words we pass along to others the grace and peace with which we have been received by God, friends, families and strangers. We receive, and we pass along, and all are nourished in body and spirit.

On Sunday, December 3, we will include a time for the Passing of the Peace in our service of worship. As we do so, I pray that we will deepen our love and care for one another, and strengthen the bonds, visible and invisible, that unite us. And when we leave the sanctuary may we do so with the assurance “that the peace of God, which passes all understanding, will keep our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 4:7)