Growing up, my favorite part of the Christmas story was always the wise men and their star-lit pursuit of the baby Jesus. It may have been because they always had the best costumes in Christmas pageants, with their elaborate sateen hats. Or the camels they rode and the fancy gifts they brought. And who could resist those names: Melchior, Caspar and Balthazar! Top that off with the haunting, exotic tune of the carol dedicated to their journey and I was hooked. For me, Christmas wasn’t complete until they arrived.
As an adult, I still find the magi fascinating for all these same reasons, but I’ve also gained a new appreciation for what they bring, so to speak, to the Christmas story. As much as Christmas for us today is a season of family and traditions and about finding comfort in the familiar, the magi remind me that this story which we might be tempted to think is all about us, turns out to expand much further than we would anticipate. God, we learn, was working in other lands and other people and other hearts, that have only now been revealed. Gold, frankincense and myrrh may have been the gifts they brought the Christ-child, but the gift they offer the church is ultimately more valuable: humility.
It may be that the characters of the magi we know from nativity scenes and Christmas pageants are so much fun that we forget how bizarre it is that they would be there.
That of all the people you would expect to be in tune with the workings of God to send the Jewish Messiah, it would turn out to be these travelers coming from some foreign land, of some foreign religion, without the benefits of prophets and Scripture and Sunday school and sermons — all the things good church-folk are convinced put us in position to best see the light.
Theirs was not the likely path to Christ, but it turns out God is much bigger than we presume, and these outsiders are the ones led to the very center of it all. They’re the first to bring themselves and their gifts and point all the rest of us in the right direction.
And the same happens today.
The church has always needed folks from the outside to come in and point us in the right direction, or at least open up new directions. To shine new light. We need scientists and philosophers and artists and people of other faiths or even of no faith to help us see things in new and different ways. Yes, to help us clarify our own beliefs. But in all likelihood to change us, we hope for the better.
And the church, it must be said, has fought this throughout its history. Each generation of the church creates a storyline that positions itself over and against the surrounding culture — whatever it may be — influencing it, but never being influenced itself. “Reform” movements spring from the feeling that the church has been too influenced by the outside world, and thus must be brought back to its original pristine condition, a position thought to be totally impervious and independent from the surrounding culture.
Of course this is ridiculous.
The church has never existed in a vacuum. It’s always lived and breathed, grown in and around other peoples, cultures and faiths. And it’s always incorporated bits and pieces from elsewhere into its own practices and thinking, taking what is useful and beautiful and remembering what James says, that “every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of heavenly lights.” This isn’t something to deny or be ashamed of. In fact, we should lift up those seasons of clarity when the church remembered that the strength of the gospel is found not in its rigidity but its flexibility.
Kristen Stendahl, the great Swedish theologian, used to say an important element to interfaith dialogue was what he called “holy envy.” This is when we look at other faiths and find parts that we admire or that speak to us, that we might even consider integrating, in some way, into our own. Perhaps we appreciate the Jewish traditions around family and a sense of people and place, or the Muslim commitment to prayer. Even the Zen approach to meditation and focusing our minds and hearts. It’s possible and even right that we should admire elements of other faiths or even ways of seeing the world that inform and strengthen our own.
Of course, it’s not all about strengthening and building our own faith. The benefits of being in relationship with various others should go without saying, and yet conditions in the world remind us we must say it over and over again.
I recently stumbled upon a list of three pointers on “how to respect other religions” put together by the good folks at S.A.L.T Project:
- Eat together
- Play together
- Hold each other’s babies
And it occurs to me that while Scripture doesn’t tell us much about what the wise men did when they arrived in Bethlehem, there’s every reason to think they would have done at least one of those things.
No, the Christmas story as we receive it isn’t complete without those sateen-hat wearing travelers from afar, the light they followed, and the light they carried. But the Christmas story as we live it isn’t complete until we consider what it would mean for those lights to be one in the same.