Rev. Seth Patterson, Minister for Justice & The Arts
January 8, 2023
Scripture: Matthew 2:1-12
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, ‘Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising and have come to pay him homage.’ When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, ‘In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: “And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.”’
Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, ‘Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.’ When they had heard the king, they set out, and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.
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Happy Epiphany Sunday! Or Theophany Sunday if you are part of an Eastern Christian tradition. Or Reyes Magos, Three Kings Sunday. Epiphany, which means “appearance” or “manifestation” in Greek is a day of celebration and is often used as an informal marker of the end of the Christmas season. Epiphany is celebrated yearly on January 6 (or January 19 in Orthodox traditions) and we get to recognize it on this first Sunday afterward. Happy Epiphany Sunday!
This story that we heard a few moments ago is not only familiar in a cultural context but it was read from this very pulpit at both services on Christmas Eve, which is often the case in protestant churches. The Magi are such rich and interesting characters that they tend to add another layer of symbolism to the Nativity story, complementing the angels and shepherds, the stable animals, and the newly birthed baby and parents. We do take a bit of liturgical license when we do this, though. To place the Magi on Christmas Eve condenses what was likely a years long story. The Magi did not arrive on or near the day of Jesus’ birth but rather up to two years later. Whoever wrote the Book of Matthew is the only one of the Gospel writers to include this story. The Book of Mark says nothing about Jesus’ birth. The Book of Luke is where we get the stories of the shepherds and the birth in a manger. Matthew, on the other hand, has none of those stories but does include this one. The Book of Matthew begins with a listing of ancestors to connect Joseph to the lineage of King David, a short story about Joseph learning from an angel that Mary was pregnant, and then this story. Immediately after this, we hear about how King Herod, angered by the Magi not obeying him, ordered the death of all boys two years old and younger. It is more likely that these Magi encountered a toddler in Bethlehem than a baby.
We have also, over the centuries, taken quite a bit of license with these interesting Magi characters as well. We have decided how many they were, given them different titles, and have even given them names and homelands. They have been named Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar (or some version of those names) and have located them coming from East Africa, Persia, and India. But none of this is Biblical. All we know from this one and only description is that (probably) men arrived from the East bearing gifts. The Greek word for these people is Magos which is where we get the word Magi from. They were not kings. They have no names and no identified homeland. There could have been many, but we typically call them three because there were three stated gifts.
Scholars think that the term Magi may give some clues to their identity, but it is not at all conclusive. Magi was also the term used for the Persian priestly caste of Zoroastrianism. Persia was to the east of Jerusalem, and astrology was an important part of these priests’ roles in that Empire. So, maybe something like that? If there is any historicity to this story much of the details have been lost in the millennia. Our purpose is not to take this story literally anyway but rather to encounter it as it is, learn some of its context, see what questions call out to us, and then try to make some meaning out of it.
So, we return to what the story tells us: some number of Magi, astrologers, or star-watchers arrived in Jerusalem from the East within a few years of Jesus being born. They carried with them gifts fit for a king: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. They found a person with the title of King in Herod and quickly distrusted him. They then found a child in a village. And then they knelt down and offered royal gifts. They knelt down to a toddler.
When was the last time you knelt down in front of someone or something as an intentional act? Have you ever done something like this? Have you ever knelt down as an act of humility, reverence, or honor? Or as an act of lament, grief, or resistance? For whom or what have you knelt down?
In May of 2021, I knelt down in Plymouth’s parking lot for 9 minutes and 29 seconds at our vigil on the first anniversary of the murder of George Floyd. For something that our bodies are designed to do, it was not easy to kneel for that long. It was an act of commitment to stay down on knees that quickly reminded me of their age on a surface not meant for lengthy contact. Over 15 years ago I knelt to ask my love if she would join me in a lifetime commitment. I knelt in this sanctuary in a moment of laying of hands in my ordination to the ministry. That might be it for me. For what and for why have you ever knelt down as an intentional posture? Where and for whom have you given that sign of respect and honor?
To be clear, this is not about a forced or compelled kneeling but a chosen act as a visible symbol of your honor and love. Kneeling as a gift to be given willingly and fully.
Kneeling as an action is not commonplace in our culture anymore, but the understanding of it as an important symbolic gesture is still in place. It feels old-timey, anachronistic, of another time and place. Currently, there is also an idiomatic trope of “I kneel for no man” that can be found in many different settings and situations. Yet the symbolism of kneeling is still a contemporary, living conversation that can invoke strong emotions.
Kneeling, like bowing, is an act of symbolic submission and honor. To kneel in front of someone or something is to place your body – specifically your vulnerable head and neck – below them and therefore in a hard-to-defend position. Muslims kneel down in symbolic submission and prayer to Allah 5 times a day. Many Christian traditions have kneeling as part of their ritualized movement. There are cultural expectations to kneel before monarchs and kneeling while begging is a familiar scene, especially in comedies. San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick had his career taken from him after he began kneeling during the national anthem before NFL football games.
Psychology professor Dacher Keltner describes kneeling this way:
Kneeling probably derives from a core principle in mammalian nonverbal behavior: make the body smaller and look up to show respect, esteem, and deference. This is seen, for example, in dogs and chimps, who reduce their height to show submissiveness. Kneeling can also be a posture of mourning and sadness. It makes the one who kneels more vulnerable. In some situations, kneeling can be seen as a request for protection—which is completely appropriate in Kaepernick’s case, given the motive of his protest.
What would you kneel down for? For whom would you place tired, achy knees on the hard ground in an act of deference, honor, and respect? Would you kneel for a toddler you had never met before?
Would you ever allow yourself to be this vulnerable? Would you choose to take the risk of looking ridiculous and do this for something or someone? Would you kneel in reverence before a toddler?
If not a person or a thing, would you kneel for an idea or a concept? Is there something in principle that would bring you to your knees?
Kneeling is not easy; it is vulnerable and exposing. One doesn’t usually casually kneel. It is done with conviction and hope and a deep, profound love. For whom or what would you show that deep and profound love? Or are there ways that you can show the same honoring reverence, other postures that communicate the same feeling?
What inspires you with awe and hope? Who do you love so much it brings you to your knees? Where do you encounter God, where is God incarnate for you? Where do you find the manifestation, the Epiphany, of God in our world? Where has a star stopped and shown you something unexpected, something unassumed, something that you would kneel for and give royal gifts?
We don’t know much about these Magi we celebrate today, but we do know that they knelt in front of the child Jesus. They knelt down in front of a kid in a village because there was something special, something important, something miraculous in front of them. They knelt down before a child because that was the incarnation of God that they were led to by a star. They knelt down because they loved and were open to the expression of that love, a love that was vulnerable and present.
What makes you kneel? What would make us kneel down together?
https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/voices/the-psychology-of-taking-a-knee/, September 29, 2017, Jeremy Adam Smith and Dacher Keltner, PhD.