By Angela Yarber
What happens when scholars follow their hearts? What does it mean for Christian worship when these same scholars move their bodies? What are most of us missing during Epiphany? The answers are found in the mystical magi.
During Epiphany we celebrate the magi bringing gifts to baby Jesus after following a star to his birthplace. We know little about these magi, other than they were from the East, or literally, the place of the sun’s rising.
We know they were wise, erudite and scholarly, because they studied the stars. During their time astrology was considered an exact science, after all.
But rather than merely taking notes, recording data and testing hypotheses, these wise ones engaged their hearts, opening their minds and bodies to the wonder of discovery. Their scholastic diligence is reminiscent of the words of Aristotle, “education without the heart is no education at all.”
Along with the star, the magi followed their hearts. Head and heart unite in their voyage of discovery. We all know where their journey leads. We’ve seen the image painted on countless Christmas cards. Their minds, hearts and that well-known star guide them to the cradle of an infant, to God incarnate, to Jesus.
But these scholars from a far-off land didn’t just unite head and heart. They also applied their bodies in their knowledge and worship.
These erudite and educated magi moved. And I don’t just mean they walked and rode camels while following the star. I mean they moved, literally embodying their worship. Matthew 2:11 says they “knelt down and paid him homage.”
We picture this serene scene with three men in exotic dress kneeling gingerly at the foot of a manger, but that doesn’t quite capture their excitement and awe. The Greek word here is one of the embodied words for worship used in the New Testament, which is proskuneo.
Proskuneo can literally be translated as fall down, bow or even prostrate in worship. You see, worship for the magi wasn’t something that happened in the head or heart alone, no matter how scholarly or learned they were. Worship permeated every ounce of their bodies until they fell to the ground and prostrated themselves in front of these bewildered peasant parents and their newborn child.
In fact, the gesture of these magi is where much of the Christian church finds precedence for practices like kneeling in worship. Our worship, historically, has been an embodied one. Dancing, kneeling, bowing, prostrating and lifting hands were synonymous with worship in the Christian church until the Enlightenment.
These esoteric, educated, dancing men from the East remind us of what it looks like to have a holy attitude toward learning, with an inquisitiveness that leads to action, and actions that lead to nothing short of worshipful abandon.
Research and knowledge can, indeed, lead to worship. But the body — created in God’s image — should not be left behind in worshipful or academic endeavors.
These magi didn’t keep their knowledge or their worship encased in their heads or hearts but embodied it by kneeling, falling down, bowing. Worship, like knowledge, is simply too big for the head and heart alone; it must also permeate our entire beings.
These magi remind me that being a professional dancer, scholar and preacher do, indeed, go hand-in-hand. The magi would agree that the head, the heart and the body unite in the act of worship. The head, the heart and the body unite in the act of learning.
So, this Epiphany, when you find yourself face-to-face with the baby who will change the world, I dare you to move. Follow your heart. Follow your mind. They just may lead you to fall down in worship.