The Irvine Tartan • My monthly column in The New Brunswick Anglican
Long before familiar liturgies and long before the creeds the strangers made their way. Long before Saul sought out Stephen and long before Simon aided Jesus they passed through the gate and entered Jerusalem.
Wise men were drawn by a question and they sought an answer in unfamiliar streets echoing the murmurings of languages drawn together by an imperial decree. Stranger’s face met stranger’s face and gestures sought out direction.
The Persians entered Herod’s presence and stood early on pavement stones that would later bear the weight of another standing in judgement. The sunlight filling the precinct hid from view the weight of another day.
This after all was not their epiphany.
Polite gestures of homage and hospitality demonstrated civility. An effort was made to accommodate and the Scrolls were consulted and direction was given.
But Herod had questions of his own. A star appeared in the heavens? When did this sign appear? How long have you been travelling? Will you come and tell me when you have finished your quest? Curiosity mingled with treachery.
Passing the Temple, they retraced a path taken by Mary and Joseph. Earlier the infant had travelled this way. He had been taken and redeemed according to the demands of the Torah. The Family had returned on foot. These strangers travelled by camel. Through the streets they went, towering over the awnings of the bazaar.
They did not recognize the prints of their sandals – too many have travelled this way. Neither did they anticipate the prints of feet weighted down by the crossbeam burden as they journeyed past Gethsemane. Daylight concealed the garden’s deeper meaning and, for lack of shadows, they saw nothing remarkable. Disciples in repose and Judas’ kiss and the Roman soldiers in a future night of betrayal and denial were nowhere to be seen.
But this was not their epiphany. Onward they went.
They sought neither the scourged nor the condemned. They sought neither compassion nor weakness. Their questions were different.
Looking up, they would have noticed Golgotha. The distance muted the voices of writhing silhouettes above them. An idle comment may have been exchanged. The iron heel of imperial Rome arrested their attention for only a moment. Their questions drew them on. The light of noonday hid the covenant of redemption as they passed by. The darkened sun and the still of birds on a distant future day were not imagined as dust was stirred by the camels’ stride.
Neither was this their epiphany.
They sought neither anguish nor death. They sought neither forgiveness nor redemption. Their questions were different and their questions drew them on.
The crowded streets of the City of David were a microcosm of a world in need of redemption.
Had they the benefit of Matthew’s account they might have navigated the alleys sooner.
Had statements from later Ecumenical Councils been at hand, their investigation might have brought them sooner. But only sooner.
Only time would have been saved. Those wandering the streets would still cry out for redemption.
Scriptures and Creeds bring us quickly to Bethlehem. Perhaps too quickly.
We arrive too soon at the homely scene and fail to find our epiphany. We see the Mother and the Child. Oils and pastels help us imagine what it was like then… and there. We see Wise Men and Joseph. We see shepherds and sheep and a donkey.
We attempt to make the epiphany of these Persians our epiphany. A limited epiphany no doubt: an epiphany lacking in a ministry that led to a cross and beyond.
The epiphany remains then and there, another place and another time. Neither here nor now. The epiphany remains ever someone else’s epiphany.
Better, to see the discovery of the Family for what it is: the recognition by these distant travelers that their quest was completed in the discovery of who greeted them. The discovery was their epiphany.
What is appealing in anguish, or satisfying in death? Forgiveness - if we thought we needed it - might attract. So might redemption. But we'd need to know ourselves better for that. A better question is hinted at by Magi in every generation. For whom do we seek?
We seek not liberty, but the One who brings liberty; we seek not healing, but the One who gives sight to the blind who binds the wounded and lifts the fallen. Coin does not displace our poverty.
Familiarity with the story may shorten the journey, but it limits
Copyright © 2004 James T. Irvine